Breastfeeding did not come easy for me; not in the least a natural maternal phenomenon in some ways.
After hearing first-hand accounts from well-meaning mum friends, I developed a mantra to hold on to: “If there’s milk, I’ll nurse baby. If there isn’t enough, just let it be and not be stressed over it.” After all, breastfeeding is a subset of motherhood, and partial breastfeeding or choosing not to breastfeed does not make one any less a mother.
The beginning of things
Before my maternity leave came to an end, I started to worry about the transition back to work, concerned that my little baby would be away from her food supply. I knew she’d be in good hands, but my key concern was her feeding. Pumping wasn’t really working for me, I wouldn’t be able to produce as much as I wanted, so I stuck to direct latching since baby and I were together most of the time during my maternity leave. That was a relief, too, not having to wash pumps, sterilise, and dry them.
Returning to work with no stash seemed like a silly option, but producing a paltry amount of milk after spending long periods pumping and milking (pun intended) was intensely draining. My little girl was on mixed feeding, which made things a little better for me when things got too frustrating (first-time mum woes, anyone?). I’m pretty sure there are some hardcore breastfeeding advocates out there who’d probably wag their fingers at my efforts. Well, to each her own, yeah?
Returning to work
Going to work made me look like I was ever-ready with my battalion pack. With a handbag in one arm, my breastfeeding gears loaded in this, and occasionally more bags hanging due to the nature of my work. Building biceps in progress!
At my previous job, I was actually the first and only breastfeeding mum that pumped in the office. My bosses and colleagues were very understanding – and although my bosses were male, they were parents, too, and understood my decision. Some of my colleagues were really sweet and would remind me of my pump times. They would sometimes tease me about my “cow duties,” but it was all harmless fun and helped made these sessions less stressful.
It was also sweet that our HR manager was a breastfeeding mum herself when her daughter was a newborn, and she completely empathised and understood the agony of delayed pumps, and how challenging it was to interrupt work with pumping sessions to make sure baby had enough milk supply.
She was the one who helped obtain permission from management to allow yours truly to use one of the storerooms twice a day for pump sessions, and my colleagues who had to frequent the storeroom were very nice and just said it was “love milk” that I had to get out, compassionately indulging me even if I had to interrupt their work at times. For that, I’m both grateful and embarrassed for causing any inconvenience.
My newfound routine: a new octopus
A week before returning to work, I started to panic: How do I “train” my breasts when I returned to work? How do I make sure that they do not leak? What should I wear to facilitate the pump sessions? How should I go about with the pump sessions during the work day so they are efficient and do not interfere with work? What do I need to prepare?
The best way to strike a balance between work and breastmilk expression was pumping twice a day: before lunch, then again before I headed home. Any meetings or events I had to attend had to be planned around them.
If I had to be out for events, I’d definitely be looking out for nursing rooms in the malls to pump promptly. When my colleagues and I planned for outdoor lunches, sure enough I’d be pumping earlier so we could all leave the office on time. To save time, I would eat at the canteen below my office on most days.
But there were also times I’d be having lunch from a takeaway box in one hand, holding tightly to my pumps in the other, and replying to SMS text messages or taking phone calls in between while in the storeroom! This was multitasking gone steroidal!
It also taught me to maximise my work hours and to do more within a shorter period, while ensuring that quality wasn’t compromised and aiming to not to work late every night. It was Strategic Planning 101.
Milk runneth over – let’s go with the flow, or lack thereof
With a routine in place, things sounded smooth… right? Not quite!
My “bosom buddies” often acted up, like they were getting back at me for all those times I was “force milking” them.
Truth be told: the ENTIRE box of sewing needles at home was used up, not for sewing, but to prick myself whenever milk blebs/blisters appeared. There were even times I had to sneak a cup of hot water into my pump bag during the pumping sessions at work, just so I could sterilise a needle before I started pricking myself.
Needless to say, blocked ducts often came with these milk blebs/blisters, which made it harder to express milk. Couple that with the anxiety of not wanting to be seen “not working” during work hours, and you’ve got yourself a wall of stress to stop milk flow on its tracks. On terrible days, not even hand massages, drinking hot water, and increased pressure while pumping were enough to express milk from both breasts. Which meant I’d be engorged…which was painful…and the last thing I needed.
