BREAST MILK (PART THREE)

Baby was almost 8 months old, and I was invited to do a presentation on entrainment at New York University.  It was my first talk in over a year, and I felt a bit rusty.  Nonetheless, I jumped on a plane to New York with a stop in Chicago to deliver one of the most definitive talks of my career.

My breasts were already full by the time I landed in Chicago.   I went to the restroom to try out my new breast pump.  My original plan was to test it out before the trip, but I was in too much of a hurry.  All I could think about was doing whatever necessary to avoid bringing my Medela pump on the trip; I feared airport security would mistake it for a bomb.  That thing was too damn expensive for me to risk having it confiscated in the name of homeland security.

Stepping foot in a bathroom stall, I took the thing out and placed it on my left breast.  It didn’t work.  Placed it on the other breast (as if my left breast had malfunctioned).  Still didn’t work. “I knew I should have brought my good pump!” I muttered to myself, nearly throwing the worthless thing in the toilet.  I looked down at my breasts,   wondering how much worse the pain would get in two or three hours.

I stood staring in the bathroom mirror. Eyes bloodshot.  Breasts engorged.   It was 11:00 p.m., and I was in desperate need of sleep and a breast pump.  I left the bathroom and walked down the long, wide corridor like Sean Penn approaching his death in Dead Man Walking.  The milk throbbed within me, creeping across my chest like needles floating in molten lava.   The pain transformed into a dull ache that radiated throughout my whole body and after awhile I grew numb,  still walking, still hoping for some options.

A courtesy desk stood about twenty feet before me, and I heard a host of cherubim and seraphim strumming harps.  I prayed like hell that I lived in a world where breast pumps lay somewhere in the dusty recesses of airport storage rooms.  I searched the counter for a female face.  Someone who would understand.  Someone who looked like Mom material.   Never mind the man behind the counter, standing there looking happy and helpful; I didn’t want to inspire any fantasies of the shape and size of my breasts–neither of which were relevant at the time.

I approached the woman and leaned over the counter and whispered, “You wouldn’t by chance have a breast pump would you?”

“No, I’m sorry, we don’t,” shaking her head with sympathy.

“Nowhere?” I persisted.  She continued to shake her head.

I was disappointed. I was hurt.  I was hurting. And pissed!  Why the hell was I whispering?!  And why didn’t I feel free enough to speak openly to a man about the presence of a breast pump?! All because I feared being responsible for planting sexual thoughts into his brain?!  What kind of twisted world do I live in?!  Peering at the counter, I swear I became Jesus ready to knock that shit over, the same way he flipped over tables in the temple.

This nation, the embodiment of both the puritanical and the hypersexualized, is a place where women’s breasts are objects of sexual desire and virtually nothing else.   Forget about how breasts provide food for babies and heal the acne and scratches on their little newborn faces.    None of this matters to a male-identified world where men and women together obsess over the appearance and exposure of breasts as opposed to the lives they sustain.  At what point did women’s breasts become so warped, objectified, dissected, and demonized that even mainstream discourse about breast milk,  breastfeeding, and breast pumps became laced with disgust and shame.  This shame is so heavy, and it isn’t even mine to bear.

Though I teach physics now, I taught Catholic theology for many years in my 20s and 30s and challenged students to deconstruct the nature of patriarchy.  We engaged in many discussions and debates about the subject. However, it wasn’t until my breasts were full in an airport (where there was no trace of a breast pump) that I began to understand how quietly patriarchy operates and yet how deeply it injures the bodies and minds of women and men.      In that moment, I wondered how many other women in that airport were engorged and in pain just like me.

I started again toward my gate.  The faces of passers-by were a blur as I daydreamt about a room filled with breast pumps:  a Mother could walk up to one of ten stalls and pump her excess milk.  Each stall would have a Medela dual breast pump and a dispenser for disposable breastshields and tubing.      Now, it would be ideal if this was free, but I pictured putting a quarter or fifty cents into the pump and getting about five minutes worth of pumping–something comparable to filling up your tires at a gas station or vacuuming your car at a carwash. This milk would be bottled, screened, and then delivered to cities throughout the world where infants were starving for breast milk.   It would be very easy.  So, why don’t these exist?  Donor milk banks already exist.  How difficult would it be to create a partnership between airports and donor milk banks around the world to ensure that pumped milk from airports would be distributed to caregivers of infants that the banks have established contact with.   We have safe surrenders for Mothers who want to drop off their unwanted children within the first 3 days of life.   Why not have one more means by which these infants can have access to   milk?   Why don’t we see billboards for breast milk pumping rooms?  Or ads in magazines–and not just in magazines strictly focused on parenthood.  Have them in Newsweek, The Oprah Magazine, Vibe, GQ, Glamour, and Wired. Now that we have more commercials that come on before our favorite YouTube videos and TV shows on Hulu, picture commercials for a breast milk pumping room.  Let’s call the room, “The Breast Milk Express.”  The name is shameless, explicit, and fun.    No need for sterile euphemisms like “Women’s Rest Area.”  No!

But what if, by chance, “The Breast Milk Express” creates too much of a rift in the mainstream psyche, we could simply call it, “Expressions for Mothers.”  Soft and classy, with a bit of a shopping mall feel.  No matter the case, the name should communicate the room’s purpose and function.  I had it all figured out and prayed that “The Breast Milk Express” or “Expressions for Mothers” would somehow miraculously appear next to the Interfaith chapel I was sitting in.  It never did.

I remained in pain until I arrived at my hotel room.  I got out of the cab and stood, looking up at the Millenium Broadway Hotel.   Tall and stately. Glossy. Black.  I stood in front of its beige entrance, smiling at its torch-like lamps, enamored with the building’s beauty.   As I stepped through the automatic doors, for a split second, I forgot about the pain I was in.   I checked in and then immediately ran up to my room, thinking about how soothing a warm bath would feel.

It was 2:45 a.m., and I sat in the warm tub in disbelief.  Gently massaging my breasts, I saw swirls of breast milk disappear into the depth of the bathwater. I kept massaging and squeezing.  And more breast milk was released.  Relief.  I didn’t think relief would be  possible during this trip.  I sat in awe of what my female body could do, much in the same way I was fascinated with how a woman’s body transforms during pregnancy.  I learned from my body that night.  I discovered that I could express milk by hand.  And for the next two days, I expressed my milk once every 2 hours.

Copyright © 2011 Janet Stickmon

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4 Comments on “BREAST MILK (PART THREE)

  1. This piece inspires me to read it aloud to my husband, my sister, and all of my friends, women and men. This talent captures your intrest as she sketches a picture in your mind with each word. Well done!

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  2. Janet, I’m really enjoying the images your writing evokes for me! I’m smiling right now at the vision of the milk white decor at the Breast Milk Express pumping bar at the airport. Thank you very much for sharing. I look forward to reading more! *Kate

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  3. Oh, how I remember those days. I remember the confused looks on the faces of the Human Resources staff at my job as they realized that yes, they really did have to figure out how to accomodate a nursing mother’s need to pump milk at the office. The window coverings for the conference room purchased especially for me, since that was the only place a cubicle-dweller such as myself could go for complete privacy. I remember staring at a picture of my beautiful baby as the machinery hummed away, stealing that which was rightfully hers – and by that I do not mean the milk but the connection. That should have been my baby’s mouth sharing the bounty of my body, not some cold machine that would save the liquid for later so that she could still ingest the nutrients, albeit from a false nipple. It was a sad existence, pumping milk at the office.

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