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The Wireless Device That Liberated Me From My Breast Pump

Because nothing sucks the joy out of motherhood quite like pumping.

WillowSolo Breast Pump.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by WillowSolo.

What was it that was draining the joy out of my first months of motherhood? Even more than fear or uncertainty or lack of sleep, it was the pumping: the angst that came with having to strip down at work and tether myself to a breast pump multiple times a day.

In fact, I complained about pumping so volubly that soon ads for Willow, a new wireless pump, began to haunt my every move online. I could hardly Instagram-stalk a onetime acquaintance or seethe over a political Facebook post without encountering a promotion touting the new “self-contained and wearable” breast pump with “no dangling bottles to hold you back.” I looked at the smiling women in the ad, stealthily expressing milk while fully clothed, then looked down at the five-pound brick shackled to my chest gasping beside me. I knew this is exactly how advertising is supposed to work, but I still wondered: Could this be my pumping salvation?

The Willow arrived in minimalist packaging that matched the pair of sleek, softball-size devices inside. There was nary a tube nor bottle in sight. Instead, the Willow collects milk into special plastic bags inside the gadget, so each unit (there’s one for each breast) is self-contained. It was significantly more compact than the pump I’d been using, and there were fewer parts for me to surreptitiously scrub in the company kitchen.

Despite giving my chest the unnatural contours of an Austin Powers fembot, the Willow units fit inside my bra, making it considerably more discreet than other pumps. However, any plans I had to pump in the middle of my open office were dashed when I realized I would have to show some skin to get started. The guidelines instruct you to release your nursing bra flaps—effectively flashing everyone around you—to align the pump. After a week or so of use, I learned how to tuck it away without exposing myself, but I never did work up the courage to pump at my desk.

But even inside my office’s nursing room, Willow was quiet enough that I no longer had to field awkward questions about that “weird honking noise” on conference calls or worry about my co-workers hearing me through paper-thin walls. Small but dignity-preserving life improvements. The Willow’s other bells and whistles include an app that syncs with the pump and tracks your milk output in real time, letting you referee imaginary races between your right and left boob. (Hey, middle-of-the-night pump sessions are really boring.) If you store milk, you could also use this feature to keep track of your freezer reserves.

Of course, none of these high-tech features would have mattered if the pumping experience were still terrible. Fortunately, tube-free pumping was almost as liberating as I dreamed it would be. Freed from dangling bottles and intrusive sounds, I found pumping at work no longer a dreaded interruption but just another task to accomplish. And the absence of tubes and wires introduced the revelatory possibility of doing other things while pumping. I could now squeeze in a session while I got ready in the morning, made dinner, commuted, or nursed on the other side.  When every minute is a commodity, the benefit of multitasking while pumping can’t be overstated.

But as much as parenting is about taking shortcuts wherever we can find them, it’s about making compromises—and with the Willow you do have to make some. The Willow took twice as long as my no-frills Medela to generate the same amount of milk. For me, this wasn’t a deal-breaker; I was willing to tolerate a less-awful session that took twice as long, especially if I was pumping while doing something else. If I was in a hurry, I just used my old pump.

Then there are Willow’s bags. On one hand, these ring-shaped pieces of plastic are the most genius aspect of the whole apparatus. They’re engineered with a one-way valve system that allows them to collect milk while you’re pumping, but self-seal without leaking once you’re done. At the same time, the bags are arguably Willow’s most annoying feature. They can trap air, which prevents them from lying flat in the freezer, you need scissors to open them, and I found they tended to trap milk fat once the milk was cold, causing hard-fought droplets of liquid gold to go to waste. (As a fix, consider transferring milk to a bottle or another bag before freezing it.) Oh, and because you can use each bag only once, this isn’t an environmentally friendly option. Or wallet-friendly: A 24-pack of bags costs $12.99. For someone pumping three times a day, five days a week like I was, that’s an additional $60 a month. If you’re exclusively pumping (eight times a day), you’ll need to shell out more than $200 a month on bags alone, pushing the Willow into Snoo-level luxury territory.

That brings me to the Willow’s biggest letdown (get it?): its hefty price tag. At nearly $500, it dwarfs almost every other pump on the market, including Medela’s smart pump ($350) and the beloved-by-many Spectra S2 ($159). When you’ve already dropped hundreds of dollars on the requisite baby gear and are staring down child care fees that rival the price of college tuition, this additional expense might be unfathomable.

But if you’ve got baby money socked away, and you’re desperate for some measure of freedom in those difficult early months, I recommend the Willow. If you travel a lot, I highly recommend the Willow. It’s expensive, but it’s a sound investment toward your sanity. And hey, that benefits the whole family.