a literary review
My hatred for the breast pump comes to a head one month shy of my son’s first birthday. The motor begins to screech and whine and slow and slug—eventually giving out altogether—and I, perhaps like any mother who has lugged her breast pump to and from work for nearly an entire year, and carved out twenty-minute intervals every two to three hours during which to pump milk, and obsessed with not-a-little-anxiety over how much milk she is producing, begin to cry. I shoot off an angry email to the breast pump company, demanding a repair, only to receive a cold, impersonal response that my warranty has expired, and I will need to purchase a new pump altogether.
That evening, my breasts are so full of milk that it feels like I am carrying two torpedoes, each ready to burst through my skin. My nipples begin to stream before I even lift my shirt for my son, and the milk drenches his face. “It’s not funny,” I tell my husband, who laughs at our son’s closed-eyed squawk. “Really.” My breasts ache, and I worry the backed-up milk and plugged ducts will develop into a case of mastitis—fever, body aches, and all.
The following Monday morning, a friend surreptitiously hands me her old breast pump, and two hours into my workday, I unpack the familiar flanges, tubes, and motor before locking my office door. Thank god, I think, unbuttoning my cardigan, though once I hold the plastic to my skin, my mood shifts. I am half-undressed, connected to flanges, which are connected to tubes, which are connected to a motor, which is connected by a three-foot cord to the wall. I am a cow. Merely the provider of breast milk. My worth measured solely by what the pump can extract. My husband, on the other hand, can wander his office, the house, his entire life, unencumbered and free. I cannot. I begin to shrink and seethe. I begin to wonder what kind of animal I’ve become.
“You know they’re basically just milking machines,” a colleague whispers a few weeks later. Her eyes move from my chest to my face and back to my chest. I blush—not so much at her question or her gaze, but the comparison. I hadn’t, actually, equated the breast pump with a milking machine, though I suppose I should have, and when, out of curiosity, I finally do research the “history of breast pumps,” the first article I pull up isn’t about human animals at all. Instead, an 1864 Scientific American celebrates the “patent cow-milker,” comprised of concave metal, india-rubber, a glass vacuum, and elastic pipe. The greatest achievement: it stays attached to the cow, allowing the milkman “to go anywhere unembarrassed by the instrument.”
On the issue’s cover, the celebrated cow-milker hangs from a cow’s teats, more like a mechanical parasite than an ingenious invention that will gently relieve her mammary glands. “Four elastic thimbles encircle[e] the teats of the cows-udder,” the description assures me, but I have no doubt those thimbles will chafe and leave a mark. Of course, my own plastic flanges mark me, too. It takes at least ten minutes for my nipples to shrink back to their original size after the suction has elongated them, and it takes the same amount of time for the red circles to disappear.
I frown at the cow with a great deal of empathy, and then I move on, this time to discover the timeline I’ve been looking for.
In 1854, Orwell H. Needham submits a patent for the first hand-operated breast pump. Not long after, Swedish engineer Einar Egnell and Swiss expat Olle Larsson submit patents for the first mechanical pump. Egnell and Larsson are followed by Joseph H. Hoover (1898), who is followed by Joseph Lane Hancock (1889), who is followed by Hubert H. Halstead (1903), Joel S. Gilbert (1906), Woodard Colby (1926), and Dietrich Von Grolman (1939).
The list goes on. Male-designed pumps, each with bulbs, cylinders, rubber, glass, valves, and eventually syringes, cups, and tubes. Each promising something. Less “pain when the breast is distended.” More “resilient” material. A sensation that will prove “exactly similar” to the sensation of a suckling child.
Also notable: the amount of references that equate breast pumping to milking a cow.
From a 2009 New Yorker piece: “Behind closed doors, the nation begins to look like a giant human dairy farm.”
From The Atlantic in 2013: “the earliest versions of the pumps […] were essentially glorified milkers. […] But male inventors, kindly recognizing that human women are not cows, kept improving on the machines to make them (slightly) more user-friendly.”
