The Power of Pumping by Kirstin Boehm

Kirstin and her son, Nash. Kirstin and her son, Nash.

Our son Nash was born premature and breastfeeding was an immense struggle for us. While I watched other moms snuggle in for long gazes and quiet bonding time, Nash would cry, arch his back, and turn away.


So I pumped and we learned to bottle fed. During those early weeks where day and night blur together, I pumped at least 12 times per day. My husband Eric and I would do techno beat dances to the unz unz unz of the pump as droplet by droplet I collected the milk that would eventually plump baby Nash up to the 10th percentile on the growth charts.


We worked at nursing and after several weeks, we got it. I thank my lucky-lady stars for lactation consultants. I’m sure most successfully nursing women in the US (at least those lucky enough to be able to afford this level of professional help) will tell you that a great lactation consultant got them there.


In the 10 months that have passed since Nash was born, a lot has changed. Eric got a job in Vermont, and we moved our family from DC to Burlington. I went back to work (remotely for my DC based organization, lots of travel!) Nash went to daycare. I went back to pumping.


When I first started pumping, the day Nash was born, it felt like defeat and failure. Why did my baby prefer this manufactured bottle and plastic nipple to my breast? When I first went back to work, pumping felt like a chore. Like most any working mom I quickly learned the challenges: It takes time, you can’t forget any pieces, you are constantly aware of your milk supply. There are moments where you can’t wait for a meeting to end because you feel like you are going to burst, and moments when you just can’t produce the amount of milk you wanted to.


But recently, I’ve experienced a shift. Pumping feels powerful. Pumping allows me to provide the nutrition that I want my baby to have, maintain the emotional connection that on-demand breastfeeding provides us in the mornings, nights, and on weekends, and allows me to continue to pursue an exciting career.


I pump everywhere. I have pumped nearly weekly at the Burlington airport Mamava at 4am on my way to DC (WHY? why is that flight so early?!) and almost as many times at the pumping station in the Washington DC airport (a bathroom stall with a bench; decidedly not appealing…) Last week I pumped in a medic tent at a conference. I went camping with girlfriends not too long ago and we were in the woods with no electricity and no running water and I pumped for three days. (Waaaay nicer to pump at a picnic table in the woods than in the bathroom at DCA.) Just recently I pumped in what appeared to be a recording studio at Foreign Policy magazine.


But I know many moms are not as lucky- they have to pump in their car between shifts at work, or in a bathroom stall. This 2006 New York Times article highlights the “two class system” that is a reality for many working moms. A co-worker recently told me (over the pump in our dedicated Wellness room at our DC office) that in her previous job she had to pump UNDER HER DESK because her office had glass windows and there was no outlet in the bathroom. Under her desk.


And, there are women out there like this woman, who make it work and pump in their open office plan.


As a nation, we’re getting a lot of this right. We have laws that protect the right to breaks for pumping and a clean space to pump. (But, these only apply to companies over 50 people.) The affordable care act now requires most health insurance plans to provide breastfeeding equipment and counseling for pregnant and nursing women.


For more women to pump and nurse their babies as long as they want to, I think we need two things:


First, we need an attitude shift among women that pumping is a right, can be empowering and is worth the time and effort IF it is important to them. (Let me be clear, I fully support any woman who chooses not to pump or stops pumping at any time, IF she wants to!) It’s not easy, but we need to be ready to walk out of a meeting if we want and need to pump. (We cannot fear anyone, even Donald Trump!) We need to freely say “no, I can’t move the time of that call because I have to pump at that time.” And we need to tell our boss or HR rep that if the place for pumping is under our desks, that it isn’t acceptable and, in many cases, it’s actually illegal. We also need those around us (especially bosses and co-workers) to recognize the hard, time-consuming work we are doing for our children, and stand with us in expecting these things.


Second, we need better spaces for women to pump. And I’ll go ahead and say it: I want them to be clean, quiet, dimly lit, and dedicated to breastfeeding or pumping. I can’t tell you how many women say that they stopped nursing because they were at a conference, visiting friends, you name it, and they couldn’t figure out a place to comfortably pump, and that killed their supply. I’m not sure most people realize that we pumpers HAVE to express that milk several times per day or it will STOP coming. That process can happen quickly and can be devastating for a mom and baby if they’re not ready for it and it wasn’t in their plans.


Women should have the option to nurse their babies for as long as they and their baby want to. To do that women need comfortable spaces to pump and they need to continually claim their rights. I want all women to know the power of pumping in places as diverse as a campsite in the woods and a Mamava pod…even if it is at 4am.


Kirstin Boehm is a development professional, world traveler, new mama, and friend of Mamava.