A week or two before my parental leave was over, I called my pediatrician to ask how to pump. It’s slightly embarrassing now — I’m not quite sure why I didn’t just ask a friend or the internet? — but whether out of sleep deprivation or paralysis, I was at a loss. How often did I need to pump? How long did I need to pump for? What was I supposed to do if I didn’t make enough? In the beginning, the logistics of pumping completely overwhelmed anything else related to the process.
Now, when I look back, I’m both horrified and proud at how much I pumped. Like many women, I hated pumping: I hated how inhuman it felt to be hooked up to a machine, how embarrassing it was when co-workers asked about the noise, how much time it took to actually pump and clean the equipment. When my son weaned, I harbored a few cheesy feelings about breastfeeding — we did bond, he was soothed! — but approximately zero about pumping. I was just glad to be done.
Still, pumping is inevitably tied to breastfeeding, especially for working moms. Women who choose to breastfeed and spend time away from their babies choose pumping by default, but what that looks and feels like varies widely. Below, 13 more women describe their pumping experiences.
I pumped all the time. With twins, I couldn’t breastfeed as much as they needed or I would literally have never left the couch. And my daughter was tongue-tied (though I didn’t know it at the time), so she hated nursing but liked bottles. The amount of milk I made was obscene — upwards of 40 ounces a day, sucked out with a rented industrial pump. I hated that thing. It was cold, efficient, evil. I used to watch it with fascination as it pulled at each of my breasts (I did them both at once for the sake of time), making rhythmic, inhuman swoosh noises.
At six months I decided I was done. It took my breasts about three years to rebound. I thought they might be stretched out and deflated forever, but eventually they returned to normal. When I had my third kid I refused to pump. I think the earlier experience had traumatized me. I’d quit my job so I was home for six months and just gave him breast or formula whenever he wanted it, and I weaned at 6 months.
I tried out my breast pump one afternoon when I was pregnant and a week overdue. I found the whole thing surprisingly erotic — like I was this extremely virile mammal, jizzing out milk. Then I had the baby.
Once I had a baby to deal with, pumping became this miserable way to “earn” time away for working. Like, Oh you have the audacity to desire an inner life? Okay, then strap your tits into this abject torture device. I would just sit in bed, itching to flee, feeling like a prisoner to female biology. I never didn’t resent it.
For me, the hardest part about pumping is the embarrassment. Even the word sounds dirty, with those two p’s so close together. Said in a business setting, “I’m going to go pump” feels only a notch less inappropriate than “I’m going to go poop.”
But I think it’s really important to talk about, because otherwise nonparents don’t realize it’s even happening. I’m constantly discovering that my colleagues don’t know what our company’s pumping space is for. Hey, co-worker: You can make your phone call in any number of glass-walled conference rooms. Whereas I can only stave off mastitis — that’s an INFECTED BOOB, and it hurts like hell — in this one private, designated location.
Pumping was terrible, but necessary.
In the very beginning, I didn’t seem to be producing enough milk. My daughter was hungry all the time and we grew really alarmed when she seemed too tired to even cry. After I hand-expressed a few drops and gave them to her in a cup, we saw her smile for the first time. It was dazzling, but we were still worried, so we took her to the doctor and were told to give her formula until my milk came in.
Pumping helped that process immensely — almost too much, since then I had to contend with constant leakage, waking up in pools of milk, never-ending engorgement, the works. It was the most annoying quandary: Keep pumping for relief, or suffer, knowing that the more I pumped, the more I would produce? Eventually, things evened out, and I got in more than enough practice before going back to work.
The day-to-day reality of pumping at work was awful: schlepping the equipment from home to work, using precious free time — during which I should have been grading or lesson planning — to sit, motionless, for nearly an hour (twice or sometimes three times a day), mindlessly scrolling through Twitter. Sometimes I’d forget the bottles I’d pumped in the break-room fridge and have to do an emergency pumping session in the wee hours of the morning. Around month eight, I was too exhausted and stressed out to continue, which broke my heart a little, as I’d originally wanted to breastfeed for at least a full year. Working full-time just proved not at all conducive to that goal.