From the title of a 2016 New York Times article: “A Better Breast Pump, Not a Milking Machine.”
I feel most like a cow when I pump in the gray stall of a public bathroom, the motor on my knees, squeaking and whirring into the cold, fluorescent, tiled room. Although I always hope I’ll find myself alone, or that the gushing of sinks will drown out the pump’s sound, those hopes are rarely realized. “Is that a breast pump? Am I hearing a breast pump?” a woman once said over the stall, in a tone as high-pitched and condescending as the two undergraduates who cringed at a public university and asked, “What’s that noise?”
I am not alone in my discomfort. In 2014, Catherine D’Ignazio, a grad student at MIT, grew so frustrated with her experience that she and a few colleagues organized the “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck” hackathon. More than 150 inventors, designers, programmers, and engineers met at MIT to reimagine the mechanics of the pump.
I spend an afternoon perusing articles about the resulting breast pumps, many of which originated within households where a career-driven, working mother grew frustrated with her pump and vented to her engineer husband, who thought he could design something better.
One, Naya’s Smart Pump, uses water and soft, silicone flanges to create a gentler, fluid suction compared to the pull and plastic of traditional pumps. Another, the Willow, creates a system that’s hardly visible when in use: everything, including the motor, fits in a half-tear-drop-shaped contraption that nestles inside the user’s bra. On the Willow’s website, women pump while holding their kids, taking conference calls, jogging with an infant stroller, and even eating dinner. Only a small glimpse of the white pump peaks out of the cleavage lines of their shirts.
Many of the articles praise the fact women inspired both designs and that Willow’s CEO is female. When I look up the patent for the Willow, however, I am disappointed to find few women. CEO Naomi Kelmen isn’t on the patent, and as a Huffington Post article states, the Willow “was dreamed up by two male inventors.”
I am similarly disappointed when I discover that Janica Alvarez, co-founder of Naya Health, was unable to woo venture capitalists to fund her Smart Pump. She says she tried everything: she changed her presentation techniques, emphasized women’s horror stories, and touted the $1.2 billion breastfeeding industry. Sometimes, she says, she resorted to sending her husband into boardrooms without her, hoping that if he made the presentation alone, the product might prove more appealing. Alas, it did not. As an article in INSIDER reports, female entrepreneurs only receive 2% of all venture funding, and 93% of venture capitalists are male. As Alvarez reports, because pumps are “unique to women and children,” they are “not a sexy topic to many.” For this reason, she says they’ve stopped “evolving.”
I am, I admit, a bit of a sucker when it comes to arguments based on evolution. Tell me that evolution and human adaptation—slowly and magically shaped over centuries—led my body to develop mammary glands which somehow, incredibly, produce the exact nutrients an infant needs in its first year of life, and that my body adjusts the fat content of milk based on that infant’s needs, and even provides antibodies in response to the viruses my own body has experienced—and I will sign up wholeheartedly. The fact that breastfeeding releases oxytocin, of course, doesn’t hurt. I can honestly say I generally enjoyed breastfeeding—the quietness of the moment, as my child swallowed large gulps and stared in wonder at my face. His mouth was an O on my nipple, a faint tug, and a calm pressure.
But I also valued my career and, like many women, needed to work outside of the home. If my workplace had onsite daycare, I would have simply walked across campus every two to three hours to rock and nurse my child. Since it did not, I resorted to my $150 pump.
Nonetheless, I cannot recall a single moment where I enjoyed pumping. I have never relished pressing the flanges to my breasts and turning the dial. Nor do I have fond memories of the many rooms in which I committed that act. My own office, with the blinds carefully closed. The many bathrooms in libraries and airports and coffee shops. A make-do “lactation room” at a conference, where the other women and I pretended to ignore each other as our pumps beeped in rhythm.
