Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Liquid Gold

I am part of a small, strange sisterhood known as "exclusive pumpers." For whatever reason--our own physical limitations, those of the baby, or inexplicable happenstance--we do not nurse our babies at the breast, but spend hours each day expressing milk with which to bottlefeed our infants. When people ask "are you breastfeeding?" we don't know exactly what to say. Many nursing mothers pump when they have to be away from their babies--at work, for example--or to help relieve engorgement early on, but for us, this intermediate step becomes a lifestyle unto itself. Lacking the self-regulating nature of nursing (by which the breasts make just as much as the baby needs), we take special care to keep our production up, counting and preserving each ounce as if it were liquid gold.

After Kate had trouble eating those first few days, and lost 13% of her birth weight by day 5, the pediatrician told me to start feeding her pumped milk ASAP. If she did not gain enough back by day 7, she would have to be admitted to PICU for Failure to Thrive. (Talk about terrifying a couple of new parents!) We went home, began feeding her expressed milk, and witnessed a swift turnaround as Kate immediately began to have clear, content wake and sleep periods, and gained eight ounces in two days. I offered her the breast some during that second week, mainly for my own sake as I worried about bonding and felt disappointed that we were unable to nurse. She never really took to it, though, and I got over it surprisingly quickly--within another week or so.

Those days feel like a distant memory, as pumping has become such a part of our lives. At first, it felt overwhelming, pumping every three hours, even through the night, setting alarms to get me up, keeping track of how many ounces I was producing, watching our electric bill go up significantly from the two or more hours a day the pump is on, and the water bill too, from the washing of the pump parts after each session. I set up shop and type one-handed at the kitchen table multiple times a day (at first, about eight, now just five or six), and we pack up the pump to go with us when we're going to be gone more than four hours or so. I even pump in the car, using the battery pack, when necessary. It's a labor of love, and now as natural a part of childcare to us as feeding and diapering. We have a whiteboard on the fridge to keep track of feeding and pumping times (one schedule, my brain could handle, but two requires ink). A metal tray lined with paper towels lets the pump parts dry on top of the fridge between pumpings. I produce almost twice the amount we need, so my frozen stash in the garage's chest freezer will last us even beyond the time I stop pumping.

Matt, who has been very supportive of my decision to be an exclusive pumper, recently stumbled on a New York Times article called "Ban the Breast Pump." The writer, Judith Warner, isn't down on breastfeeding altogether, though she rightly decries the current trend of bashing the formula-feeding mother. However, she thinks the breast pump is so degrading to women's "physical dignity" that women who must work or otherwise can't nurse their babies should just give up on giving babies breastmilk and switch to formula. Now, I've got nothing against women who choose to formula feed--that's what works out best for some families, and that's fine. But, I do find Ms. Warner's degradation of the pump and women who use it as slaves to a barbaric and archaic torture device somewhat offensive. She not only doubts the AAP's findings on the benefits of breastfeeding, she even seconds another writer's assertion that husbands don't want to have sex with women whose nipples have been so literally put through the ringer. She also comments that pumping made her feel like a cow. Honestly, I don't feel so much like a cow as like one of the women in Monty Python's "Christmas in Heaven" scene, with my boobs out all the time while otherwise fully clothed! (Wish I could have found a better photo online, but you get the idea!)

Personally, I find the practice of pumping for Kate very satisfying and gratifying. I'm glad to be able to give her my milk. The AAP identifies many benefits to breast milk (which, unlike Ms. Warner, I believe), and despite the aforementioned pump-related costs, I'm pretty sure it's still much cheaper than formula. It's costly in terms of time (I've been hooked to the pump a total of 6.5 of the 84 days Kate's been alive) but I do feel proud of putting this natural female ability to work (picture 29 gallons of milk!) and I feel it's worth the time and effort. If I came to resent Kate for it, or felt it was robbing me of too much interactive time with her, I would stop. But for now, exclusive pumping is working well for our family, and I plan to keep it up as long as I can.


Connie said...

Well said and I agree completely! I pumped milk for one year for my daughter and never once regretted a moment I invested in doing it. Keep up the good work Jess!

Anonymous said...

I think that woman is just looking for something to be upset about.
The pump made her feel like a cow, but actually having a baby feed off of you doesn't? ha ha.

I breastfeed and pump milk and neither bothers me or my husband. I think that the benefits of breastfeeding for mom and baby are great and that women should be allowed to do what feels right for them.
Formula or Breastfeed. Pump or Not. Whatever works.

If you don't like it that's fine, but don't try to project your feelings on something onto others who are fine with it.


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