I stood in the airport bathroom stall as tears streamed down my face. Here I was, a 30-something-year-old medical student coming undone by a couple ounces of milk pooled at my feet. This is definitely not something they teach us about in lecture. I wondered what the title would be. “How to Pump on the Go,” maybe?
I managed to pull myself together enough to pump what was left, pack the handy bags into my giant backpack cooler and race off to my connecting flight. I had a residency interview that evening and was counting on everything to run smoothly the rest of the afternoon; thankfully, it did.
Becoming a mom is hard. That’s the cold, hard truth. But becoming a mom during medical school is a whole different ball game. Several of the men in my class had become fathers long before I was even contemplating a kid, but I was one of two women who made a conscious and slightly insane decision to do so during our third year of medical school. What I came to realize was just how little we actually learn about breastfeeding, not to mention what resources are actually at our disposal for support. It’s not exactly the most glamorous of topics, but it will undoubtedly affect every one of us in some way, shape or form over the course of our lives.
Here I was, a fourth year, on the road for five months doing audition rotations with a baby and whatever family member could spare time off work to help out. My husband had to work, and he would fly in whenever possible, but, in reality, I was sort of left to figure things out on my own. To be honest, this was often alright because I tend to be a mild control freak like so many other medical students. The hardest part to manage truly was this “milk thing.”
Knowing when to pump, when to freeze, how to pump, how to freeze — all seemingly simple things — just stumped me. I would find myself constantly running over my schedule in my mind trying to shave off extra time when feasible. I even resorted to hooking up my electric pump to my car adapter and pumping away at 4:30 a.m. on the drive to the hospital. This would at least get me to 10 or 11 o’clock before needing to break away from the rounding team in search of the nearest outlet.
I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a bit frustrating to have to leave the other students and residents, especially while on an audition rotations; however, frustration shortly morphed into guilt, and everyday was somewhere on that spectrum. Mommy guilt; it’s a real thing. I worked so hard to become a doctor, but now I was also a mom. I wanted to give my baby the most nutritious food possible, but it comes at a cost: time.
So I would quietly inform my male chief or attending that I needed to pump, and, quite often, my words were met with an I understand sort of look because, after all, they have kids too. In reality, they had children, but they did not have to steal away from rounds to squeeze precious liquid gold from their bodies. They didn’t miss out on the med student presentations or being first assist because they couldn’t find an outlet to use. I do not envy them, and parenting is just difficult no matter who you are, but there is a different reality for female medical students with a new baby than their male counterparts.
I learned from each and every person willing to offer up some advice, and, often, this was the experienced labor and delivery nurses or even the sacred lactation specialist (if I could find one and corner them for a minute). About two weeks into auditions I ditched the electric pump and “downgraded” to the hand pump. It sounds not so sexy, and it’s not; however, it made all the difference.
If one actually timed me (and, trust me, I did) between grabbing the breast pump, looking for an outlet, pumping, cleaning up and getting back to my rotation I would spend anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes every five to six hours over the course of the day. Quite often a good 15 minutes of that was just walking to and from the lactation room and setting up the pump! So, here is what I learned: The hand pump, while requiring me to do one side at a time, needs no outlet, no set up time, no bra changes, and no bulky bag. What originally took me 30 to 60 minutes now only required 15 to 20 minutes, thus freeing up an extra 40 to 45 minutes to spend back on the wards. Amazing.
To sum things up, being a mother in medicine is hard. It’s okay to cry over spilled milk as it is subjectively liquid gold. With a few tricks and a little practice, simple changes can make a vast difference. I highly recommend investing in a hand pump, a backpack cooler for TSA transport, and looking for advice on how to streamline the process if found in a similar situation. It is possible to keep pumping and supplying your baby while simultaneously rocking a rotation. It may not be glamorous, but it can be done.