Now, having researched newer models, I can’t help but ask myself if I would have enjoyed breast pumping more with a different kind of pump. Ignoring the fact that they cost four times as much as my own and aren’t covered by health insurance (which means most working mothers could never afford them, never mind the working-class mothers, who are already less likely than professional mothers to breastfeed beyond six months), I let myself imagine it. Something discrete I could have used on a conference call. Something that wouldn’t have necessitated lifting my shirt and balancing a whirring motor on my thighs.
I’d like to say yes—pumping would have been pleasant—but I’m not sure that’s true. It would have been less onerous, perhaps. I would have harbored less resentment and discomfort. But would I have enjoyed it? Is breast pumping something I could ever have brought myself to enjoy?
And then I think of the cows.
Much like for women, the first handheld cow milking machine appeared in the mid-1800s, followed closely by the first mechanical pumps, which, though “uncomfortable and damaging,” offered “a starting point for further developments.” Those developments included the “less stressful” pulsator (1895), the surge bucket milking machine (1920s), and the rotolactor, still used by dairy farms today.
The rotolactor, also known as the “dairy parlor,” works like a slow-moving carousel. Herds of full-uddered cows board, head in, udder out, as the platform rotates towards a farmhand, who attaches milkers to their teats. The milkers milk away, and by the time cows have completed their circuit, their udders are empty. “Cows are very calm, have their own space, and seem to enjoy the ride,” DeLaval brags in its online manual, while also pointing out that their parlors have the highest “cow throughput per hour.”
The goal of all of these technologies, according to the Journal of Dairy Science, is to “maximize yield and profit,” and the latest invention is no different. First installed commercially in the 1990s, the automatic milking system (AMS) promises “to increase milk production by up to 12%” and “decrease labor by as much as 18%.” With its 24-stall platform and 5 robotic arms, the AMS can milk up to 90 cows an hour, largely due to its “automatic teat-cleaning and milking cup-attachment process.” No longer do farmhands have to touch or attach the cups to tender teats. No longer must they visually check for swollen signs of mastitis.
The YouTube video I watch about AMS is nothing short of amazing. Stella the cow meanders into a $200,000 metallic contraption with bright red panels. Once she’s inside, the small gate closes and a robotic arm moves beneath her to clean her teats and attach the cups. The cups suck away while a computer screen projects Stella’s output. When finished, the robotic arms detach the cups, the stall opens, and Stella leaves, making room for the next cow.
This all works because the machine lures Stella in with nutrient-rich food—a tactic, I might add, also used for humans. To make the pumping experience more pleasurable, which is another way to say, to facilitate the necessary release of oxytocin, I am supposed to eat a favorite snack while pumping, or perhaps listen to my favorite music, or consider pumping a “break” from my work day and a chance to look adoringly at photos of my children.
These strategies generally succeed—even if I never consider pumping a “pleasant break.” That said, as I watch Stella experience her first robotic milking on YouTube (my own teats tingling), it strikes me that cows do not have smartphones or photos of calves. They are not even lactating for their calves, who are taken away from them shortly after birth to maximize milk for human consumption. The cows are simply there, used by corporations only minimally concerned with warnings that “pre-milking teat preparation” may not adequately “stimulate milk ejection.” Or that cup attachment may correlate with increased “kick steps,” the mark of cow discomfort. Or that automation may lead to decreases in mastitis detection, which could spoil the milk.
After the birth of my son, as I was being discharged from the hospital, the nurse handed me brochures on SIDS and immunizations, along with a page of instructions on hand expression. In other words, how to pump myself using only my thumb and fingers. Although I’d hand expressed a few times while nursing my daughter—usually because I’d forgotten my pump or the batteries ran out—I’d never before seen such detailed guidelines. The paper even illustrated each step with photos of a woman’s hand, cupped like a C around her nipple. My husband paused at the images, surprised. I did, too. Rarely does one encounter such large images of nipples in a context that isn’t purposefully pornographic.
