For the last sixteen months I have been in a love-hate relationship with my breast pump, often logging more hours with it than my husband. Six months ago I could produce five ounces of breastmilk in the time it took me to watch an episode of the Mindy Project at 2.a.m. Now I barely squeeze an ounce and half from my sad, tired breasts. On a good day I might make three ounces, only to have my son, Theo, dump it out or drink two sips before rejecting it for apple juice or even water.
Yet I keep pumping.
I’ve been chained to the plastic phalanges of my pump since my son, Theo, was born at 27 weeks sixteen months ago. Prior to his birth I was ambivalent about breastfeeding, but once he emerged from me with his sack of waters still intact and unable to breathe without a ventilator, my only mission it seemed was to produce as much liquid gold as possible. I couldn’t do much to keep him alive except snuggle him skin-to-skin two hours a day and give him breast milk through a tube that was fed through his nose and into his intestines.
I pumped next to his incubator and then his crib for the six-and-a half months he was in the hospital on extra oxygen. When Theo came home on a feeding tube, I kept pumping eight times a day, sacrificing sleep, exercise, and my sanity because all of this effort was keeping him healthy. I went back to work and dragged my pump out during breaks. I became comfortable pumping in my car, in grocery store parking lots or while my husband drove. I pumped in airport nursing rooms, stranger’s bedrooms at parties and at the dining room table where I once gave the UPS guy an eyeful.
I tried breastfeeding, but Theo never latched. Like a drunk sailor he pushed my boobs away. Instead, he was content to watch me pump into small plastic bottles while he drank from his own. I worked hard to keep my supply up. I charted my output like a scientist. I drank Mother’s Milk teas and IPAs and sprinkled fenugreek on my chicken. On more than one occasion I cried over spilled breast milk.
Even as my son grew stronger and relied less and less on a feeding tube, I kept at it. He started on solids and I stocked the freezer with frozen vials of my milk. When he turned a year old I thought I was ready to give it up, but his dietitian and pediatrician urged me to continue a little longer to get him through the heart of cold and flu season. Gradually I started decreasing my pumping frequency. The middle of the night sessions were the first to go, and I’d wake up drenched and sore, but an extra hour rested. I cut back a little more and my supply dropped off. And for the first few weeks I felt good about my decision. But then something changed. The less I began to produce, the more desperate I became to pump. The emptier my breasts got, the emptier I felt inside. I broke down the first time it took me a half hour to produce less than an ounce because it felt like I was failing.
I don’t want to give it up. I don’t want to lose this connection to my son. I don’t want to acknowledge that Theo’s baby days are behind us. I don’t want to give up the one thing that makes me the most miserable about being a new mom (aside from the sleep deprivation) because it makes me feel the most powerful. I can give my son something no one else can. Once I stop pumping, what will I have to laud over everyone else? Who will I be without this machine? And my biggest fear: Will we lose our bond?
But it doesn’t make sense for me to continue to pump now that he can drink whole milk. My body is ready to give it up even though my heart isn’t. Theo has had his share of viruses this winter but his immune system is stronger, thanks in part to all those antibodies I gave him and all the time I spent with the pump. He’s an active toddler now, too busy chasing the dogs or destroying the house, and I’m too busy chasing him to be tethered to a pump. He’d rather eat chicken tikki masala and spicy jambalaya and vanilla milkshakes than my milk and I can’t blame him. There are millions of new foods to try. It’s time to pack away the nursing bras and nipple balm and mail my pump parts back for the manufacturer to recycle. My breasts are ready to be mine again.
But not before I pump one last time.