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Pumping in Public Bathrooms: The Perils of Modern Motherhood

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Here is item no. 300 of things I never thought about before I had a baby: Do you pump in public bathrooms? To me the breast pump symbolizes the inherent conflict of contemporary motherhood. How wonderful that we have the freedom to leave our babies while we work and still nourish them with our milk. But how awkward and strange it can be.

Yesterday I piloted my "Pump in Style" breast pump backpack (a black nylon Prada circa 2000 wannabe) outside the house to attend a small industry meeting to network and meet potential employers in my field. I knew I'd be away from the house long enough that I'd have to pump or suffer.

When it came time to pump, I went into the public bathroom, and just couldn't do it. As I wrote on BlogHer.com,

"What if a potential employer walked in? Would it produce a moment of compassion and shared understanding among women or would it be awkward and TMI, like running into the boss the morning after drinking too much at a holiday party? Or was I being immature and it wouldn't faze an innocent onlooker? I don't know. Even my husband and sister can't bear to look at me in pump mode, and I don't blame them.

Pumping is extremely humbling and awkward. Like a mammogram, you jam your breast into an uncomfortable plastic tube. The pump stretches your breast and makes a strange noise, like a wheezing metronome. You must contort your body into awkward positions. Pumping is also very boring, and aggravates any tendency to carpal tunnel syndrome. But we do it, because we love our babies and our freedom.

I chickened out of the bathroom. I sheepishly asked if there was a private office available, and there was. Phew. I closed the blinds, locked the doors, and sat there alone."

I felt left out of the meeting, yes, but also left out of any potential camaraderie with other women there. This is one of the worst side effects of contemporary motherhood, I think. A lot of new moms feel so alone at home with the baby. When you're out and about, unexpected moments of bonding with other mothers are so sweet. Can pumping in public be one of them? When Sarah Palin made her famous crack about having a "BlackBerry in one hand, breastpump in the other," it was such a you go girl moment. I wonder if she ever pumped in a public restroom, at a townhall meeting or county fair? Did she bond with her voters, or pump in private? I'd bet the latter.

I must say I've never run into a woman pumping in a public restroom. Then again, I rarely even see women breastfeeding in public. It's still an unspoken taboo for most of us, sadly.

Pumping is such a love-hate thing. Love the freedom, hate the device.

As Jill Lepore recently wrote in the New Yorker, "

One big reason so many women stop breast-feeding is that more than half of mothers of infants under six months old go to work. The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees only twelve weeks of (unpaid) maternity leave and, in marked contrast to established practice in other industrial nations, neither the government nor the typical employer offers much more. To follow a doctor's orders, a woman who returns to work twelve weeks after childbirth has to find a way to feed her baby her own milk for another nine months. The nation suffers, in short, from a Human Milk Gap.

There are three ways to bridge that gap: longer maternity leaves, on-site infant child care, and pumps."

How many of you want to bet we get better family leave or child care any time soon? Pumps are a cheap fix, but they are what they are, and I'd bet many women are happy for them. In the recession, more women are breadwinners for the family. As the New York Times reported, "Women are poised to surpass men on the nation's payrolls, taking the majority for the first time in American history." It may seem trivial to want a nice place to pump when you're just happy to have a job, but it matters.

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