My memories of pumping breast milk for my first child are, quite literally, dark. Three times a day, I would disappear into my office’s “lactation room,” a dimly lit and vaguely smelly storage closet. I spent many hours there, hunched at a too-low table in the too-low light, next to shelves of cleaning spray and coffee creamer, pressing the plastic horns of the pump into my breasts and furiously trying to meditate. As the pump wheezed I tried to direct my thoughts to my breathing, to my baby, to anything that would help more milk flow and help calm the slow descent into anxiety that began each time I took my pump out of its bag.
Now, I have recently returned from parental leave after the birth of my second child, and I have a new technology that wasn’t available back then—the wearable breast pump. Instead of the bell-shaped flanges of a traditional breast pump, a wearable pump has cups that can be tucked into the user’s bra. As an alternative to the standard hands-free option—using a regular breast pump with a pumping bra—the wearable cups are lower-profile, don’t involve the additional cost and usability challenges of a pumping bra, and just feel a lot more dignified than this. The pump I have isn’t plug-free, but those who can afford to spend $500 for a high-quality, fully wireless pump now theoretically get unprecedented freedom and discretion, for easier pumping in the workplace or out in the world.
All of this is supposed to make it easier for people who are breast- or chestfeeding to produce milk even when apart from their babies for much of the day. Personally, while looking through the marketing images of slim, happy women pumping at the beach, on the ski slope, and in yoga class, I also hoped my new technology would do something about that terrible feeling I remembered, the inexplicable dread that had been my constant pumping companion.
A few months into my new pumping journey, the results are underwhelming. While the pump has saved me time and upped my productivity, the new technology still doesn’t provide the frictionless experience of my working-parent dreams. My hands-free cups need constant cleaning, yet the instructions make clear that they must at all costs not be put into a dishwasher. They also have one tiny tube that isn’t supposed to get milk into it, but somehow does, leaving me to battle the creep of an unsettling grayish mold. And despite all my troubleshooting, each cup has a stubborn leak that slowly drips milk into my bra.
But there’s another issue, which no technological advance can fix: Pumping just reminds me that I wish I weren’t apart from my baby. This is not because I don’t like my job; I love it, in fact, and wouldn’t want to be a stay-at-home parent for the long term even if it were financially feasible. But sending my son off to spend his day with someone else while I am trying to sustain breastfeeding sets up a whole chain of challenges and unsatisfactory solutions. The technologies that make pumping marginally less frustrating—and even the policies that are set up to support it—just tinker around the edges of an inherently broken thing: that so many parents are separated from their babies earlier than they want to be, because they can’t afford not to be. This is particularly true for workers of color, who disproportionately lack access to the kinds of jobs that allow for time off; a 2016 report showed that 40 percent of Latinx birth parents took no leave at all, compared with 27 percent of white birth parents who reported the same.
There’s a straightforward solution to this problem: six months of family leave for new parents, paid at a livable wage. Most countries provide some sort of paid parental leave, with proven benefits for kids and parents, including increased nursing. Paid leave has even been shown to yield economic benefit. Yet instead of investing in an accessible leave program, our country has poured resources into facilitating pumping, a seemingly self-defeating choice rooted in racist, sexist policy decisions. (Historian Mona Siegel writes that since World War II, there has been an idea that “providing universal paid parental leave would encourage the ‘wrong’ families to reproduce,” including “fear that if you passed any kind of federal comprehensive maternity leave policy, that would include African-American women and then also more recently, immigrant women.”) These priorities have demonstrated that we value our ideals of individualism—and the structures we have erected to sustain racial capitalism—more than we value babies or the people who give birth to them.
Our cultural devaluation of kids and of parents is old news to anyone who has tried to safely educate their child at an underfunded public school or has been separated from their child while trying to cross a border. But it might be newer to the pumping crowd; many of us have race and/or class privileges that usually shield us from its more overt and personal manifestations. Instead, we might start to see it for the first time when we are trying to pump clean milk into a bottle while crouched on the bathroom floor of our workplace. Or when feeling vaguely gaslit by hands-free pumping boosters, like this article that promises “hyper-enthusiastic” reviews of pumping bras. (The gist of the reviews within: It’s not flattering, but it does fit; at least my nipples don’t poke out of it; and it has straps.)
For nursing parents, being asked to muster excitement for incremental, expensive advancements in pumping technology can feel like just one more slight in a lifetime of being socialized to settle for what is on offer instead of what we actually need. And in fact, we do need wearable breast pumps, but we need them to be free, easy to use, and accessible to all. We also need the marketing for those pumps to reflect the reality of early parenting. It turns out that, even with my fancy new pump, I am not doing yoga or hitting the slopes. I am scraping crusted-over mashed peas off of the dining table. I am getting the family treated for head lice in between Zoom meetings. I am always, desperately, trying to get more sleep.
What we really need is paid time off. We need that time to figure out how best to feed our children, be that by breast, chest, bottle, or tube. We need it to adjust to the new rhythms of our expanded families. We need it to take our kids to their parade of well-child checks, to seek healing for our own bodies after birth, to be there for the moments that make the whole mess seem worth it: When our babies laugh for the first time, when they start to babble, roll, scoot, and crawl.
According to a recent poll, 82 percent of Americans support paid family leave for those who give birth, and amid angst over declining birth rates and COVID-related stresses on families, it now seems more politically feasible than ever. The paid leave plan outlined in the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package would provide up to 12 weeks of paid time off per parent, getting a two-parent family close to that six-month ideal that many experts are beginning to coalesce around. It would also provide paid leave for workers providing other types of critical care, such as adult children caring for ill parents or people supporting chosen family members during their times of need. All of this would be a landmark improvement over the status quo. It is also still not enough. Equity issues with this legislation abound, including that many low-wage workers could receive so little pay that they will effectively still not be able to benefit.
I had access to that miserable lactation room because of the Affordable Care Act; prior to 2010 my employer would not have been mandated to provide a pumping space at all. The ACA significantly boosted breastfeeding rates across the country, and yet still, only 14 percent of Black and Latinx parents have both dedicated time and space during their workdays to pump. I have access to a mediocre wearable breast pump—better than before, but still not enough—that would be cost-prohibitive for many other new parents. Similarly, our country’s potential next steps in paid leave would be so much better than nothing. But better than nothing isn’t good enough.
We won’t see advances that meet the real needs of children and parents until we reckon with the choices that got us here and what they say about who we think deserves care, ease, dignity, and well-being. Imagine if our answer to who deserves those things was “everyone.” Maybe all the research, debate, and money we’ve directed toward incremental improvements for the few would be redirected into designing something new, and universal, and entirely better.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.