At the time, I couldn’t bring myself to study the photographs further. I stored the sheet in a brown folder on my desk—adding, nearly one year later, my copy of the Willow’s patent. I take both out now and marvel at the differences.
Unlike the sheet on hand expression, the Willow’s eighty-page document includes no images of breasts or nipples, even though the pump requires the existence of both. Instead, the patent showcases a kidney-bean-like diagram with numbers and arrows, another diagram with squares and rectangles, and another diagram of a convex vortex.
“Has pressure dropped to indicate a predetermined volume extracted or predetermined time elapsed?” the attached flow chart asks. “Has sufficient vacuum been achieved to establish seal?” Then a directive: “Contact compliant region of breast adapter to breast.”
Comparing the two, I suddenly realize why, when I travel through the airport, my breast pump is treated as a bomb. The technical and electric language explains why TSA agents push buttons, pull on gloves, and demand a revelation. There is nothing motherly or nurturing here. Only vacuum-inducing circuits and power-sucking cords. An X-ray-flagging motor and stained, suspicious containers. No wonder TSA agents swab for explosives. Whenever I find myself on the other side of the inspection table, shoeless and with a child clinging to my neckline, I consider it explosive, too.
My final pumping session, fifteen months after my son’s birth, takes place in a single-stall public bathroom. The bathroom has an electric outlet, and so I at least don’t have to rely on the pump’s sluggish batteries. But the bathroom also has a mirror, which offers an unencumbered view of my guarded face, my lifted shirt, the flanges and bottles and cords and motor, all connected to the electric cord, plugged into the wall. I can see myself sitting on the toilet, leaning ever so slightly forward, into the pump.
Do I look and feel like a cow? Yes. Should I feel like a cow? Maybe. We are both mammals, after all, performing the same biological function. Maybe the problem isn’t that I feel like a cow, but the fact that society views feeling like a cow, or using a machine that reminds lactating women of our animal selves, as a terrible, negative thing.
The more I think about it, the angrier I am. Especially, it turns out, for the cows—purposefully impregnated once a year and then hooked up to their own modern milking machines, at greater risk of mastitis, no music to listen to, and a machine that has evolved even less on user comfort than the modern breast pump.
Perhaps, I think, we both deserve better.
Perhaps the problem is those around us, who see lactating as a means to an end; breast milk for nursing infants. Dairy for people. A society that doesn’t, actually, respect and honor the act itself, and can so easily depersonalize lactation and nursing with words such as “management” and “automation” and “efficiency” and “expulsion.”
Unplugging a pump for the final time, I wonder why we keep searching for technological fixes, rather than political and societal solutions. I wonder what would have happened if breast pumps and cow milking machines were designed by women from the start.
After I return my friend’s pump, I stand at the trash can, holding my defunct model. As sweet-stale smells waft from the bag, I consider making the process ceremonial. Should I say something? Should I thank the pump—or the universe—for helping me provide milk for my children? Should I shower the pump with gratitude for its beeping and its suction and its loyalty almost-until-the-end?
Should I keep the pump on the top shelf of my closet, as a kind of memento? The once eggshell-white but now-yellowing motor? The no-longer-translucent tubing? The small, rubbery white valves? Those terribly hard and conical plastic flanges?
Should I honor the pump and what it helped me to do?
I stand with the pump in my hands, the parts and tubing spilling from my grasp.
I laugh. A single, slight laugh, like the first half of a hiccup. Then I drop the pump into the can, close the lid, and firmly fasten the child-proof lock.
Jennifer Case is the author of Sawbill: A Search for Place (University of New Mexico Press, 2018). Her essays have appeared in journals such as Orion, Michigan Quarterly Review, Literary Mama, Fourth River, Sycamore Review, and Zone 3. She teaches at the University of Central Arkansas and serves as the Assistant Nonfiction Editor of Terrain.org. You can find her at .