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What No One Tells You About Pumping

4 new M.M. moms on breast pumps, pumping in public, and what they wear while doing it.

By Caitlin Abber

A few weeks ago, I found myself on a train from New York City to New Haven, Connecticut. It had been about three hours since I had last pumped, and the train ride was going to be at least 90 minutes long. I did the mental math, and there was just no way around it: I was going to have to whip out my boobs and pump right then and there. I took a deep breath, grabbed my pump parts, plugged in my Medela, reversed my Snyder sweater so it was like a smock a kid wears in art class, lifted up my Marcia T-shirt, and unlatched my bra. “Here goes nothing,” I said to no one, as I turned the big yellow knob and the familiar whirring began. 

I’ve long admired women who breastfed and pumped in public and was excited to eventually be one of them. But thanks to Covid, I have spent the majority of my breastfeeding months sheltered in my apartment, and the world has hardly seen my face—nevermind any other part of me. So this experience—like most experiences in new motherhood—was not only a first, but an honorable feat. In that moment, I felt like I had earned some kind of cool mom badge for mastering a new skill: Pumping on a Packed Commuter Train. 

I exclusively breastfed for six months, and began supplementing with formula when my daughter started daycare (fed is best!), but I definitely felt a bit lost in the beginning. I knew absolutely nothing about pumping before I had to do it—from the ins-and-outs of storing milk, to what it actually feels like (not even physically, I’m talking emotionally). And, as I sat there on the train nonchalantly making food for my baby, I began reflecting on everything I had learned about pumping over the last eight months and everything I wish I had known before becoming a mom. (Seriously, why didn’t anyone tell me...anything?)

Luckily, I know I’m not alone. I reached out to some new moms at M.M., including our CEO, Sarah LaFleur, who welcomed three babies this year (more on that soon!), to commiserate all the things we wish we knew about pumping before we had to do it. 

(An aside: I’m really sad we couldn’t have this conversation in person, in M.M. HQ’s “Mother’s Room,” which is exclusively for pumping.) 

Pumping Can Be Extremely Time Consuming

On days when my daughter is home, I pump for 30 minutes in the morning, 30 minutes at night, and then breastfeed her throughout the day. An hour might not seem like a long time, but now that my baby is crawling, not being able to chase after her for even two minutes is hard (thankfully, she is obsessed with her Jolly Jumper). The tougher days are when she’s at daycare and I need to pump every three hours, usually five or six times a day. Carving out that time in my work day is tough, especially on days I have a lot of meetings. “Even though you can technically do it while on a Zoom call with your camera off, it’s still a weird experience,” says Katie, M.M.’s Senior Director of Operations and Sales. “I’m 5 months into operating this way, and it’s still a pain point.”

Rachel, M.M.’s Senior Director of Product and Platform Strategy, has a similar experience. “You truly need to carve out time for it (I still haven’t figured out how to do this),” she says. “I’ve found since returning to work that if I wait too long in between sessions (just need to squeeze in this meeting!), it’s often painful, and I start to feel slightly ill.” 

As Rachel points out, making the time to pump is often medically necessary. “You can make yourself pretty sick if you aren’t dedicating enough time for a full pump session—mastitis, engorgement, etc.”

For Sarah, M.M.’s CEO, just figuring out the right supplies and scheduling is a headache.  “Pumping is exhausting, not just because of the act of pumping, but because of the logistics surrounding it,” she says. “The multiple pump parts, which have to be cleaned frequently and constantly; the hands-free bras and the nursing pads (I have tried four different kinds of bras and I think this is the best; I’ve also tried multiple nursing pads and ultimately ended up with this one because the disposable ones were too scratchy for me); the routine schedule, which you can’t really mess with; the setting up your alarm and waking up in the middle of the night, especially in the early days, when you’re trying to build supply. All of it is exhausting and time consuming, and requires a lot more time beyond the time you spend pumping.”

