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Jessica Shortall
Contributing Writer

How a Trip to Nepal Convinced Me I Need to Write a Breastfeeding Book

PUBLISHED ON 05/21/2015

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. Here, she describes how one trip served as the catalyst for adding "author" to her resume.

“You can say no to this…I want to make that clear up front.”

That’s how my boss started the phone call to me that would send me on one of the most previously unimaginable journeys of my life.

At the time I was on maternity leave from my job as Director of Giving for TOMS Shoes. Before going on leave, I had begun to craft the One for One giving model for a new line of eyewear. We were exploring partnerships with sustainable eye care programs in the developing world, and things were moving ahead full steam.

So back to the call: What was she about to ask me that was so terrible? She wanted me to join her on a trip to Nepal, to learn about a sustainable eye care program there. And we would have to go when my son would be only five months old.

After an agonizing 24 hours, in which I was convinced I could never leave my son for a week, and my husband (my go-to voice of reason) was assuring me I would be an idiot to pass up the opportunity, I said yes.

With the decision made, I had three months to completely freak out about how to keep breastfeeding this kid while doing this trip. I had finally learned how to breastfeed, and my nipples had thoughtfully just decided to stop bleeding. Now I was faced with ten flights totaling 60 hours, plus four days driving around rural areas in SUVs filled with people, with no privacy, no reliable electricity, no clean water, and no way to store the milk I pumped. Also: I had to makeing an extra couple hundred ounces of milk before I left, for my son to have while I was gone.

I told myself that I wasn’t the first woman on earth to face this set of problems. I was probably the first woman to face this particular trip, but millions of women have gone back to work while breastfeeding, so I figured there would be a slew of super-practical resources for me to refer to.

I found some really helpful blog posts and some books with useful content. But I was amazed to discover that a true survival guide for going back to work while breastfeeding didn’t exist. Nothing comprehensive was out there to virtually laugh and sob with me, to help me hack my environment to make pumping work, and to nonjudgmentally make me feel like I could try to do this and still be good at my job.

I filed that information in the back of my exhausted brain and focused on learning what I needed to know, as fast as I could, from my friends who had done this before me.

And off I went.

Well, it wasn’t quite that smooth. On my second flying leg – the one across the Pacific – I was seated next to a couple with a five-month-old baby the exact same age as my son, whom I was already desperately missing. Thanks, universe. I did some sobbing.

My first try at pumping in the airplane bathroom produced three drops of milk, and convinced that my supply had instantly dried up, I did some sobbing. (My milk came back in the very next pumping session.)

At one point, I had to pump standing, holding the pump with one hand and trying to keep myself covered with a shawl with the other in a doorless, stall-less bathroom in a rural airport. (We were delayed due to the imminent arrival of the Queen Mother of Bhutan.) Just another day at the office.) I didn’t sob that time, because it was just so surreal.

When I finally got through the week-long trip and back to my boy, I felt like I’d gone through an intense initiation into a secret club of women who are doing triple the job of everyone around them at work.

It was then that I started to interview other working mothers from all walks of life to hear how they made it work, as doctors, cops, kindergarten teachers, sales clerks, courtroom lawyers, and entrepreneurs.

Five years later, those women’s stories and secrets, their successes and failures, their heartaches and triumphs, their hacks and solutions, their guilt and their pride –all these things make up my book, Work. Pump. Repeat: The New Mom’s Guide to Breastfeeding and Going Back to Work. Abrams Books is publishing it in September 2015, and I am so excited to start sharing much of what I’ve learned on this journey with The Bump community - and to hearing your war stories, your triumphs, and your struggles with one of the hardest jobs we’ll ever do.

PHOTO: Jessica Shortall