The Exclusive Pumper

A story about providing breast milk in an unconvential way.

‘Oh here is the Mother with the baby with flat nipples’ said one midwife to another when doing the rounds of the ward where my Mum was recovering after giving birth to me. Her hormones would have been creating a cocktail of self doubt, elation, panic and confusion at this point and I’m assuming being casually told in passing that your brand new baby was somewhat deformed would have been like having someone take a dump on top of a perfectly iced and baked cake, that you had iced yourself, over 48 hours, after nine months of baking.

My Mum remembered this comment (obviously) and told me about it in my teens. Up until this point I had no idea my nipples were any different to anyone else’s. Obviously the vain, super skinny, adolescent me was only worried about one thing- ‘will boys notice?!’ My Mum assured me that it was a subtle difference in aesthetic to other girls and if presented with naked breasts she was sure that teenage boys would not notice.

They didn’t.

In a few years time I had bigger problems anyway as my right boob swelled up to the size of a small melon. (I should point out that at it’s default position it would normally have been more akin to an orange. No actually that is ambitious – a satsuma.) I had some form of MRSA inside it- doctors were baffled how it got there, although I had returned from ‘finding myself’ in Uganda so it could have been some fantastically exotic disease that I had developed from my time ‘saving’ the third world. Although most likely it was caught from trying a bra on in a a very unexotic changing room in Primark once I was home. After a few weeks of being bounced around doctors and being called ‘an unusual case’ a hundred times I was sent to hospital where, as it was a teaching hospital, a small army of medical students squeezed my poor right boob, and then to understand the difference, squeezed my poor left boob too. To cut a long story short my right boob ended up with a half moon scar under the nipple that made me look like someone had drawn a smile under the nipple-nose. One helpful Surgeon told me that if I was unhappy with the ‘look’ of my breast after healing he would be prepared to reconstruct it – or he suggested I just go and get two eyes tattooed onto it. My breast focus was now very much on my smiley face of a scar and off to university I went completely forgetting about my previous insecurity about nipples.

Until my beautiful baby daughter came along 12 years later and couldn’t get a latch.

I had an ‘easy’ birth. She came a mere 24 hours after my waters breaking on my sofa. A mere 48 hours after first thinking I might be in labour. I did my ‘hypnobirthing’ like a pro- channelling my inner David Attenborough as I told myself I was a bird flying through my contractions. (I hadn’t read the book my husband had bought me past the first page where it said to imagine yourself somewhere else or as something else – so this is what I did.) For me it worked a charm and before I new it I was being helped from birthing pool to stool to bed where my beautiful brand new daughter peed all over me as she seemed to search out food lying on my chest. The midwife asked me if I was planning to breast feed and would I like help getting started. It was approximately 5 minutes after pushing a person out of my lady parts and here I was having my breast squeezed (again) by a medical professional- only this time they were shoving it into my daughters mouth. (It amazed me how violently the breast feeding expert grabbed the back of her neck and literally rammed her tiny head into my bulging engorged breast just to get a tiny amount of colostrum.)

I spent the first night after my daughters birth staring at her in my arms not quite believing I had made something so perfect. The midwives said she should be on the breast every few hours and to aim for 8 feeds in 24 hours. I followed their advice and diligently pushed her tiny nose onto my frying pan of a nipple until she opened her tiny lips and took in flesh. Midwives and breast feeding specialists did the rounds and showed me various positions to get the best latch. Practise makes perfect they kept saying, and don’t be afraid to be firm. We were discharged 24 hours after her arrival.

After four days on cloud nine at home my darling daughter started to get uncomfortable and cried through the night. Each time I tried to feed her she would gasp and pant for the nipple but be unsuccessful in getting any of my ‘liquid gold’. By this point my milk was in, my breasts had swollen to epic proportions resembling overblown balloons, skin stretched like over a drum and veins so dark and thick my skin looked almost transparent. My nipples were dark and huge except they weren’t doing their job, they were flat. My poor little baby wasn’t actually getting any milk, as she had a real challenge latching on to anything, she cried, I cried. When the midwife came on the fifth day my daughter had lost 13% of her body weight. Off to hospital we went and we were put on a strict feeding plan of every three hours. Only this time the milk was to be unceremoniously extracted from me by machine. I plugged myself in and watched as the suction pump pulled out of me what my daughter couldn’t.

