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Jessica Shortall
Contributing Writer

The Unbearable Loneliness Of Pumping

Meet Jessica Shortall, a working mom with a career dedicated to the intersection of business and doing good. As the former Director of Giving for TOMS Shoes, she literally circumnavigated the globe with a breast pump. Pre-order her upcoming book by Abrams, “Work. Pump. Repeat: The New Mom’s Guide to Breastfeeding and Going Back to Work,” out Sept. 8.

Today, a friend shared yet another breastfeeding video making the rounds with me. This one is from the UK, and focuses on "bressure" — the pressure to breastfeed that some new mothers feel from friends, relatives, medical professionals and the media. It's a topic we've beaten half to death — except it doesn't feel old and tired for a brand-new mom experiencing it for the first time, so I totally get why it keeps popping up. But the topic of the video is not actually my point today.

About two minutes into the video, a woman sits on her couch and says, "they said, 'you're gonna have to stop breastfeeding'"... and then she breaks down crying. I don't know what she says after that, because I was busy having my own ugly cry. I weaned my youngest child a whole year ago, and it turns out that all of those feelings were about a millimeter below the surface, just waiting to be scratched so they could burst back on the scene.

This little experience reminded me of a session I did recently at a corporate HQ. It was meant to be a practical overview of pumping at work for the women in the office. But it quickly turned into something I hadn't expected at all. The conversation turned to how lonely and isolating pumping at work can be. In part, it's literally isolating; you are crouched in a little closet somewhere. But on a much deeper level, it's isolating and lonely because so many working, pumping mothers spend all day carrying around a terrifyingly packed brain full of anxieties, plans, back-up plans, back-ups to the back-ups, supply stresses, working mother guilt, and oh-no-I-forgot-the-pump-bottles-at-home freak-outs. Meanwhile, we're leaking milk on our shirts. Nobody else that you work with is doing this weird thing, and it gets awkward pretty quickly if you talk to coworkers about it too much. So you just carry this weight with you, hidden, and you try not to shout to everyone that you never feel like you are doing any of these jobs well — not working, not making milk and certainly not mothering.

So, the supposedly professional and practical presentation I was giving took that unexpected turn, and as I was talking through this melee of feelings, I looked up and no fewer than three women in the room had tears streaming down their faces. It took about two seconds for me to then totally lose it myself. There was something so cleansing about sitting in this conference room and just having a cry with these other women. It was a rare moment where we all knew exactly what each other was feeling. We all knew that it was way too complex to put into words, but we were happy (I mean, sort of happy) to just let it out for one minute.

Here's what I've learned: By my best estimation, at least a million American women attempt working and breastfeeding every year, so there are a lot of us doing this, to say the least. But we all feel so lonely while we're doing it. We ought to feel like a badass sisterhood of women doing triple the job of all of our coworkers. We ought to have each other's backs and teach each other the tricks and hacks we've learned. We ought to sit in a room together, sometimes, and let tears stream down our faces, and then tell each other if we have mascara on our cheeks when it's time to take a deep breath and head back into the fray. We need each other. We deserve each other.

I think that working, breastfeeding moms get each other in a way nobody else does, even years after we've stopped breastfeeding. So I hereby declare I'm going to go out of my way to find some working breastfeeders every once in a while, and do some phenomenally ugly crying. I think we'll all be better off for it.