The Briefcase and the Breast Pump
September 9, 2020
Last week was Black Breastfeeding Week, and the 2020 theme was “Revive. Restore. Reclaim!” This unique and significant celebration of Black nursing mothers caused me to reflect on my own breastfeeding journey and one particular experience in which I, as a Black working mama, had to revive, restore, and reclaim my commitment to breastfeeding.
The story goes:
My breasts were burning and nearly bursting at the nipple’s seam with unexpressed milk.
But there I sat, as still as I could, in a chair at the end of a cherry oak conference table, intently listening to two attorneys take my client’s deposition testimony. Every few minutes, I sensed surges of milk dripping into each of the breast pads neatly situated inside my nursing bra. My eyes continually darted downward to check if wet spots were forming through the thin material of my favorite Antonio Melani blouse. The court reporter, who was the only other female in the room, swiftly tapped every word uttered. I frequently glanced at her, wondering if she would request a short break to rest her hands. Really, I was the one who wanted—needed—the break.
Rewind. I missed my 9:00 a.m. pumping session while in the throes of completing a task before the deposition started at 10:00 a.m. Additionally, due to sleep deprivation the previous night, I overslept that morning and did not have adequate time to nurse my daughter at her 7:00 a.m. feeding. So, in a rush out the door, I instructed my husband to make her a bottle of stored breast milk.
Fast forward. We were entering the second hour of the deposition, and nearly eight hours had passed since I last expressed milk during my daughter’s 4:00 a.m. feeding. Nearly eight hours. And we were likely one more hour away from taking an official break. At that point, I was convinced that either my boobs would explode or I would faint from the pain and pressure of engorgement. Oddly enough, those exaggerated options seemed better than the alternative: to simply request to take an early break so I could relieve myself of my child’s then exclusive source of food.
But I was too ashamed to ask. As a Black, female, visually impaired lawyer, I tried my hardest to never request an accommodation that a non-Black, non-female, non-visually-impaired lawyer would never request. I rationalized that my two male colleagues would never need to pause a deposition for a breast pump break. And as the only Black lawyer in the room, my imposter syndrome and inferiority complex added a layer of further resistance to making the request.
So I resolved to wait. And wait, I did—for another hour. By the time I reached my office, I threw my “Do Not Enter: Pumping in Progress” sign on the door handle, slammed the door, kicked off my heels, quickly and roughly yanked my expensive blouse over my head, threw my nursing bra to the floor, and hooked my breasts to my pump, and hit the “let down” button. I pumped over ten ounces of milk. I also suffered a minor bout of mastitis due to waiting so long.
In the days following, I reflected a great deal on that incident. Why had I felt so powerless and mortified to ask for what I needed? Why I had allowed any classification other than “mother” to guide my decision of whether to ask for that early break? As a professional advocate, I failed to personally advocate for me. Recalling the ordeal made me feel weak and small.
I ultimately concluded that I had not normalized breastfeeding in my mind, will, and emotions. Growing up, I rarely witnessed women nursing. Many women in my family chose not to breastfeed their children. When some of them learned I had chosen to breastfeed, their reactions were mixed though none outright discouraging. During those early home visits, I caught glimpses of my mother, grandmothers, and aunts observe me nursing my daughter as if I was accomplishing a superhuman feat. Occasionally, in a well-meaning way, one would ask, “Are you sure she is getting full?” That question—every single time it was asked—rattled me and caused me to second guess my research, my intuition, and my choice of how to best nourish my child. It was a lot to process. Throw in the post-maternity-leave challenge of navigating nursing and pumping as a working mama, and the task of it all became immensely overwhelming. I wanted to quit.
But I could not quit. I fought to settle in my soul that few happenings were as natural and normal as nourishing my beloved child from the sustenance of the very body in which she formed and grew. The beautiful and intentional bond cultivated during those feedings was invaluable. Nothing and no one, including me, would rob me of those precious moments with her.
In retrospect and to be fair, my client, my colleagues, and the court reporter likely would have excused me with no problem. Again, my own inner complexities and insecurities hindered me from reasonability that day. The next deposition (all new parties) was scheduled at my opposing counsel’s law firm for a time frame during which one of my milk pumping sessions would fall. To avoid inconveniencing others by pumping in places that were not my home or my office, I usually left my pump in one of those places. But this deposition was different. I was newly enlightened and empowered. I walked into that law office’s conference room confidently toting my briefcase and, this time, my breast pump bag, too.
I kindly, yet assertively announced, “If we go past eleven o’clock, I will request a twenty-minute recess so that I can go pump my breast milk.” I jokingly noted, “My baby’s gotta eat.” Everyone laughed. My colleague then noted how much he admired his young wife for her nursing prowess. The court reporter shared that she had breastfed her daughter until she was almost two-years-old, and she even lamented about how much she missed the bond nursing provided.
In that moment, I luxuriated as a proudly pronounced nursing mama, relaxed and fluent in my breastfeeding narrative and firmly poised to freely and joyfully continue my and my daughter’s nursing journey.
And please remember, no matter your baby-feeding choice, feed beautifully, boldly, and unapologetically.