She gained weight rapidly and my husband and I decided that pumping had worked so far so why not continue. So I embarked upon an unusual choice. To become an ‘exclusive pumper’.

‘Are you breast feeding or bottle feeding?’ I’m asked this question probably at least once a week by someone, occasionally strangers. It’s an odd question filled with loaded judgement and often projected opinion of the person asking it. I don’t know how to answer, I normally stumble around the ‘well both actually.. it’s complicated… I bottle feed breast milk..’ and wonder what judgement has passed. Does this make me a sell out to the breast feeding Mum who gets up ten times a night to hold her little darling in a loving ‘bonding’ embrace? Does this make me a wannabe and a breast milk snob to the formula mums who spend a lot of their time defending their decision not to breast feed and often walk around with ten foot chips on their shoulder? I don’t know- I do know that I get very mixed responses.

I have been pitied, told I was a ‘hero’ and a ‘trooper’. I have been told I am mad- why would I do that? Isn’t it a ridiculous commitment? I have been told I have the best of both worlds. ‘Isn’t it wonderful that your husband can feed her too!’ I have been told I have the worst of both worlds. ‘You have so many bottles to wash AND you have to spend 20 minutes a go hooked up to plastic tubing.’

Once I had committed to this way of life I bought myself a pumping bra. It is the least sexy item of underwear I have ever owned. It makes my high-waisted Bridget Jones-esque Spanx pants look whorish. With the pumping cones in place and the tubes heading to my portable pump I look like I have stepped out of a cheap Sci-fi movie you might find with 1 star on Netflix. The bra makes life easier and in fact I now have two so I always have one less milk soaked than the other. My pump is always with me and means I can pump on the move.

I admire the women who fight for breastfeeding in public to be a socially accepted everyday thing. I understand their frustration with those who think of it as ‘disgusting’. I however have a different battle to fight: Pumping in public. I’ve pumped on trains, in pub toilets, at a concert at the O2, in cafes, at service stations, in changing rooms and on a park bench. I use my breastfeeding cover a friend made for me before my daughter was born. I sound like I’m either using a vibrator or have a very rhythmic and prolonged flatulence problem. With the cover along with my two cones, I look like I might be covering up a corset Madonna would have proud of in the 80s. I’ve had the odd funny look and occasional bemused glance but on the whole I have thus far been unchallenged by the general public.

One early hours pump I found myself trawling the internet to see if anyone else was doing this. I found a Facebook group of exclusive pumpers and found that women all over the English speaking world were sharing stories and asking and answering questions. I learnt a lot. I learnt you couldn’t shake the milk you had to swill it round, I learnt you could freeze it for 6 months. I learnt if you refrigerated your pump parts in a ziplock bag you didn’t have to sterilise them more than once a day. I learnt about pump makes, quantities, bottle teats, milk banks. I learnt I wasn’t alone and that Facebook had a purpose other than looking at what my old university house mates were having for dinner.

It turns out that I am what is considered an ‘oversupplier’ not by much but a little. I have more milk than my gorgeous girl needs. This has been great as it means I can freeze a little bit every now and again and I can throw milk away if I have had a lot to drink or if I’ve needed to take medication not recommended for breastfeeding. I now have a freezer draw full of packets of milk. They look like little Capri- sun sachets and can be thawed in case of emergencies. (Medical emergencies or Gin emergencies.)

My scar has been no problem when pumping and in fact it is that breast that produces more milk than the other. It’s like it knows, smiling back at me in the mirror with the eyeless grin. My other boob has suffered with a blocked duct. The crazy old wives tales of what to do in this situation swirl the internet resulting in me reaching for the cabbage leaves and raw potato. It was a hot flannel and some self massage that solved the problem in the end.

After the first few weeks of pumping every three hours I slowly weaned myself down to four pumps a day. My daughter is now five months old and I am slowly moving to three pumps a day before starting to wean off the pumps completely from 6 months as she starts eating solid food. I will weirdly miss my pumping as it has become very much part of my routine. Giving my daughter milk from me has been wonderful and I’m glad I found a way to do it. Ironically all the suction over the last few months has left my nipples erect. I wonder if they will stay this way.