Friday, February 24, 2012

Pumping at 23, The extended mission through the Milky Way

I couldn’t resist choosing the blog title “pumping at 23”. Since this is a blog about maintaining an astrophysics career and nursing a child, one might logically think it refers to a 23-year-old mother pumping milk. In my case, since it will be ten years next month since I defended my PhD thesis, I must admit the 23 refers to my daughter’s age in months. Since I work at NASA, I can’t help but refer to the pending 24 month transition as the extended mission; soon I will have met my personal goals for the prime mission!

A prospective postdoc stopped by on Friday to chat and the first half of the conversation ended up being about pumping milk when traveling. Here is an anonymous thank you for the inspiration for a pumping-and-astrophysics blog.
So, first let’s have a reminder. Breastmilk is wonderful for babies and toddlers, and the connection between the nursing mom and her child is also beneficial to employers. Breastfed babies have fewer ear infections and illnesses, and illness tends to be less severe. More difficult to quantify is the wonderful re-connection that a working astrophysicist feels with her child after a long day at work. I like to think of it as concentrated mothering. Now, not everyone wants to breastfeed, and sometimes it honestly doesn’t work out (but please see previous blogs, I have never said this was the easy path!). If a mother wants to continue to give her baby breast milk, it is a good idea to support that.

And then we come to the “dreaded pump.” Although I personally have had an overall positive pumping experience, many astrophysicist-mothers I have spoken with talk about the pumping in a rather negative way. Practically speaking, pumping serves two purposes: (1) maintaining your milk supply when you spend time away from the child and (2) preventing discomfort and more serious problems that may arise when failing to empty a full breast. If you aren’t going to be around the kid and you want your milk supply to be maintained, you have to pump. Travel is when this becomes essential. For a fun illustration of what this looks like in practice, here is a short list of some places/situations where I have pumped:
• the lactation room at NASA GSFC (shared hospital-grade pump, AWESOME)
• the restroom on an 11-hour international flight en route to an X-ray binaries/supermassive black hole conference (battery pack is the only option!)
• the restroom on a long-delayed Amtrak train back from Boston from the summer AAS meeting (ewww! Battery pack and wipes needed, bathroom was disgusting!)
• the office of the public policy fellow at the American Astronomical Society headquarters (electricity and access to a refrigerator, yes!)
• the Potbelly Sandwich shop near the White House Office of Management and Budget (electric plug and sink in the same room)
• my office (convenient but people still open the door)

At some point though, all mothers face a moment when it is time to stop pumping. Your child is old enough (and that is a decision for each mother to make based on her situation, although I will mention here that the World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding until two years of age, the American Pediatric Association recommends breastfeeding until at least a year of age). So for many people, somewhere around a year or later (for me it was about 16-17 months), the daily pumping routine will no longer seem necessary. At this point, I haven’t pumped since early January when I attended the AAS meeting in Austin. I will also say that, at 23 months, I am very grateful that I did all that pumping.

While at home, I nurse my daughter approximately 3 times every work day, once in the morning, once before bed, and once in the middle of the night. She now asks and politely says “all done”. And at 23 months, I will say that I treasure this wonderful connection with my daughter as much as ever. I just started a demanding new position at NASA and I frankly think that these cuddling/nursing sessions with my daughter are one part of what is helping me deal with all the pressures of motherhood and career right now.

I’m also glad to have made it through the peak of the snarky comments period. According to Baumgartner’s “Mothering Your Nursing Toddler” the peak period for rude comments (which prompted some of this blog) is from 12-24 months. The young woman who visited me certainly had some snarky comments to share.

So, this is just a reminder that those who pump milk and do astrophysics are not alone.