Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images/Tetra images RF
About 90 minutes into jury duty in March, I began to wish I hadn’t shown up. I was only a couple of weeks back from maternity leave, and I fully expected to be excused shortly after telling the court officer I’d need to step out every couple of hours, for about 30 minutes each time, to pump milk for my 4-month-old. “Don’t worry,” the officer told me instead, ushering me officially into the jury pool. “We’ll accommodate you.”
But the same officer looked irritated when I soon asked to be accommodated. She brushed me aside to a court administrator, who led me to a shabby waiting room adjoining the main jury hall; it had two non-locking doors, so she jammed a chair behind the knob before letting herself out. There, several times that day, I would prop the chair behind me, hike my shirt up to my collarbone, hook my breasts up to bottles and wires, and eke out a few ounces of milk in earshot of my fellow jurors — one of whom repeatedly banged on the door, apparently looking for her scarf. The court administrator seemed as baffled as I was that I had made it this far into jury duty at all, though for a different reason: “Do you work outside the home?” she asked me through squinted eyes.
The answer to that question is both yes (figuratively speaking) and no. Literally, most of the time, I work from home while my daughter is at day care. But I pump just as much at home as I would at the office (currently five times per day). While working remotely cuts out some of the friction of pumping — instead of lugging the equipment to the office, I keep it on my desk and pump in front of my laptop — as I increasingly venture out for meetings and professional events, I smack right up against the incongruity of pumping and everything else I want to do in my life. I also feel I can’t stop, at least not anytime soon: Until my baby is a year old, her main source of nutrition must be breast milk or formula, 40 percent of which is now completely out of stock across the country. The shortage, which started with pandemic supply-chain squeezes and was exacerbated by recalls in February following the deaths of two infants, has made it as hard to buy baby formula now as it was to buy toilet paper in 2020. Even with my own inconsistent and unimpressive milk production, I’ve become my daughter’s most reliable source of food. As if there weren’t already enough societal pressure to breastfeed, the pressure to pump is on now more than ever with even pediatricians (not to mention a peanut gallery of ignorant men and Bette Midler) urging new moms to up their pumping in absence of an available fallback. It’s a responsibility, a sometimes lonely one that cannot be shared, which has taken precedence over my entire sense of autonomy — no matter whether I am sick, on deadline at work, or simply want a break — in a way none of my visions of motherhood ever prepared me for. My boobs belong to my daughter now; they are what keeps her alive.
For all the stress and logistical contortions pumping requires, I am, of course, extremely lucky to have the option at all. For parents who can’t or don’t want to breastfeed — from those with medical issues to queer couples to those whose jobs simply make it impossible or who breastfed for months but have since stopped — the formula shortage introduces a degree of literal starvation risk that should be inconceivable in America. “It’s all so stressful when it’s the thing your child eats, not like a moisturizer or something that’s out of stock,” says one Seattle-based writer and parent to an 8-month-old who has partly relied on formula since her son had trouble latching at birth. I know this desperation firsthand: In the fall, when our baby struggled to gain weight in the first week after her birth, my husband searched unsuccessfully for Similac, at our pediatrician’s direction, at every Duane Reade, CVS, and bodega he could find within a mile; it was sold out everywhere including Amazon. And that was before the recalls. (When I recently checked the container we kept above our laundry machine in case of emergency these past few months, I found that it, too, had been recalled.) Stores from Walgreens to Walmart to Target are rationing formula purchases to just three or four per person; a colleague who relies on formula to feed her adopted infant son recently had to convince a Costco worker just to let her buy more than two: “We are hunter-gatherers now,” she says. Beside the anxiety of entering that fray (my group chats have exploded with panicked parents trading photos of barren formula shelves), it presents another ethical dilemma: Why compete for such limited supplies with those who really need it when I have the biological privilege of being able to make milk — my own renewable resource?
Yet the reality of breastfeeding, particularly while working full time, feels like anything but a luxury. It’s a ludicrous dance that seems increasingly like its own version of a Spartan Race, jury duty being just another example of the obstacles I’ve needed to surmount. As if toting around a machine the size of a kettlebell everywhere I went weren’t enough of a workout, I’d each day be caught up in a choreography of calendar acrobatics while behaving like some sort of cave explorer in my search for a private place to pump. I have pumped in doctors’ offices, underneath my snowboard gear at a ski lodge in Vermont, and even in line for the Staten Island ferry. At every turn, I’d also had to mention my breasts’ needs to a variety of men and authority figures I’d spend at least a few hours with, from a judge to the organizers of a bike ride to my boss. Pumping on Zoom calls (guilty) has become ubiquitous; a Westchester mom describes packing her three-pound pump along with a cooler into her bike’s pannier bag for a ride on the Bronx River trail, expressing milk on a bench as strangers passed by. “Planes, trains, automobiles, boats, ski cats, fire escapes — pretty much anywhere you could almost imagine,” says Nicole Hektner, a breastfeeding mom in lower Manhattan, of the many places she’s arranged to pump while working as a photo-shoot producer.
