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It's a medical device

Adventures in pumping on the job

By Jessica Smartt Gullion

The parking lot was crowded. The five of us unraveled ourselves from the county SUV. I had to hold the pump in my lap during the hour-long trip because there had been no room for it. We pushed through the volunteers up to the building and looked for a place to check in. My black bag hung from my shoulder. A man in SWAT gear with a machine gun slung across his back stood by the door with a megaphone. "No purses, no bags," he said. "Ladies, leave your purses in your car." I turned to Bryanne, who is also the director of our WIC program. "I can't be in there all day without my pump. Plus I don't want to leave it in the car, the ice packs will melt in this heat," I told her. "Don't worry," she said. "I'll support you."

Sometimes I would just call it a "medical device." Let people wonder. But everyone who knew me personally eventually found out what was in the giant black leatherette bag I carried around everywhere with me.

My breast pump.

"Can't bring that in here ma'm," SWAT officer said when I approached the check-in table.

I felt nauseous. This was the part of breast feeding that I hated. Having to explain it to everyone, even though it was none of their business. And being harassed for it. "I am an employee, not a volunteer." I held up my assortment of badges, one of which said "Dr. Gullion." I hoped he would think I was a physician. "This is a medical device."

He looked skeptical. Bryanne puffed herself up, and the rest of my coworkers gave him nasty looks. His face was red from the 100 degree heat and the ridiculous amount of gear he was wearing. He wiped his forehead and waved us in.

We were taking part in a multi-jurisdiction bioterrorism exercise. More than 500 volunteers and employees converged on a rural high school to practice what we would do if there were a smallpox outbreak in our area. As an epidemiologist, my job would be to interview people who were "sick." All of the volunteers were given index cards with their role in the scenario printed on it. Some were to be worried well, some sick. Some pretended they could not speak English, or that they were unaccompanied children.

There were two gyms in the high school. All of the "well" volunteers went in one gym and got a pretend shot. The "sick" volunteers went in another gym, got a shot, and were interviewed. That would be where me and my breast pump would be stationed. I was working a six hour shift, which meant I would need at least one break to pump. I had found in the past that high adrenaline (which these sorts of exercises often generate) also caused me to produce more milk, which might require two breaks.

I donned a red plastic vest, rubber gloves, and a surgical mask and went to work. The gym was hot. A video projected on the gym wall played over and over, first in English, then in Spanish, a talking head from CDC loudly telling them about smallpox, why they were getting a shot, and how to care for the injection site. A group of teenaged volunteers came through the line being as obnoxious as possible. "Just trying to give you a feel for reality babe," one of the boys told me. An American Red Cross volunteer brought my bottled water. Within an hour my boobs began to feel heavy.

"I have to take a break," I told the woman who was in charge of the investigators.

She looked down at her clipboard. "Sorry, I don't have anyone to replace you yet," she said.

"Well, let me know, because I need to take a break."

I could tell by her expression that she could care less. "Don't we all," she muttered.

I waited another half hour, until I thought my chest would explode.

"I need a break," I told her again.

"You can't," she said.

"I'm going," I told her. Just trying to give you a feel for reality, babe.

"That's too bad, I need you here!" she snapped. I took off the gloves and mask, picked up my bag, and walked out of the gym in search of a restroom.

Days when I stayed in the office all day were fine. Actually, I kind of enjoyed it. During "pumping time" (once in the morning and once in the afternoon – I went to the daycare and nursed her in person at lunch), I would close and lock the door, my hot pink Please Do Not Enter sign up to keep everyone from bothering me. Sometimes I would turn off the lights -- the tiny window in the corner provided enough light to see. I would get out whatever book I was currently reading and relax while the pump extracted an insane amount of bluish-white liquid into the sterile bags. It was my "me time" during that first year, pretty much the only time I ever got to myself. Lunch was stressful. It took at least 15 minutes to get to the daycare, nurse for 30, and then back in 15. I'd stuff my face in the car. Pumping time was easier. I ignored the phone, locked down my computer so I couldn't even see the emails popping in, and just read. Novels, non-fiction, magazines, whatever I felt like.

I work in public health, which gave me a lot of leeway to use my pump. How could anyone tell me no, when our hallways were decorated with Breast is Best posters? I dreaded days when I had to be out of the office, for a meeting or a training session, though. I had a battery pack, so I could pump in the restroom if I had to. I would usually just stand in the stall, massaging my boob to get the milk out as quickly as possible, hoping no one else came in. Although if they did there was nothing I could do. Let them wonder what that sound was, the rhythmic whirring of the motor and plops of liquid. Sometimes I would ask to use an office, but I didn't like having to explain what I wanted to do in there, so I would usually only do that with people who knew what I was up to any way.

I became very adept at pumping in the car, while driving. I had a converter that allowed me to plug into the car's outlet. I would just pump one at a time, holding it under my shirt and praying that (a) I didn't get into a wreck, or (b) I didn't get pulled over for any reason. How do you explain that? Sorry officer, I was pumping my boobs. Or better yet, have EMS come with the jaws of life to extract me from the vehicle, the suction still holding the breast shield in place?

Breast may be Best, but for most workers pumping is simply incompatible with their work environment. I often wondered how many women are not allowed long enough breaks or even privacy to use the pump. How many balance on the toilet in a public restroom, trying their best to keep all the parts sanitary while they pump. Or hide in a supply closet with a chair pushed against the door. The message is a hollow one without the social structure to back it up. If we truly supported breastfeeding, why are their no protections for employees who want to do so? Or does our society only support the practice for women of privilege, those who work in/at home and those with high enough status and salaries to proceed without fear?

On the way back into the gym another SWAT officer stopped me. Security was high for the exercise.

"Ma'm, I'm going to have to see inside that bag," he gruffly said.

I looked at him with eyes of steel. "It's my breast pump," I said curtly.

This phase, I have found, will embarrass the most macho of machine gun-toting cops. He stumbled through his words, "uh, oh, well, uh, ok," turned red, and then politely held the door open for me.

I didn't pump again until the exercise was over.

mmo : February 2007

Jessica Smartt Gullion lives in Texas.

Also by Jessica Smartt Gullion:

Suburban Playground:
My intermittent attempt at blogging

I often debate about how much personal information to put out there, especially about the kids. Instead, I put personal things out there about myself.

Soccer Mom Wannabe
Welcome to postmodern child rearing: I watch my son at daycare over the internet. He is growing up in Technicolor, right on my screen.

Walking the line
Review of The Imperfect Mom: Candid Confessions of Mothers Living in the Real World, Therese J. Borchard, Editor

The breaking point
Review of Inconsolable: How I Threw My Mental Health Out with the Diapers
By Marrit Ingman

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