When my son was 5 months old, I left him. I packed my bags and ran away to Nepal.
Ok, it wasn’t THAT dramatic, but in the car on the way to the airport, for my first post-baby business trip, it felt pretty damned dramatic. Like, soul-being-ripped-from-body dramatic. I spent the ride begging my best friend, who was driving me, to turn around and take me back to my boy. (Being the good kind of best friend, she did not comply.)
Making matters worse? Breastfeeding, of course. 5 months in, my son was taking an enormous (way above average) amount of milk every day across six feedings. So I had a two-part problem if I wanted to continue exclusively breastfeeding him:
1. Build up a freezer stash of 300 ounces of milk before I left. (7 days x 40+ ounces)
2. Keep up my supply for the duration of my trip.
I accomplished #1 by pumping every morning immediately after I fed my son, starting at about 4 weeks after he was born. I was obsessive about this milk. I’d wake up at night and creep to the kitchen to stand in the cold light of the freezer and count my milk. I was nuts. (In hindsight: the boy could’ve had a wee bit of formula.)
The second problem was huge and unknown to me. In the span of seven days, I was going to literally circumnavigate the globe, spending time on nine airplanes and in airports including Bangkok, Lumbini (small city in Nepal), and Doha, Qatar. I was going to spend four days on the ground in Nepal, visiting rural eye clinics and eye camps. This would entail near constant travel by car, packed in with a mixed-gender group of co-workers and a camera crew. I would have very little access to electricity or clean water, and certainly no way to safely store my milk or bring it back home. (I also couldn’t donate it; local clinics did not have the resources to test my milk for HIV, which can be transferred to the baby.)
Any breastfeeding mother will tell you that spilling an ounce of her “liquid gold” is horrible. Most of us sob. But the good thing about pumping and dumping 300 ounces of milk? It gets way, way easier after the first 20 ounces or so. I distinctly remember dumping milk out of the window of a moving Land Rover en route to the birthplace of the Buddha, and laughing about it. At some point, you just start seeing it as a renewable resource.
The pumping itself was far harder than the dumping. I had to pump six times a day, using a battery pack, no matter the location or level of comfort or privacy.
I won’t go into the logistics of air travel and pumping breast milk – for that glorious topic, see my post on the Mile-High Milk Club. What I will say is that by making a ring around the world, Magellen-style, I ensured I would never again fret about pumping in my seat on my typical 3-hour commuter flight from Austin to LA.
Pumping on the ground proved to be the most interesting challenge. I was on the move constantly. My first pumping in Nepal was in the domestic terminal of the Kathmandu airport. My boss deemed the pit toilet too disgusting to consider, threw my travel shawl over me in the middle of the crowded terminal, and said, “Jessica, we’re doing this. Right. Here.” Subsequent pumps took place in the moving car (I announced that it was a women’s only car, sat behind the driver, and used that trusty shawl – see photo above); in the car parked in a field, with two boys sitting on their bikes a few feet away, peering in the window (shawl again); and in the no-doors-no-stalls bathroom of the Lumbini airport. The latter happened because our departure to Kathmandu was delayed by the imminent arrival by air of the Queen Mother of Bhutan – typical day at the office. I had to pump standing up, facing a corner (no stalls), with Nepali women sneaking curious glances at me. Breastfeeding in public is normal and ubiquitous in rural Nepal. Attaching one’s breasts to a machine in plain sight? Not so much. My boss’ noise-canceling headphones and my iPod turned up all the way were the only way to get through that particular insanity.
I learned a lot on this journey. I learned about the magic of sustainable, community-based eye care. I learned how to clean (sort of) my pump parts using bottled water and a wet wipe. I learned how to hook myself up to my pump sight unseen, under my shawl. I learned that calling a few key fellow travelers ahead of time, and explaining how scared you are and how much help you’re going to need, is the only way to do something this crazy. I reminded myself that I’m resourceful and able to surmount obstacles, and also slightly mad. I learned that skyping with your baby from across the world leads to inevitable ugly-sobbing, made worse by the fact that the rural hotel only has internet in the lobby, so your co-workers are right there with you.
3 1/2 years later, my former boss and now dear friend is at home with her new baby, learning the ropes. This morning, she texted me the photo above, with the note, “This photo has a whole new meaning to me now. You are my hero.” I love that it’s come full circle. If need be, I’ve got a shawl at the ready.