plus la change, nursing mother edition

…plus la change, plus c’est la meme chose…
the more things change, the more it’s the same old thing

It’s been a very long time since I was a nursing mother attending a convention. Or a corporate training session. And still this image, and her narrative, brought back some strong memories.

The corporate training session:

I had gone to Houston for some Microsoft multi-day training. I stayed at my parents’ — they lived in Clear Lake then — and commuted to Memorial area each day. I no longer recall whether I brought the nursing babe along… it would have been complicated for either choice, most certainly… though whatever I did my mother was my wing-person. She had breastfed both my sister and me, and back when she nursed me she was on the bleeding edge of the revival — she knew the support it took, and gave it freely.

That just left the daytime. Me and forty other business-folk in some hotel conference room, pointing and clicking to the rhythms of the trainer, stepping through some component or other of Microsoft’s business-software empire. But I knew I’d need to be prepared from the outset, so I approached the front desk staff.

“Could I use one of your rooms during the day? An unrefreshed room would be fine — I need an electrical outlet, a sink, and a door that locks.” Stern looks and refusal began “…Because I’m a nursing mother, and I need a place where I can pump breast milk.” Stunned responses. Hemming, hawing, and a guest room key. I think there was a little bit of commentary about my needing to vacate it before, I forget, 3pm? which fit into my normal schedule without a hitch. It still amazes me how the phrase “pump breast milk” drains blood from staff faces.

(For those of you unfamiliar, an electric breast pump is for many women, myself included, an effective device that expresses milk a little more rapidly than a human baby does — plus it can handle both sides at once, which a single baby cannot. An electrical outlet, a chair, a table are important for working the machine; a sink is needed for the important equipment cleanup post-expression — this is food handling, don’t forget; a lock is important for secured privacy. It’s an awkward position, too viscerally intimate for bystanders. Nursing babies are much better for public expression. And for those of you with experience, yes, a refrigerator is also essential — see “food handling” — but for those days I was using a cooler that my wing-Mom fixed up for me.)

The conference:

I no longer remember whether these were separate conferences or the same one… there’s something about having two children within 15 months that blurs the memory even more than caring for any one infant already does. And it’s been more than 25 years-!

One moment: walking up to the conference information desk and asking — “Where can I find a room with an electrical outlet and a door?” The information person looked sour and disapproving, no such thing available, and gestured around the lobby, where each electrical outlet had a power cable, a laptop, and a human attached to it. Enlightenment struck me and I laughed. “Oh! I’m not looking for a place to plug in my laptop. I need a place to pump breast milk!” Naturally every Tom Dick and Harry (gender intended) at that computer-support-person conference wished for both an electrical outlet and a door, how swank! Why else would one want an electrical outlet and a door?

Another moment: I struck up a conversation with another woman as we perused the notices board, still paper and corkboard back then. She had the same model of breast pump that I owned… at the time, I was pregnant with my youngest, B, and was between nursing gigs, but I spotted it regardless. A sort of badge, you might say. I asked her what arrangements she had made for pumping. She hadn’t investigated yet, but I offered my room regardless. “I’m not sharing my room, so I can get you my second key. You can come and go as you like. Feel free to use the minifridge, if that helps.” She was stunned.

But I knew what a thorn in the side it was (evidently still is-!) to lay one’s biological cards on the table over and over. To watch faces turn squeamish for… what? something somehow still close to sex and not food prep? To be told, as many of my compatriots were and are, that a bathroom is just fine for food prep — or a closet, janitorial or otherwise — or a car?

I think I still have her thank-you note somewhere in the box that holds B’s ‘baby book’. I know I packed away the beautiful baby-sling she gave me in gratitude, one that I wore B with after she was born. It’s B’s should she decide to have and wear an infant.


Why does this continue to be so difficult, to be treated as countercultural over fifty years on? Yes, count that up on the fingers. It gets harder to push away the second-class citizen thoughts once you scrub away the “oh this is so new and change takes time.” Working parents who also breastfeed babies are not a novelty of the last ten years, or even twenty years. What. The. Hell.

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