Not long ago I took a shopping bag full of clothing to a children's consignment store called Milk Money. In it were pint-sized sweaters and dresses, a plush red snowsuit that all four of my children wore as infants, and slippers in the shape of cowboy boots that I could no longer squeeze over my toddler's toes. I also brought along a breast pump that I had recently retired, when said toddler turned one.
The clothing stayed at the store, awaiting new life in someone else's closet. The breast pump, however, came back home with me. It wasn't that the owner of the store turned down the pump. It wasn't that somewhere deep down I thought I might need the pump again. Despite my not-so-secret desire for "just one more baby" (this is the part where my friends will roll their eyes; my oldest is going to college next year!), the odds are against that happening.
Now you may be wondering why in the name of Hera, the Greek goddess of motherhood, I'd cling to a contraption that's in some ways a torture device for the mammaries. After all, pumping is nothing like nursing an infant. No rosebud lips latched on to your nipple. No starfish hands kneading your breast. No satisfied, satisfying gulping to tell you that what you're doing, right at this minute, is one of the most important things you'll ever do in your life. If you've ever used a pump yourself, or seen one in use, you know what I'm talking about. Pumping is to breastfeeding as a vibrator is to making love: a mechanical substitute that gets the job done all right, but without the love part.
And yet, I seem to be attached to my breast pump in a weirdly emotional way. In the weeks since my visit to the ironically named Milk Money, the pump has sat in a corner of my bedroom, prompting me on occasion to contemplate its strange hold on me. Somehow, between checking homework, signing field-trip slips, wiping noses, wiping bottoms and wiping tears (not to mention juggling my own work deadlines), I think I've figured it out. My breast pump is a symbol that even as a working mom, I'm a good mom.
It's like this: I worked throughout all of my pregnancies and went back full time at the end of each maternity leave. When my first baby, Will, was born, I had every intention of keeping up a supply of pumped milk for when I was at the office. Here's how my first day back on the job turned out:
At around three in the afternoon, the phone rings. It's Will's nanny, Thelma. "You need to come home right away. Your baby's very hungry."
"Oh, no, there's plenty of milk in the freezer," I say.
"He drank it all."
It's just four words, but they're packed with meaning. What Thelma's telling me is that every drop of milk coaxed from my breasts over the past few weeks, decanted carefully into tiny plastic bags and festooned with red twist ties, is gone.
"I'll take the next train," I say, calculating how long it'll take me to get home.
"He can't wait," says Thelma. "I'll have to buy formula."
I wince. Will's screaming right into the phone. I guess Thelma's holding him near the receiver now (to comfort him? to make a point?). "There's cash in my top dresser drawer," I tell her. I hang up and burst into tears.
That fateful phone call was the beginning of the end of nursing my son. Even though I was producing plenty of milk to sustain him when I was with him, and was able, with my dinky little battery-powered pump, to set aside a few bottles when I wasn't, the wholesale disappearance of my initial cache of milk set me back enough that I was never able to catch up completely (or didn't have the energy to try), and so Thelma was supplementing with formula daily. Feeling defeated, I weaned Will from my still highly productive breasts when he was 6 months old.
Seven years later, I got pregnant with my second child. A lot had changed by then: Will's dad and I had split up, I'd remarried, and I'd started working as an editor at a parenting magazine. I share that detail because at my new job I received firsthand a steady stream of press releases heralding each new finding and urging me, as a journalist, to get the word out: Nursing staves off ear infections. It prevents obesity.
It promotes bonding. It lowers the risk of sudden infant death syndrome.
The effect that the brouhaha over breastfeeding had on me was twofold. First, there was panic: The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) was now recommending that, if at all possible, infants be nursed for at least a year. What had I done to my son by cutting off his milk supply when we were only halfway there? Was I to blame for Will's chronic ear infections? As a first-grader he was still sporting tubes -- his second set! And recently he'd become so fearful of letting me out of his sight that he would follow me five steps to answer the door. Was his anxious attachment some manifestation of my having put a bottle between his flesh and mine when he was still an infant?
Second, there was determination. I vowed the baby I was now carrying would never so much as taste a drop of formula. I would do as the AAP said and nurse my baby for a year, and after that for as long as she wanted, whenever she wanted. (Or until she got old enough to talk.) To cut to the chase: Eliza was born, and yes, I managed to avoid giving her formula for her first year, despite going back to work when she was three months old. The same was true of Lucas and Wyatt, babies number three and four. This collective accomplishment, I understand, was at the root of my love affair with my breast pump.
The pump entered my life when Eliza was just days old and my milk came in with a vengeance. I sent my husband out to buy the most powerful pump he could find, and my new, souped-up machine had me on the first th-rump th-rump: It could suck circles around the wimpy pump I'd had before. I was de-engorged in no time and had my first batch of milk for the freezer. For the rest of my maternity leave, even after Eliza nursed to bursting, the pump could still extract a few ounces to be set aside. And when I went back to work, my thrice-daily pumping sessions were efficient and productive. Because the pump was not only powerful but designed to empty two breasts at once, I quickly figured out how to hold both funnels in place with one hand and answer e-mails with the other. I could feed my baby and earn my paycheck all at the same time.
The pump's portability and discreet design (when not in use, it looks like a chic black backpack) also served me well. I was never shy about breastfeeding my babies. I could empty my breasts in a public restroom while on a field trip with Will's sixth-grade class; during an overnight business trip, when I stored the pumped milk in the ice bucket in my hotel room, getting up to replenish the ice during the night.
Was I a little nuts? Maybe. Was my obsession driven purely by reports that breast is best? Absolutely not. Sure, the research findings nagged at me. (Although I got over my initial worries that I had set Will up for a lifetime of illness by weaning him: He got ear infections because he was prone to them.) But the roots of my obsession went to the very core of what being a good mom means, at least for me.
Most any woman who chooses, or has, to work after having kids will tell you that no matter how much she likes her job, the motherhood-career combo can be fraught with guilt. It necessitates leaving your children to be cared for by someone who isn't you. Each day that you put on grownup clothes and walk out the door, you feel as if you're abandoning your child anew. That, at least, was my experience. Every time I shut the door to my office and hooked up my pump, though, a little bit of the guilt drained away. With every yellow-capped bottle of milk that I tucked into a corner of the office fridge, the longing that I felt for the infant at home was assuaged. With the help of my breast pump, what I couldn't give my babies in hours of time, I could make up for in ounces of milk.
So now that I've teased out the complexities of my relationship with my breast pump, what will become of it? The next time I have a bag full of clothing to take to Milk Money, I'll bring the pump along and leave it. I don't need it around anymore. I have my beautiful children -- college-bound Will; Eliza, my 8-year-old writer; Lucas, my 5-year-old musician and gourmand; and Wyatt, my all-boy toddler who needs new slippers -- to remind me that I have been, and am, a good mom.
Maura Rhodes is the author of Baby Must-Haves: The Essential Guide to Everything from Cribs to Bibs. Rhodes lives in Montclair, New Jersey.