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Pumping in Public

Posted: 01/30/09 06:55 PM ET

When I breastfeed in public, many people look on with fascination, it is not something they normally see. I always smile and meet people's eyes and young women, pregnant women especially, often engage me in conversation and ask questions. (Yes it hurts at first, all children nurse differently, fenugreek tea and a nap help to improve milk supply more than anything else.) When I pump in public, I hope it will be the same.

Five years ago I left my breastfed infant son at home to go to a meeting, and on a crowded R train on the way home my breasts got engorged and painful. I pushed aside my blouse and bra, pressed a plastic shell with a bottle to my breast and began to pump breastmilk from my breasts with one hand while holding on to the pole with the other. My nipple could be seen through the plastic shell. People stared. It wasn't the ideal place to be squeezing out human milk, but I tried to remember that it was a part of breastfeeding: if I think women should nurse everywhere (and I do) then we should pump everywhere too.

So as a breastfeeding mom (my second was born in October), I read "BabyFood" in the January 19th issue of The New Yorker with interest: Jill Lepore wonders whether it's the mother or her milk that matters more to a baby. It's a good question: another version of the nature/nurture questions that continue to boggle us. Lepore writes that making it easier for women to pump at work is simply the cheapest way to deal with working mothers -- not by giving them longer (and more expensive) maternity leaves or offering infant child care at work. There's a lot of good stuff here, as Kate Harding wrote on Salon, the beginning reads "like Breastfeeding 101 for Serious Geeks."

But I couldn't help thinking that Jill Lepore was looking to stoke to the dwindling fires of the mommy wars. Now, instead of stay at home vs. working moms, human milk vs. formula, it's pumping vs. breastfeeding. Everyone now knows breast is best, now it's the delivery that's being questioned.

And in Lepore's zeal to question whether pumping is actually discouraging women from breastfeeding, she doesn't recognize the many ways that breast pumps can be helpful to nursing mothers.

I pumped for two weeks with my first child because he was premature and too weak to get my milk supply started. A pump was again invaluable to keep my milk up when he was hospitalized with an infection at 6 weeks of age and the doctors wouldn't let me feed him. I couldn't have breastfed without the pump.

Five years later I used my Pump in Style again when my second child was born this past October because of the opposite problem: she had a barracuda suck and my nipples cracked and bled; the breast shield on a pump didn't actually touch the open wounds my nipples had become. On the advice of a lactation consultant I pumped for two weeks to let my breasts heal, and I am currently breastfeeding successfully. And I "pump and dump" on occasion so that I can take a much needed break from my children while having a guilt free martini or three.

Lepore also wonders whether pumping in public is or will be considered obscene and asks, "Who would want to anyways?"

I do! I pump in public because I have to. When my husband and I treated ourselves to $250 worth of theatre tickets to see Kristin Scott Thomas in The Seagull on Broadway when our daughter was 7 weeks old, after the three-hour show I wanted a drink. It was an expensive and rare night out. We stopped at a bistro to have a glass of wine and I pumped at the bar. I wasn't going to waste 20 minutes in the bathroom; we were splurging on a babysitter. I wasn't an exhibitionist, but neither was I hiding it. I had my electric Evenflo buzzing under the drape of my scarf as I sipped my Haut-Medoc. Let's try to change the cultural norm. When the bartender asked, "What's that?" I told him. Vive la wet breast.

The lactating breast is hidden. We can see dozens of breasts with artificial implants in them intended to mimic the look of the milk filled breast (fullness above the nipple as well as below), but we don't see sanctioned photos of lactating women. Even the National Breastfeeding Awareness Campaign made a commercial that likened not breastfeeding to taking risks (see the ridiculous log rolling ad here). Couldn't they have just shown a woman breastfeeding? Perhaps more women would breastfeed if they simply SAW it more often.

Even Facebook is trying to ban photos of women breastfeeding, so now there is a facebook group called Hey, Facebook, breastfeeding is NOT Obscene! I posted photos of myself breastfeeding and pumping. People commented on the pumping photo: "This is so gross! Is this really necessary?" and the photo was promptly taken down. My nipple wasn't even showing.

So I guess pumping IS considered obscene, at least on facebook. But they left this one of me breastfeeding up.

The Health and Human Services Blueprint for action on breastfeeding states their objective to "Develop a positive and desirable image of breastfeeding for the American public" by the year 2010.

And that's all I'm trying to do.