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Ever since the breast pump began to catch on a decade or two ago, the device has been a fault line in the motherhood wars. The pump seems like the perfect have-it-all solution: Women can nurse without taking round-the-clock care of their babies. Other adults (fathers!) can help out with feedings, too. Yet La Leche League, the half-century-old pro-nursing organization, approaches the device with a curled lip. "Before investing your money in a breast pump, you may want to consider whether it is something you really need," the group sniffs in its seventh revised edition of The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. "When mother and baby are together most of the time"—the group's ideal—"a mother may have no reason to pump her breasts." Likewise, some feminist writers disparage pumps for letting employers off the hook. Instead of bending to the needs of mothers and babies by granting extended maternity leaves, a workplace can designate a little room with an electrical outlet and call it a day.
Is that really a bad thing? Nursing may be one of nature's best illustrations of supply-and-demand—a mother's milk supply adjusts to meet her baby's appetite—but the reality of the practice has never translated into tidy ideology. Pediatrician Dr. L. Emmett Holt, America's first widely popular parenting expert, championed breast-feeding at the turn of the 20th century as the best way to feed a baby—as it unquestionably was in an era of dicey water supplies and dirty cow stalls. Yet, as Slate contributor Ann Hulbert points out in her book Raising America, Holt's conviction didn't stop him from peddling a manual that instructed mothers on how to prepare cow's milk for baby bottles. The doctor was well aware he had an audience of mothers who were eager not to be tied down. Holt's own son received most of his milk from a wet nurse—the closest Holt's wife could have come to a good breast pump.
In Holt's day, milking machines were a newfangled invention available only for cows. Prompted by a labor shortage in the 1890s that left dairy farmers looking for mechanical help, Australian inventors John Hartnett and David Robinson patented a milker that used a pulsating vacuum. Their design treated the udder gently, didn't inhibit the "let down" reflex that stimulates the production of milk, and operated efficiently and hygienically. Half a century later, Hartnett and Robinson's design became the basis for the mechanical breast pump—a major improvement in nursing aids for women. Wet nurses, who literally couldn't afford to run dry, had been known for centuries to nurse puppies or piglets in a pinch, according to Lithe Sebesta and Maura Spiegel, authors of The Breast Book. An enterprising 16th-century European came up with an alternative: the sucking glass. Here's his description: "We have invented this instrument of glasse, where-with, when the broader orifice is fastened or placed on the breaste … and the pipe turned upwards towards her mouth, she may suck her own breast herself." The thing looks like an opium pipe. (See for yourself.) Better than a puppy, probably, but not nearly as cute.
In 1956, a Swedish engineer named Einar Egnell came to the rescue with the first successful mechanical pump for humans. He teamed up with a Swiss expat, Olle Larsson, who founded the company Medela, which is still Swiss, still family-owned, and still dominates the global breast-pump market. For decades, Medela primarily sold 16-pound, industrial-grade breast pumps to hospitals for mothers whose babies were too sick to nurse. Women could also rent these pumps, or sweat it out with hand-held models that made every bottle a struggle. Then, in 1996, Medela began selling light and efficient personal-use mechanical pumps that could easily go along to the office—their discreet design looks like a briefcase or backpack.
This workaday breast pump has become the enabler of women's deep urge to both breast-feed their babies and to get away from them. Like BlackBerrys, pumps give us freedom we otherwise wouldn't have in exchange for inviting us to go to lengths that we otherwise couldn't. Pumps make mothers feel irreplaceable and virtuous. We're away from our babies, but we're still doing right by them—though perhaps our goal is as much to do right by ourselves. It's hard for mothers to make any move that smacks of selfishness. So the hair-shirt aspect of pumping can be reassuring. How selfish can you be if you're willing to put your nipples through a juice squeezer every day?
I met my first breast pump the day my older son, Eli, was born. He had pneumonia and couldn't breast-feed, and a nurse suggested that I try to get my milk going. The hospital pump twisted my uncalloused nipples, and I cried while the yellow, pre-milk colostrum dribbled out. By the end of the week, Eli had recovered and was nursing often and well. I loved his warm nuzzle at my breast. And I was a zealot. I wanted nothing but my milk to pass my son's lips until he was old enough to eat food, and I planned to nurse him for at least a year, as my doctors recommended—and as my mother had. I remembered her saying proudly that none of her four daughters had ever drunk a drop of formula.
But I didn't have it in me to be a mother who never left her baby. I bought a Medela Pump in Style before we left the hospital. Small bottles of breast milk, waving yellow stickies with their dates of production, soon cluttered the refrigerator. Each one represented a chance to sleep through Eli's early-morning feeding or to actually attend class during my last semester of law school.
When Eli was 8 months old, I went back to work full time. I pumped twice a day at the office. After a month or two it occurred to me that I'd gone slightly mad. Why was I spending 24 minutes a day (believe me, I timed it) hooked up to a machine? Would Eli be better off putting up with a bottle or two of formula if it meant that I could get home earlier?
When my second son, Simon, was born, I deliberately lowered the bar and bought a jumbo-size container of formula, which he refused to drink. It didn't matter what went in the bottle—as it turned out, Simon didn't want a plastic nipple, he wanted a real one. To my surprise, I indulged him. I was lucky; I could. When Simon was 6 months old and I went back to work, he started going to day care a short walk from my office. I trotted over to feed him every day at lunch. Some days, I fell asleep for a few minutes rocking him.
I'm glad Simon made sure we had those sweet midday nursings. And I think mothers like me who cherish their windows of freedom can overdo it. But so do the La Leche purists. A little pumping can allow a mother to continue nursing when she otherwise might just give up. In the end, breast pumps aren't proof of our maternal dedication or abdication, or evidence of our feminist cowardice. They're a convenience that allows us to have it both ways, for a little while at least. That's not the same thing as having it all, but it's a compromise worth savoring.