On Saturday I snapped this picture of myself looking in the mirror at a Panera bathroom, wedged between the sink, trash can, and swinging door where I tried my best to cover myself as I pumped breast milk. I’d been attending the Sojourners Summit for Change where I was moved at numerous moments, especially around heartbreaking, yet powerful conversations about violence and race. I also led one of the sessions to discuss theology and contraception. Unable to figure out the complicated logistics of bringing my daughter along I’d opted to do the trip solo, shortening it by a night to minimize my time away from my family. But I still had this lactation issue to deal with.
For the 48+ hours I was away, I pumped at least a dozen times. Each session required finding a semi-private place to set up the pump and plug it in, spending 10-15 minutes trying to relax as I pumped, getting the pumped milk into a storage container, finding a way to keep it cool, and cleaning the pump parts for the next time. Fortunately the Sojourners staff found me an office to use and access to a fridge, but sometimes the door would be locked and I’d have to track someone down to open it for me. I left plenaries, meals, and one-on-one conversations, sometimes abruptly, in order to make space in my schedule to pump every three hours.
My hotel room didn’t have a fridge, so I got creative. I took the trashcan, placed my bags of pumped milk at the bottom, and filled it with ice. Three times a day I’d dump out the water in the tub and carry buckets of ice back to my room to keep my supply cold. I decided to opt out of having my room cleaned since I didn’t want to make the lives of underpaid, overworked hotel cleaning staff any more difficult by subjecting them to the state of chaos I’d created in an effort to keep my breastmilk cool.
On Saturday morning I was supposed to fly home. I lugged my 60 oz of breastmilk, plus bags full of ice, in an insulated bag to the airport where I was promptly asked to open the bags of milk for TSA testing. The woman examining my bag asked, “Where’s baby?” “Home with her daddy,” I replied. She gave me a confused look. I guess it didn’t occur to her that one might need to transport breast milk back home in order to have an extra supply on hand so that one can move about the world without baby attached to one’s body. Luckily she didn’t make me open all 12 bags of milk I’d collected over the two days.
Then, after a comedy of errors my flight got cancelled, and I was going to be delayed at least twelve hours if I waited around the airport. With storms heading to DC and my impatience high I decided to rent a car and make the drive but because of summer vacation and beach traffic, what should’ve been a 4 hour trip took 7 hours. Thus, I had to stop and pump at a Panera bathroom while dozens of customers walked by.
No matter what you might have heard breastfeeding is not easy, simple, or convenient. It’s not an easy thing to establish when babies are tiny (I clocked over 100 hours of breastfeeding our daughter in her first month of life), nor is it easy to sustain over many months. If breastfeeding is so important couldn’t we make it a little easier on moms who want to do it but have to (or want to) be away from their kids?
Our culture shames women who don’t or can’t breastfeed for whatever reason, but we also make breastfeeding incredibly challenging for those who opt to do it. How many times have we read about women being told to “just cover up” when they are feeding their child in a public place? I’m convinced that as a society we expect women to stay home once they’re moms. We’d prefer them to be invisible. That’s why I’m posting this picture of me pumping. Because this is what parenting looks like. Parenting isn’t pretty all of the time. It isn’t just about bedtime stories and butterfly kisses. Parenting is doing the humbling, hard work of what i think is best for my kid.
Flying to DC, spending time at a conference, and staying in a hotel are marks of the many privileges I enjoy. So is having a supportive partner who cares for my daughter when I’m away. Encountering situations like the one on Saturday leave me baffled by the mamas who raise their children with few resources and little if any familial support, for whom time away from their kids to work is critical to their families’ survival. How many of the women whom I encountered at the conference–cleaning up spaces, preparing meals, serving me coffee–were struggling mamas?
In the middle of my pumping session in the bathroom a woman stopped to share how she’d nursed all four of her sons, recalling how difficult it was when she was out and about. She recalled how she’d once fed her infant in the bathroom of the JCPenney while trying to keep her 3-year-old occupied by having him count tiles on the floor. “You’re a great mom,” she said. “You are doing an amazing job.” In that incredibly vulnerable moment, her encouraging words brought tears to my eyes. I had been trying so hard to be inconspicuous when what I really needed was to be seen.
Each hardship I encounter in parenting moves me to a place of greater sympathy for parents who are doing the best they can, no matter how little they have. It also strengthens my commitment to making the world a more compassionate place for all, but especially for mamas whose work is so often invisible. My prayer is for all of us to open our eyes and fill our hearts with compassion for those who are doing the all-consuming, arduous work of raising children. There is so much we do not see.
I see you. Go mama go. I have heard of airlines refusing to allow mothers to carry their breast milk if there was no baby present…..how uneducated and ill informed that truly is!
Katey Zeh says
Thank you for seeing me and my sacred worth (and I see you too!). I’ve heard similar stories and it’s just cruel. Pumping is hard work, and lugging around milk is too. The only way I have the freedom to travel is by bringing back a stash of milk after a trip. We need to do a lot of educating!
What a wonderful hard job you are doing! I see you too! You rock mama! (I got called to jury duty and had to bring my pump. Going through courthouse security, the guy watching the x-ray went a little nuts when the pump went through. Sure it was a bomb – I guess -he started yelling, “Whose is this? What is this” All eyes were suddenly on him. I had to say, “That’s my breast pump. I’m a nursing mom.” And every person in the crowded courthouse lobby suddenly blushed deeply and looked away. It made me feel like doing a public demo then and there.)
Katey Zeh says
What a story! It just shows how much we truly “cover up” all forms of motherhood, so much so that folks wouldn’t be able to recognize a simple breast pump. We have much educating to do!
Thank you so much for this. I teach and coach and am currently nursing my fourth. I have pumped in more bathrooms than I can count, and there was one McDonald’s that had no bathroom outlet (I’d lost my battery pack), so I had to get my nursing cover and pump in the seating area for laptops. Yeah, that was awkward. I’ve also had to bring back four days’ worth of milk from a team trip, so I feel you on the creative cooling solutions too! I have been blessed with so many sweet women helping me find a spot at all the places I’ve had to pump. I just think, as hard as it has been for me, what it must be like for people with less support and even less flexibility with their work?
Katey Zeh says
Thank you for sharing your story, Lydia. I agree–the hardships I face only make me feel more compassion for women who have it so much harder than I do.