Breast of Burden

The pump. The poop. The panic. A dispatch from the nursing wars.

Out of sheer necessity, however, we pulled it off one Friday and went to a department store to find something that fit and buttoned up the front to wear to a funeral. More accurate, my friend Betsy raced around the store trying to find this Holy Grail of dresses while Baby and I were parked in the mommies' lounge adjacent to the women's restroom, nursing.

I was just preparing to dislodge Baby from my right breast, coax out a spitty burp, and park him on my left when a woman came in carrying a sleek, black, oversize purse I recognized as the most popular portable breast pump out there, the Medela Pump in Style. She looked too svelte to be postpartum and was dressed in tasteful, expensive career-woman clothes. I hated her.

She set down the bag, flipped open the top, and started taking out the bottles and tubes and various suction devices (picture little tubas) that go with the pump. She laid them all out neatly and fit them together, then reached back into the bag. Out came a granola bar, followed by a can of Dr Pepper.

Ms. Medela took a deep breath, rolled her neck and shoulders in a brief relaxation exercise, ate her snack, and ten minutes later tucked two full bottles into another, conveniently chilled compartment. She could have been a walking Medela ad, "pumping discreetly on the go!" as the promotional literature promises. "Naturally, with the help of a friend."

For me, the pumping process was a little closer to the one described by novelist Anne Lamott, the author of Operating Instructions, a viciously funny account of her son's first year: "I hate the fucking breast pump," she writes. "It's the ultimate bovine humiliation, and it hurts, the suction is so strong. You feel plugged into a medieval milking machine that turns your poor little gumdrop nipples into purple slugs with the texture of rhinoceros hide.

"You sit there furtively pumping away, producing nebbishy little sprays on the side of the pump bottle until finally you've got half a cup of milk and nipples six inches long. It's so incredibly unsexy and secretive, definitely not something you would ever mention on 'Wheel of Fortune,' nothing you'd ever find in a Cosmo piece about 10 ways to turn on your lover--crotchless underpants and a breast pump."

The pump I eventually rented for $45 a month was a giant, electric-blue industrial model. At some ten pounds it was a pain to schlep around, and once I went back to work I planned my forays into the outside world around the times when I knew I could least expect my breasts to leak. Too much milk on a sweater and I'd smell like cheese for the rest of the day.

My pump didn't come with a little cooler pack, and I couldn't for the life of me figure out why anyone would shell out for Medela's expensive breast-milk freezer bags. Instead I'd pump, empty the milk into a Ziploc, and stick it into the office freezer. Most nights I went home with three plump bags, each of which would be thawed by the daycare provider the next day to provide a nutritious meal for Baby.

While all the modern literature suggests that one of the advantages of breastfeeding is economy--it's free, it's always ready when you need it, at the perfect temperature, etc.--nursing has managed to spawn a flourishing industry. Just thumb through a catalog, visit a parenting Web site, or take a walk through the infant-gear aisles at Target: There are slings that snuggle baby close to the breast while mommy moves around, nursing pads, milk collection and storage "systems." There are nursing bras with snap-open flaps and racks full of overpriced clothes that part at just the right seam; footstools to correct mom's posture, nipple cream for when she gets chapped, and shoulder-to-hip "aprons" to create a private cocoon for baby and breast. One such shield boasts a see-through window at shoulder level so mom, and no one else, can watch the child nurse. (Evidently breastfeeding is both an acceptable public activity, and something that should occur under a tarp.)

The ultimate accessory, of course, is the pump itself. Based in Switzerland, Medela is the world's leading manufacturer of these incredibly complicated devices, and as the breastfeeding instructor I endured while pregnant pointed out, their distributors--who typically work as lactation consultants--must agree to sell or rent the pumps for at least a certain amount (typically upward of $250 for the ubiquitous Pump in Style). Then there's the cost of the little cups that draw out the milk, the tubing that supplies the suction, and the special bottles that for weeks I somehow failed to realize were identical to every other baby bottle on the market. (You usually purchase all of this as a packaged "system" for $45 to $50.)

Monetarily, it was a wash: When I took the pump back after seven months I had spent about $400, plus perhaps another $150 on bras and other sundries. If I'd pumped for the rest of Baby's first year, I would have spent essentially the average $1,000 cost of a 12-month supply of formula.

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