I’m not the best source when it comes to pumping because although I did pump (both to cover for times when I did have work, or as a relief for my breasts), I did not work full-time while my son was breastfeeding. I didn’t have to pump regularly — and I never did so in an office. Pumping didn’t have the same stress for me as it did for other people.
I’m a little bit of a weird case in that I overproduced milk. It doesn’t really sound like a problem — and it isn’t a problem, compared to the stress of not producing enough milk, I know — but it does have its inconveniences. Specifically, my son would actually choke on milk when he first latched, because my flow was too strong. I had to express milk by hand into a cup or towel (often quite a bit!) before I could comfortably feed him. And my breasts were often overfull and sometimes painful or backed up, too (though I was rather bodacious for once in my life, so that was nice).
As a result, pumping was really, really easy for me to do successfully. I could fill up eight ounces in 15 minutes without any issue whatsoever. Like everyone, I did not enjoy the sensation of having my nipples mechanically squeezed (though there’s something weirdly fascinating about watching the milk shoot out), but I did not hate pumping at all. And because I was such a super-producer, it made me feel somewhat womanly and amazing to see the resulting bottles of breast milk.
With regard to pumping, I basically failed. My daughter wouldn’t take a bottle so everything I pumped just kept getting poured down the drain (heartbreak). When my family moved abroad for a few months, I was determined to make it work. The pump blew out all the fuses in our apartment as soon as I plugged it in.
The pumping I did do, I hated, obviously. Pumps are a great invention but the experience is completely dehumanizing, especially if you’re huddled in a public bathroom. And then there’s those creepy bras. And the cleaning of all the goddamn pump pieces! It was just one more thing that ALWAYS fell on me — to learn to use it, clean it, try to get enough milk from it (which I almost never could). I’m pregnant again and determined to do it this time, however. Not being able to be away for more than a few hours was torture, especially because I was working part-time and would always return home to a crying baby (and sometimes husband).
Pumping is a pain in the ass. But I recognize it’s the only way I can continue breastfeeding while also being an empowered, working, modern female, etc. I also know that I’m one of the lucky ones because my colleagues are pretty understanding of the time I need to take to pump AND I have a private non-bathroom room to pump in. Yes, it’s a locker room next to the bathroom, but there’s a chair and an outlet, so I’m not complaining.
For a while, I was annoyed by the time I had to take out to pump. I usually take about 20 minutes or so, twice during the 12 hours I’m away. It’s SUCH a process. But then I started trying to use my time better, by catching up on the news or doing errands from my phone.
The thing is, I love nursing, which is why I put up with all of this. We’re on our 15th month, hoping to make it to the WHO recommendation of two years. It easier now that he’s not nursing as much and my supply is gradually diminishing. My breasts used to get so full that I had to nurse right before leaving for work and as soon as I got home. Whenever I was away from home without my baby, I’d have to bring my manual pump. I pumped at the spa at my sister’s bachelorette party. It was the worst.
I work full-time at a very busy law firm. My work is accommodating to all things baby-related — we have an eight-week fully paid maternity leave (here in the U.S., that isn’t bad) and I can pump as I see fit. However, there isn’t a designated room for me to pump in. I usually shuffle from a conference room to an empty office, and on several occasions the gym locker room. I’ve been walked in on more times than I can count.
One thing that you just don’t think of is wardrobe! I have so many cute dresses that I haven’t worn because I would have to be sitting with the dress up around my neck to pump. It’s awkward enough to be walked in on when you’re pumping, let alone when you’re basically nude. In the beginning, my co-workers didn’t seem to mind — but now I sometimes get a look like I’m going to leisurely relax with my feet kicked up. In reality I’m literally suctioning milk out of my boobs and worrying that I’m not producing enough for the next day.
I originally had a great pumping output, but as time has gone on it’s dropped. I’ve tried everything from flaxseed, brewer’s yeast, mother’s milk tea, oats, lactation cookies, the works. I’m at the point where I make enough for the next day and not an ounce more. The other day I forgot part of my pump and had to run home during lunch, then stay late to make up my missed time.
I am the executive director of a small nonprofit, so fortunately I don’t have to worry about what my boss thinks or taking time out of my day. I pump three times a day at work because in addition to an eight-hour-plus workday, I have an hour driving commute on either end. I don’t really want to pump and drive, though I may at some point.
