If I were to create a logo for the working American mother, I would choose a stylized image of a breast pump. Like the golden communist hammer and sickle, but pink and brown, with a motor and tubes. I can think of no better symbol.
The sound of the breast pump is something singular, an eerily regular whoosh: a vacuum, an espresso machine, a rocking chair passing over a deflating balloon, a factory full of bullfrogs. When I hear the sound now, I pause for a moment to thank the universe that I’m not the one hooked to the machine, just like when I drive past someone getting a speeding ticket on the highway. It could have been me; it was me.
If you have never had the privilege of using a breast pump, understand that it is a milking machine. Why do humans need milking machines? Similar to livestock, if human mothers do not expel milk into their babies’ mouths or elsewhere at regular intervals, their breasts become painful and leaky. Mothers’ bodies are remarkably sensitive, so if they nurse less, they produce less milk.
If a working mother wants to continue breastfeeding – which is shown to improve babies’ brain function and overall health – she may have the particular pleasure of strapping herself every few hours into suction cups that mimic the pulling action of a nursing baby and funnel the liquid gold from her breasts into bottles. The full bottles have to be refrigerated or frozen and then sterilized, along with all the non-electrical parts of the pump, before the next use. The whole process ranges from slightly inconvenient and awkward to humiliating and depressing.
I was lucky to be nursing at a time when I could take advantage of the invention of a hands-free pumping bra — a bandeau with two holes — so I could pump and answer emails at the same time. I was lucky because I stayed home with my babies for the better part of a year. I was lucky because when I returned to work as an elementary school teacher, I was surrounded by supportive female colleagues who had borne and raised children themselves.
Not every mother has it so good. American mothers get less sanctioned time off of work with their newborns, and — big surprise — breastfeed for a shorter duration than many mothers across the globe; an average of only three months. Even though, in theory, federal and state laws require that a breastfeeding mother be given time and space to pump at work, in practice she is often ostracized.
One mama friend was given the keys to a small utility closet to use for pumping, but the chemical smell was so strong inside that she couldn’t breathe. A teacher friend put a sign on her classroom door: “DO NOT DISTURB: BREAST PUMPING,” but was repeatedly disturbed by the same custodian. Another friend became so frustrated with pumping that she resorted to feeding her baby another woman’s breast milk from tidy little plastic bags – a wet nurse for the modern era.
For me, the problem was not finding a place or time to pump (the P.E. teacher’s office during recess), but the act itself. Nursing is a beautiful, intimate act that strengthens the bond between mother and child. Pumping is not beautiful. When I turned on the motor and the suction cups began to tug at my nipples, I immediately began to feel guilty and sad.
I knew that I should feel thankful for the ability to work and breastfeed, for the freedom to have it all (ha!), but that awful whooshing sound! That hard plastic. It didn’t feel good or right. It’s infuriating but true that if men had to breastfeed their offspring, breast pump technology would be far more advanced: quieter, more discreet, and self-cleaning. It’s time for working mothers to rise up, to reengineer this product, or this situation. Give the product design majors at any university the task of improving the breast pump and see what creative solutions follow.
I am no Karl Marx, so let me just close with this: American mothers need and deserve longer maternity leave and/or the ability to work from home and/or bring their babies to work. Failing that, can we start with pumping in comfort and in peace? My jailer, my liberator: my breast pump. What a manifesto-worthy concept.