I was holding back tears in the airport restroom so, yeah, I suppose I looked as if I needed a friend.
The lady at the sink next to me smiled. “That’s liquid gold,” she said, nodding to the still-warm bottles of milk I had just pumped. “Don’t lose it!”
I tried to smile back as I tipped the bottles and watched the milk swirl down the drain. She looked aghast—and I felt like I was going to throw up. It was the first time I had to pump and dump in my almost three years of breastfeeding my two kids, and it felt awful.
I hadn’t been drinking in the airport (though on second thought, maybe I should have been.) I explained to the woman next to me that I’m traveling for work, and I decided not to save the milk I pump.
Kindness from a stranger
The woman in the airport restroom didn’t tell me that breast milk lasts six hours without refrigeration, or that you can travel with milk through security, or that you can even ship milk back to yourself. After all, I knew all these things but had still made the decision to pump and dump.
Instead, her face lit up again.
“Good luck, Mama,” she said kindly.
And with that, she dried her hands and walked away.
Deciding to pump and dump
The last time I traveled with pumped breast milk on a plane, I discovered that the travel cooler didn’t fit under my seat or in the overhead bins. I had to browbeat a very annoyed flight attendant into stashing it somewhere because I was not letting them check it.
I wasn’t looking forward to going through that again—on three flights to Minnesota and three flights back.
I knew, too, I’d be working long days with scarce breaks. I didn’t look forward to finding a private place to pump, and I didn’t look forward to explaining to my new male colleague why I needed to keep a cooler in the rental car.
And I knew that Kiwi wouldn’t drink the pumped milk I brought back, anyway. She has never taken a bottle, and she only likes her milk from me, thank you very much. (She’s a breast milk connoisseur, apparently.)
So the day before I left on my business trip, I decided that I would pump and dump.
Judging myself—why would you pump and dump?
The idea of throwing away breast milk—beautiful, nutritious, hard-to-make breast milk—literally made me sick. After all, I know firsthand how difficult it is to not have enough milk to feed your baby. That’s why I’ve given away hundreds of ounces of my pumped milk to friends and acquaintances.
I can tolerate the inconvenience of pumping when I know my milk will help feed a baby, but I hated the idea of wasting my time and energy on pumping—just to dump it.
I started to talk down to myself. “It’s not that big of a deal to carry a cooler through the airport,” I thought. “Why can’t you suck it up to get milk to a baby who needs it?”
I imagined women in Facebook breastfeeding groups judging me. Pretty sure that’s just because I was judging myself. (Oh, hi, mommy guilt.)
But for once, I was making a decision for myself. I chose to make my long trip a tad bit easier.
Why is pumping and dumping such a big deal?
Plenty of people may wonder why I’m making such a big deal out of choosing to pump and dump. I’m not murdering baby seals or pinching newborns, after all.
But throwing away breast milk as if it were worthless goes against my whole history as a mother.
When I was breastfeeding Peeper, my milk supply dropped low enough that she was going hungry. I pumped to try to increase my milk supply and have bottles on hand to top her off. I was so careful with those bottles, making sure not to spill even a single drop. And one time when I did spill most of a bottle, I completely lost it.
(Pumping mamas, you feel me.)
I’m grateful and lucky that I didn’t have any supply issues with Kiwi, mostly, I think, because we corrected her tongue tie early. But the trauma of hearing Baby Peeper’s hungry cries because I couldn’t feed her enough still runs deep.
Back in the airport bathroom, I rinsed out the pump parts. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror—I looked heartbroken. I felt heartbroken.
I had spent my entire layover standing in a public restroom pumping milk to dump down the drain while strangers farted in the stalls next to me.
No wonder I felt like crap.
But later, as I waited to board yet another plane, I remembered the nice woman who smiled when she saw those bottles of milk. She looked me in the eye—something that doesn’t happen often in airports, when we all just want to get wherever we’re getting with minimal inconvenience—and made me feel seen.
The look that crossed her face when she saw the dumped milk—was it surprise? regret? her own difficulty breastfeeding come back to haunt her?—wasn’t judgment.
Instead, she offered compassion and kindness.
“Good luck, Mama,” she said.
She offered more than luck, though. She offered me a kind word in a day that was already difficult, after leaving my girls and waiting a half-hour in security while TSA triple-checked that my breast pump wasn’t a bomb.
So I took her wish of good luck, and I made it into good luck. As I stepped on board that plane—without any bags of pumped breast milk sloshing in my carry-on—I decided to leave my mommy guilt on the ground.