A few weeks ago, I had a long meeting that ran right up until my evening board meeting, so I didn’t get to pump and had to rush to my car and hand pump for a few minutes before I drove home … and then I spilled two ounces all over my dress, seat, and floor.
But that’s the only time I’ve run into a scheduling problem like that. My board is a bunch of old guys, and I’m just not comfortable excusing myself to pump during a board meeting, especially because my predecessor was an older man. There was some “concern” from a few of the board members about my pregnancy and maternity leave, so I try to make sure they only see the competent, hardworking side of me, not the woman who needs to step away from a meeting for 30 minutes … which is ridiculous, but true.
When I went back to work and was ready to start pumping, the school I teach at couldn’t figure out a space for me. For student safety reasons, every single classroom and office space in the main school building had windows in the doors, so there were no private spaces. Our human-resources director offered to let me use her office, so for the first week I was back, every time I had to pump (twice a day!) I walked across the street, got buzzed into the administrative building, reminded this woman that I needed to use her office, waited for her to clear off her desk, and then sat down and got topless in the HR director’s office.
At the end of the first week, I was complaining about the situation to a friend of mine who’s a librarian at the school, and she remembered that we had an archive room in the basement that was relatively private. It was basically a large storage closet, very dark and very dusty, but much more convenient than the HR director’s office. I cleared a little space between some file boxes. A few months later, my librarian friend came back from her own maternity leave and we shared the space for pumping. She cleaned it up a little more and put up some pictures of both of our kids, which was really lovely.
The next year, the school converted a different room in the basement into a real pumping room, like with a refrigerator and a sink and comfortable chairs. My friend and I were the last teachers at the school to ever have to scramble for a place to pump. I think the administrators were a little embarrassed that they had to stick us in the basement.
I hated pumping, seriously. I hated everything about it. I kept getting injuries on my nipples — I remember being horrified by how many “pink milk” bottles I ended up with. When I was done, I felt like having a party to celebrate.
I am a full-time working mom of a 5-month-old. I pump twice at home before leaving for work, twice at work, and then once on my commute home. I can’t stand that it looks like I’m going away for the weekend every day. All the stuff is insane. But I’m fortunate to be able to pump in my office with the door closed. And I have a mini fridge so I don’t have to worry about Nancy from accounting mistaking breast milk for creamer or something like that.
I really loathe pumping while driving to pick up my daughter at day care. I feel like a cyborg, can’t really attend to a pumping issue if something goes awry, and inevitably flash people in the next lane over. I think that pumping session will be the first one to go when my daughter hopefully nurses less as we introduce solids. I really don’t love breastfeeding or pumping, but it does make me happy that I’m able to produce enough milk (more than enough, actually) to feed my daughter. I’m hoping to make it a year, but I’m not dogmatic about it. And honestly, if she keeps biting my nipples with her new teeth, I may call it quits earlier.
I definitely pumped more with our first son. I only do it right before I have to head to campus, but if I am with our son I simply feed. I have less motivation this time around to pump and store. I do however, appreciate the ability to do so.
I think pumping is extremely hard for women who have to go back to work full-time. I am fortunate that I am in school and work mostly from home. Even with my situation, the lactation/nursing room available on campus is always booked and it is hard to get a time to pump on campus. Since I live close to school, I sometimes jump into an Uber, run home to feed then back to school (this happened the day I was on campus running an academic conference). I’ve also heard from other women who work in corporate and medical settings that they lack the adequate resources at their jobs to be able to pump in a clean private space. I refuse to pump in a restroom. No woman should have to do that.
I straight-up just felt like a cow. Getting hooked up to a pulsating machine does not make you feel like an attractive human being, and of all the disgusting things my husband witnessed me do, this is the one that I tried to keep out of his face most. I honestly can’t think of anything less sexy.
Though if we’re talking about what pumping felt like literally, it felt fine. A relief when my boobs were rock-hard full, and a little painful when they were running low on supply and I had to pump for longer and longer to get anything outta there. Ugh. There were so many things to clean, round the clock. It was all terrible!