Then there’s the extra import the pandemic continues to put on breast milk (as pediatricians will continually remind you) given the ability to feed COVID-vaccine antibodies to children who are still not eligible for the shots. Indeed, as masks have begun coming off in schools and other public places, many parents will tell you breast milk feels like the only defense they can offer their children who are too young to mask even if they wanted to, in some cases prompting them to nurse as much as a year longer than initially planned. (While babies, on the whole, tend to weather COVID-19 mildly, anecdotally, I’ve heard enough scary stories from local moms whose infants’ symptoms became emergencies — from weight loss to spiking fevers to barking-seal croup — to motivate me to give my daughter whatever extra boost I can.) The mounting pressure to breastfeed may be responsible for a phenomenon Rachel Levine, a lactation consultant at NYU Langone, has observed in recent months: Among new moms, she has seen increased rates of mastitis — a breast infection often resulting from clogged milk ducts, which can make even a light hug feel excruciating — likely a result of overpumping. It’s easy to understand the impulse: “We don’t know what the dose is. How much breast milk do you need every day in order to protect them?” says Levine. She’s even seeing more moms who, after weaning, want to reinitiate lactation given the lack of other options in terms of formula and vaccines. “It’s the perfect storm,” she says.
And perhaps with the way the pandemic has normalized juggling child care and home life with professional responsibilities, we’ve come to accept pumping while working as a viable strategy for getting it all done. Yet for many women, it remains more of an extreme sport. Hoping to breastfeed until her 10-month-old son can get vaccinated, Elise Laflamme, a family-medicine doctor in Lawrence, Massachusetts, has now pumped while delivering a baby — twice. The first occasion happened somewhat by accident (she’d already put on her wearable Willow pumps when she was told the patient was ready to push), but the second time, during a longer labor, she didn’t hesitate. “They are slightly awkward and make my chest look very large,” she says. “But it’s worth it to me to ensure I am trying my best to make milk for my son.” (Besides, she adds, taking breaks to pump usually entails taking a significant pay cut as it means giving up an appointment she could have billed for.)
Still, the wearable pumps are far from a perfect solution to working while pumping. Putting aside their multi-hundred-dollar cost even after insurance subsidies, they also make you look and feel something like a lactating fembot. (Even if the LED lights and soft hissing could be disguised under clothing, one mom, then the general counsel of a publicly traded company, recalls wearing them to a business lunch only to realize when she went to the restroom that they’d leaked all over her silk shirt.)
With the way our culture essentially forces moms back to work while their babies still need their milk or a replacement, there is no easy option for feeding, and that’s especially true now with the dearth in formula. Even women who work entirely remotely have told me that returning to workdays filled with meetings forced them to wean, often earlier than they would have liked; sometimes they found that the hormonal shift triggered a wave of postpartum depression. And as companies urge employees back to the workplace, nursing moms are reconsidering when, how, and even if they want to return. “I would definitely have quit if I was required to go in person five days per week,” says one HR professional in Chicago with an 8-month-old. Being home, though, with her kid at day care, makes things only slightly easier: “I wanted to pump while on Zoom calls,” she says, “but my Spectra pump was too loud.” Then again, expecting moms to pump during meetings sets an unrealistic standard for multitasking that’s especially unsustainable at an office. (I, for one, despite having access to New York’s lovely and well-appointed lactation room, have found I spend so much time there when I come into the office that it negates much of the benefit of in-person work.)
Of course, the alternative means asking women to choose between breastfeeding and sacrificing at least some aspects of their careers in the meantime. The Westchester mom, who works as a public defender, says she declined trial assignments for months after returning from leave because of her pumping needs. A couple of other moms took longer leave unpaid, knowing it would be virtually impossible to sustain their milk supply while working. Some have found they don’t love their jobs enough to make pumping worth it and haven’t returned at all. It seems likely this may have been a factor for some of the million-plus women who have left the workforce since the beginning of the pandemic.
For the next few months, I’ve given in to the compromise that comes with my choice. Even if there’s debatable evidence about whether drinking breast milk or formula has a long-term impact on one’s health, I take comfort for now in knowing that my body’s brew is self-regulating in volume, nutrition, and digestive flora. Above all, it’s one thing I’m extremely fortunate to count on (at least most days): When formula is increasingly scarce and I’ve sent my unvaccinated and unmasked daughter into a room full of other babies, feeding her my milk affords me a reassuring sense of control through what I eat and the shots I receive. Each day, I try to bank a tiny pouch of extra milk in my freezer, building up a multiday supply; if I’m called away on a work trip or caught a bug that sapped my milk production, at least I know my baby will have something to eat.