It was a photocopier room that had a musty smell of disuse. There were stacks of yellowing A4 paper decking the walls and, to add to the allure of this spot, it smelled of feet. This was to be my work breast-pumping room and, to be honest, I was simply delighted it wasn’t a toilet – as had been the case (and despite it being illegal) for a number of my pumping, working friends. As I sat topless at work with two pulsating cones hoovering my nipples for all they’re worth, I couldn’t have been further from the image photographer Claire Rothstein posted this week of Rachel McAdams at the Girls, Girls, Girls magazine cover shoot.
But exchange the glittering Hollywood career, Versace blazer and statement lip for a Petit Filou-stained jumpsuit and pile cream and we are in many ways united. I went back to work with my first daughter at six months and McAdams is pictured on-set six months postpartum. Like Serena Williams (and I fear drawing any parallels here, because I can barely run for the bus without perspiring), we were mining the milk-makers for their golden liquid in between conference calls, feature deadlines, rehearsals and training sessions. When there was a spare minute, there was the bovine-esque grunt of the pump. Williams called breastfeeding her “magical superpower”, which is fair because, whether you’ve won Wimbledon or not, lactating on-demand is one of Mother Nature’s tougher games and it doesn’t always feel like there’s a level playing field. It can be glorious and seamless, but also painful, mastitis-inducing, nipple-cracking and heartbreaking; whether you’ve been unable to produce enough milk or if you find your prized, pumped milk spilled on the floor. (Or perished in the sun, where it had rolled out of the freezer bag I’d haphazardly chucked it in – the emotional self-flagellation that went on that day still sits deep.)
Despite the graft – emotional and physical – it had taken to get to six months of breastfeeding with my eldest, it wasn’t until I’d returned to work that it felt like a dirty little secret. While I realise breast-pumping equipment isn’t the sexiest of gear, I didn’t expect the intern at the fashion magazine I was working at to physically recoil when I was washing the valve under the tap. I don’t blame her – I was the woman locked in the photocopier room, grunting away and emerging with milk and nipple stains on a silk shirt I’d worn pre-baby with no issue. (Silk is a truly cruel mistress for anyone in lactating realms.)
For all the moments I looked down at my floppy nipples being suctioned into a plastic funnel, wondering how I was ever going to have sex again, I felt good, not dirty
So, it hit home when Rothstein posted that photo of McAdams, norks akimbo, simply providing for her son. Rothstein said: “A million reasons I wanted to post this picture… We had a mutual appreciation disagreement about who’s [sic] idea it was to take that picture but I’m still sure it’s hers, which makes me love her even more. Breastfeeding is the most natural thing in the world and I can’t for the life of me imagine why or how it is ever frowned upon.”
This comes at a time when a woman in Kolkata was asked to leave the South City Mall for breastfeeding her baby. The response from the mall, when she complained on her Facebook page, was: “This is a big place that is meant for shopping so with all due respect madam, please make sure you do your home chores at your home and not in the mall.”
Home chores? Pumping was, for me, a beautiful endurance test, a privilege. There are many women who simply cannot breastfeed and I have held my closest friend as she snot-bubbled into my arms, willing her mammaries to flow as she nursed an infected C-section scar. For all the moments I felt like a dairy cow being plugged into a relentless system, for all the moments when the buzz of that pump started to feel like Groundhog Day and for all the moments I looked down at my floppy nipples being suctioned into a plastic funnel, wondering how I was ever going to have sex again, I felt good, not dirty. I felt like I had been gifted lactating tits and I was going to wield them, like a maternal FemBot, to my child’s advantage. Even when others made me feel uncomfortable doing so.
So, Rachel, thank you for sitting topless like a lactating Madonna and sharing that photo for the world to see. I may have been sitting next to a dusty photocopier on a creaky swivel chair to “do the deed”, as my boss once referred to pumping, my friends may have been ushered into the toilet to do the most basic thing a woman can do – feed her child – but I am with you, on my shonky breast-pumping throne, wondering if you, too, have piles.
Anna Whitehouse is the founder of @mother_pukka, a website for people who happen to be parents. She also runs Flex Appeal, a national campaign to push for flexible working for one and all in a bid to reduce the number of women – 54,000 every year – who lose their jobs through discrimination and inflexibility for simply having a baby.