My supportive colleague came up with a brilliant idea of getting our graphics designer colleague to do up a useful signage. Lock the door and put this up, while the human cow’s busy!
On high strung days where deadlines or the workload escalated, or when the day just got so tied up and pump times ended up delayed, the amount I’d be able to express would be affected as well. I’d be upset with myself that the volumes were not up to expectations.
After work, I’d rush off to head to my parent’s home for dinner, before squeezing in a quick bath, chats with my family and then taking our little girl home with us for the night. Nursing to sleep became a norm – with frequently wakings during the night, more often than not, I was a walking zombie the next day.
The bittersweet moments
During this journey, there were countless times I wanted to end it, but the heart is weak. My mum was also concerned for my health because of the lack of sleep, fatigue, and the anxiety from being a first-time mum caring for a new child top-loading having to juggle work. Challenges of a breastfeeding working mum is definitely real.
These little fingers holding tightly onto mine while we nursed… precious moments like these make this journey sweeter.
When my little girl’s first tooth emerged, my mum was worried and asked if breastfeeding was going to hurt, gently reminding me that more teeth were to come, and maybe with them more pain. My mum knew my significant intolerance for pain all too well, so these occasional probes into when I was going to stop breastfeeding were only out of concern for me. I guess that’s how every mother is, always looking out for her child, as we are forever their little ones no matter what age.
There were days where those milk blebs/blisters, blocked ducts, mastitis episodes would get to me, and I couldn’t leave the house until milk would emerge. The pain and agony were overwhelming at times, especially during the first six months, where rock hard boobs came knocking during the first week due to medication. It was dramatic, no less. Looking back, I wonder how I actually “survived” the past 21 months of this journey.
Lessons in life
I guess in life, things happen for a reason. I—more so everyone around me, even my husband—certainly didn’t expect to still be nursing at this stage. He says he is in awe of me. In fact, he played a crucial support role during this roller-coaster ride—there were late night pumps during confinement that led me to almost kick a sleeping husband out of bed!—and for this, I have to thank him.
Of course, much credit goes to my child—I thank her for being such a milk connoisseur who could switch easily from nipple to bottle at ease and made transition so easy. And for finding security in mummy throughout all those comfort latching sessions that took on average an hour per feed since birth (it takes much less time now!). Fortunately, teething was hardly an issue as she knew to be gentle with mummy—on the rare occasion she did bite down, it was mostly her trying her luck and giggling when I told her “it’s painful!”, or when she suckled until she slept and I got stuck trying to gingerly stick my finger in her mouth at the right angle to unlatch safely.
With her being kind to me, I felt like I was in fact the weakest link in this connection. But I gave my best be it through time, effort, and money (hello, milk storage bags!). Despite the anxiety, our bond grew.
When a baby’s gotta feed, she’s gonna have it. Taking multi-tasking up a whole new level while grocery shopping in London.
I have a feeling we’re about to reach the tail end of this relationship and it is going to be with a heavy heart to wean her from what used to be my troublesome bosom. Honestly, when we started, “quitting” crossed my mind multiple times and I always knew it would be….tough. It was akin to ending a love-hate relationship, and at times thinking it would be good for both of us seemed to justify that thought. But on the other hand, I didn’t have the courage to let go.
My supply is dwindling with the dropped pumps and reduced nursing sessions. But looking back on the many months I had to endure blebs, blisters, blocked ducts, mastitis, trips to the lactation consultants, visiting the massage ladies, blood (!!!), and whatnot, I realised that the whole experience taught me to turn the impossible around. What used to be such a fearsome, arduous feat now feels second nature – the tofu in me has somewhat hardened up!
If you are struggling with breastfeeding, take heart that things do get easier. At least for me, it took about a year? But before that, please do not compare yourself with others and never beat yourself up over difficulties you may have or for wanting to stop. After all, one of the most common reasons of post-natal depression is linked to breastfeeding. We need to take care of ourselves, too—mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually—to be strong enough and well enough to care for our little ones.
If you’re planning to speak to your employer about pumping at your workplace, NTUC U Family champions the Project Liquid Gold initiative in support of breastfeeding working mums. If you’re an employer, find out how you can play an important role in your employees’ lactation journey.
Are you a breastfeeding working mum too? Do share your woes and challenges and we can overcome them together!