How one trip to the airport made me a feminist.


“Are you sure no one can see me?”

“No, I’m pretty sure everyone can see you.”

When my wife and I took our seven-month-old son on his first airplane trip, she didn’t expect she would end up using her breast pump while facing the wall in a public alcove at LaGuardia Airport — a hallway, really — where they stored the wheelchairs, the pump balanced precariously on one wheelchair, my wife leaning on another, and me, one hand trying to block people from seeing what was happening and the other hand wheeling our son’s stroller back and forth so he wouldn’t start crying.

It made the “family bathroom” in the Orlando airport — which a previous occupant seemed to have used as his smoking lounge — seem practically luxurious.

And the empty conference-room-turned-pumping-room at the hotel where we were staying seem almost unimaginably comfortable, clean, and private.

Because I’m able to work from home, and my wife’s work schedule has been somewhat flexible, we’d spent our son’s first seven months in some ways sheltered from a lot of the problems that many working parents have. This trip — a business trip for my wife, to a conference, that we decided to turn into a family trip so that she wouldn’t have to spend three days away from our son, and so I wouldn’t be alone without fresh milk to feed him — opened my eyes to just how difficult it is for working mothers to be both parents and professionals, especially if they’ve chosen to breastfeed. For society to encourage mothers to breastfeed and then fail to provide appropriate facilities for them to feed or pump is at the very least frustrating—and I’m tempted to say shameful.

It shouldn’t have been this hard. Maybe we were naive about the realities of trying to travel with a baby, but it’s not as if we didn’t anticipate our needs and try to plan around them. My wife called our airline before the trip, asking if there was a lounge she could use to pump (our son was born prematurely and never quite got the hang of breastfeeding directly, so my wife has had to pump the milk in advance for all of his meals — we brought milk in a cooler pack along with formula just in case, but we knew in advance that she would need to pump at least once in the airport, because of the length of the trip).

The airline said they didn’t have a lounge or other space we could use, but told us to call the airports directly to see what they could offer. At LaGuardia, they told my wife there was indeed a “locked, private room” in our terminal where she could pump — “the cleaning lady usually hangs out there— just ask her.” (The Orlando airport told her, accurately, if not to our delight, that she should use the family restroom.)

She also called TSA to ask about the screening process, alarmed because of articles like this one from The New York Daily News, about a woman forced to pump in front of TSA officials in order to prove her machine was a breast pump and that her bottles were for breast milk. TSA told her breast milk (and the pump) were permitted and not subject to the 3-ounce rule.

We arrived at the airport with plenty of extra time, and the security screening, while it did take some extra time (and us insisting the agents change their used gloves before handling the pump and the milk bottles), was uneventful. We figured that post-screening it would be smooth sailing, but the “locked, private room” didn’t exist.

My wife flagged down the cleaning lady while she was restocking her supplies in the closet.

“I was told there was a room somewhere in the terminal where I could use my breast pump?”

“No.”

“They said it was the room the cleaning lady usually hangs out in.”

“There is no such room.”

“No?”

“No.”

My wife had taken the phone number of the woman she had spoken to at the airport, so she called — but it went to a recording saying she should call back another time. The cleaning lady told her to use the bathroom — but the only outlet was near the sinks, so she would not only be pumping in a place where everyone on line to use a stall would be watching her, but she would be in the way of anyone using the sink — and keeping the pump clean (not to mention dry) would be impossible.

So we started looking for alternatives.

We tried unlabeled doors. All locked. We looked for an outlet near an uncrowded waiting area — no luck, and too public besides. She looked to see if a different bathroom might have a better space. Nope. And now time was getting a little tight before the start of boarding.

We noticed an alcove, just off the main corridor — a small hallway, where wheelchairs were stored — empty of people, but entirely visible to the back-and-forth traffic along the concourse. There was an outlet. And a wall she could face. And, after as much searching as we could do, that ended up feeling like the best — or, really, the only — option.

So we Purell’d our hands, put paper towel down on the wheelchair seat, and she pumped, for fifteen minutes, in public. I was facing her, trying to block the view and rock our son back and forth at the same time. We were nervous about being approached by someone mid-pump telling us we couldn’t do this here, and getting in trouble, but we were uninterrupted until she was just finishing up, when an airport employee approached. I was worried. But she just wanted to grab a wheelchair.

We assumed things would be easier at the hotel in Orlando — on the Disney grounds— where we were staying. We weren’t there to go to Disney World, but we figured that at a place where so many young families pass through, having a place to pump wouldn’t be an issue.

The day before our departure, we asked if late checkout would be possible, knowing we’d have some hours to kill before heading to the airport, and that we’d need a place for my wife to pump. The desk clerk said we couldn’t check out late, but that there was definitely a pumping room she could use.

The next day, the same clerk had a different answer. He said he wasn’t sure where the pumping room was, asked us to wait while he double-checked, and then told us “there used to be a space, but there isn’t anymore.”

He brought over another clerk, “to escort us to the restroom” — the same restroom that the conference attendees — my wife’s colleagues — would be using. So she would have to be perched at the sink, pumping, while the people she works with would be coming in and out — not to mention there were the same wetness and cleanliness concerns that we would have had with the airport bathroom.

Seeing a row of empty conference rooms, my wife asked if she could just use one of those.

“I can’t allow you to do that.”

“What if I just went in there?”

“Like I said, I can’t allow you to do that.”

“Right, but—”

“I can walk away, and I don’t know what you’ll do after that, but in my capacity as an employee of this hotel I absolutely can’t allow you to do that.”

So we were reduced to sneaking into a conference room, with a wink-and-nod from the desk clerk, feeling like criminals in order for my wife to have a place to use a breast pump.

I really hadn’t thought too hard before our trip about the plight of a working mother, especially one who has to travel for her job. I knew how difficult it was for my wife to have to go back to work after only a few weeks of being home with our baby — her twelve weeks of federally-mandated maternity leave were cut short in reality because the first seven weeks were spent with our son in the hospital after his premature birth. I knew we were lucky that I work from home, so that we didn’t have to face some of the difficult child care choices that most couples wrestle with. And I knew that my wife was struggling to find time to pump at work, and doing everything she could to get home as quickly as possible at the end of the day. She was lucky that at least she had enough autonomy at her job to manage it all.

But a woman who has to travel for business — and still wants to breastfeed her child? Three days in Florida showed me it would be pretty close to impossible.

I haven’t read all of the scientific literature about breastfeeding, but I experienced enough in the hospital to know that, at least where we gave birth, mothers are made to feel incredibly guilty if they don’t breastfeed. It’s presented as the ideal option — and, really, the only option assuming you’re able. And maybe the literature bears that out and maybe it doesn’t, but if on the one hand we’re going to tell women that breastfeeding is best, to at the same time to make it impossible for many working mothers to actually do it seems profoundly unfair.

It’s bad enough that compared to most of the world, our maternity leave policies (and paternity leave policies, for that matter) are practically non-existent. At least we should be able to create an environment where women who do go back to work can breastfeed without having to sneak into conference rooms and take off their clothes in airport hallways.