Ode to Pumpy: reflections on breastfeeding

Opinion March 2, 2011 0 Comments

by MIKE CHOMENTOWSKI

These recent weeks have been particularly calm and peaceful in this first-time father’s house. There’s almost been a return to the quiet that filled our home before our son Henry was born. Things we are grateful for: He’s sleeping through the night; he’s napping regularly during the day; he’s eating like a foal; he’s staying relatively still when you change him, and he’s playing happily in the Babies “R” Us that used to be our living room.

He doesn’t cry as much, which makes me very happy, and my wife, who has not-been-pregnant long enough that she can look at pictures of herself while pregnant without screaming and running from the room, is starting to feel like her old self. The other evening I even thought I heard her whistling – a simple carefree expression that I haven’t heard in nearly two years, unless you count the high pitched wheezing noise her left nostril makes after tripping over my shoes (which were right out in the open in the middle of the floor, come on), or in response to my innately helpless questions like “Do we have any bowls?”

Yes, we have hit a sort of stride, and we feel like parents – not just two people who had a baby left on their doorstep with no note, like in some Katherine Hepburn movie (the diaper goes on the other end, dahling). We’re starting to recognize ourselves, as we were before Henry.

A big reason for our return to normalcy is – and feel free to send your congratulatory cards and flowers c/o the Local – we are done pumping breast milk. Let me say straight away that the only thing my wife loves more than no longer having to pump is my insistence on using the first person plural when discussing how “we’ve” been breastfeeding for the last ten months. However, I feel justified in using “we” in the same way a civilian, though not in the military, says with great solemnity, “we are at war.” Like war, breastfeeding is hell, and I, if nothing else, am a patriot. Semantics aside, we are putting our breast pump out to pasture, and we couldn’t be more, um, pumped about it.

Our choice was to breastfeed our baby from the start, but when nursing did not go as smoothly as expected, my baby’s mama stayed committed to breastfeeding. So we pumped and bottled and froze and repeated that simple yet arduous routine until every cubic inch of freezer space was crammed with storage bags of mother’s milk. Steph pumped on average five times a day, everyday. That’s 35 times a week and roughly 140 pumps a month. Over the course of 10 months we pumped about 1,400 times. Moo – that’s Merrymead Dairy Farm level production. If I can speak for both of us, it was exhausting.

And all of this could not have been possible without one piece of equipment that was probably the most important item we owned: the breast pump. But based on the schedule we kept and the number of times we used it, maybe it’s fairer to say it owned us.

I remember the first time I saw my wife’s breast pump, fresh from the box, still stickered and the color of optimistic yellow. It was smaller than I would have thought, but then again, I had never thought. When we plugged it in for the first time, it lit up, like the smiling face of a helpful wet nurse, and it gave a soft, electronic, pulsating murmur, as if reassuring us, “don’t worry, your baby, will eat, sit back, re-lax.”

A quick point about the soothing sound of the breast pump: after 1,400 uses, the whirr, whirr, whirr of that device is forever lodged in my head like the roar of the ocean in a conch shell. It was worse than tinnitus. There were times when I heard it and looked at my wife and found she wasn’t pumping; I heard it when she wasn’t home; I hear it now.

Anyway, we got down to making milk. Steph seemed to be forever pumping, while I helped by bagging, labeling, cleaning bottles, feeding babies (what, there was just one?) and generally being my supportive self. By the way, as the Milk Storage Manager (I even made myself a nametag), I’d like to say I didn’t spill a drop, but sadly that would be a lie. I do appreciate that my exhausted wife followed the worn adage to never cry over spilt milk – she was far too busy screaming over it. Personally, I would have preferred a small, quiet cry.

The kitchen freezer filled quickly, and, although I protested at using the basement freezer (or “my refrigerator” as it were, following an unwritten rule that any refrigerator in a cellar or garage is the property of the husband for the sole purpose of beer and red meat storage), I was quickly “cowed” into giving up the valuable cubic inches to more breast milk.

As time passed, the breast pump was everywhere I turned: in the refrigerator, on the kitchen sink waiting to be washed, on the coffee table waiting to be used … everywhere. The pump conveniently came with a car adapter so that on our family outings, there it was, in the passenger seat – whirr, whirr, whirr.

My wife took the pump with her when she went back to work for those unimaginably nerve-racking pumps in her office, hoping a deadline-crazed boss didn’t come barging through the door. There were the lunchtime phone calls when I could hear the whirr, whirr, whirr in the background. I remember one frantic call from my wife when she told me that sparks were flying from the pump and she worried she might catch on fire. I wondered aloud if that was how the Great Chicago Fire started. She hung up, presumably to find a fire extinguisher.

From the first pump at 7 a.m. until the last at 11 p.m., my wife’s schedule and sanity revolved around the pump. Weekends were just as stressful, and our plans revolved around the pump’s schedule. I would always feel a pang of sympathy when I saw Steph try to sneak inconspicuously upstairs for twenty minutes at dinner parties. She never missed a pump and she never complained … actually, she complained all the time, but who can blame her. She had definitely soured on the whole routine.

Hmm, sad to think that this is my last chance to get these limpid puns in while I can. I didn’t get in as many Mooooooo’mmy jokes as I’d have liked, and unfortunately the hands-free aspect of my wife’s breast pump made it lethally easy for her to hurl remote controls and forks at me when I would comment from across the room at how “utterly” amazing it was to watch her make milk, or how moooooooo’ved I was by her commitment to breast feeding.

There were the dinner parties and family get-togethers we attended, when Steph would indulge in a glass of wine and I would start a one-man chant of “pump and dump, pump and dump,” a phrase that blithely summarized the act – an act that amazed me I should note – of pouring out breast milk after having a bit too much wine the night before.

Recently we did an inventory (during which my wife was not sure why I was wearing overalls and chewing on a straw of wheat) and realized we had enough in surplus to get us to Henry’s first birthday, at which point he could start drinking the milk more bovine in origin. I could not have been prouder as I patted the door of the full freezer and looked at my wife. I started to say something about taking the blue ribbon at the State Fair and … let’s just say my dairy farmer daydream turned into a nightmare as quickly as you can say “mad cow.”

So now my wife is happy, and she has her life back. The pump is currently on loan to a cousin who just had a baby boy and who’s starting her own daily routine of pumping. I still hear the whirr, whirr, whirr of the pump, but it is growing fainter. Our son is in the 90th percentile of both weight and height from all those bottles he sucked down. And while I have my basement freezer back, for now it sits empty.

During the pumping season, I would often fantasize about how I would use the space when it was once again mine to use: maybe buy half a cow from a local farm and store the various cuts of meat. But after going through what we just went through, I don’t know if I have the heart.

Maybe we’ll fill it with ice cream or chicken.

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