Pumping Can Be Isolating

The few times we’ve been able to visit family and friends since my baby was born, I’ve had to sequester myself in a room to pump. For 20-30 minutes, I could hear everyone laughing, playing, and cooing with my daughter. Meanwhile, I was just hoping I could make enough milk to have an emergency bottle ready for the car ride home. “Pumping can be quite isolating,” says Sarah. “I didn’t nurse, I only exclusively pumped, so initially, I was pumping three to four hours a day in my bedroom by myself. It’s been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”

Katie agrees. “When I first started pumping, it was nice to have some quiet or alone time, but now that I’m back at work and my son is 10 months old, I’m pretty over pumping.”

Of course, Sarah also needs to be out in the world, so she’s found a solution in a wireless pump she swears by. “It was at a business meeting with a fellow entrepreneur that I learned about hands-free breast pumps,” she says. “When the conversation got onto the topic of my pregnancy, she told me to buy a portable pump. She told me that it would ‘change my life,’ and it really has. My Elvie has liberated me to be able to schedule things outside the home without having to worry about finding an outlet and a place to pump every three hours. I can describe my pumping journey as ‘pre-Elvie’ and ‘post-Elvie.’”

Pumping Can Be Emotional

There are days when the last thing I want to do is pump. Worse, however, are the days when my supply is low. On those days, I feel angry at myself, even if I really shouldn’t. “The most public pumping I’ve had to do so far was in a car with two members of my team, driving to visit our new fulfillment partner out of state,” says Katie. “Luckily it was a car full of women, and I was alone in the backseat, so it wasn’t too awkward. But I definitely wasn’t ‘comfortable,’ and as other moms will know, it did impact my supply and the amount I was able to pump that day.”

For Sarah (and many women), the act of pumping triggers a hormonal response. “I remember about four days into pumping, I turned to my husband and said that pumping felt like being high on ecstasy (not that I know what that feels like, but…). A couple of weeks later, I started to experience a symptom called D-Mer, and pumping became something I associated with a feeling of homesickness. It’s a never-ending emotional roller coaster.”

Pumping is a Fashion Challenge (But it Doesn’t Have to Be)

While I really miss my coworkers—and like I said, I am sad I didn’t get to have that communal pumping experience—I am a little relieved that I didn’t have to figure out pumping in a business-casual wardrobe. When I returned to work after maternity leave, it was the beginning of June, and I lived in my Paige and Alina T-shirts, which are soft, light on the skin, and most importantly, machine-washable (especially key on days when I couldn’t find my Haaka). Rachel wears a nursing tank under everything and favors the Blake shirt (a button-up!), as well as the Daphne and Morandi sweaters, which are cozy, elegant, easy-access cardigans. .

As I mentioned, the Snyder jacket helped me stay discreet while pumping on the train, and for that I am extremely grateful. Katie is a fan too. “The Snyder jacket is my new go-to,” she says. “It’s so warm and comfy. While working from home, I find it’s easier to just take my top off to pump, but as the weather gets cooler, I like to cover my arms to stay warm.”

Sarah likes both of these suggestions. “Just bring the Morandi or Snyder wherever you go,” she says. “It’s a much more attractive and ‘normal-looking’ version of a muslin cover-up.”

Pumping Can Be Confusing...For Everyone

Whether you have a vaginal birth or a C-section, breastfeed, pump, or use formula, everything about childbirth and caring for a newborn is normal and nothing to be ashamed of. But that doesn’t mean people are totally comfortable with it. Like I said, I knew very little about nursing and pumping up until I brought my daughter home from the hospital and actually had to figure it out, so I understand when people (friends, colleagues…men in general…) are a little nervous discussing it or—gasp—seeing women do it out in the open. If you’re not a breastfeeding mom, but want to learn more about it (out of curiosity, or because you want to be more accommodating to the breastfeeding moms in your life), just ask someone who’s done it. I know from personal experience that we love talking about it. 

On that note, if anyone at the MTA is reading this, I do have a suggestion. How about a pumping car? Preferably with snacks?

Caitlin Abber

Written By

Caitlin Abber

Caitlin Abber is the Brand Editor at M.M. LaFleur, and an award-winning writer and content creator. Over the last decade she has held senior editorial positions at MTV, Women's Health, Public Radio International, and Bustle, and has bylines at InStyle and OprahMag.com.

See more of Caitlin's articles

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