Tomorrow I go back to work. My second daughter is nearly three months old, and she’s breastfeeding exclusively. I plan to breastfeed and pump for a year. I was able to do so with my first daughter, so why should this be any different? I have already thoroughly calloused my sense of privacy. I have pumped shoulder to shoulder with my boss in the back seat of a taxi while being sped to the airport. Our meetings had run long, pushing both our airport timeline and my lactation schedule to the absolute max. I know precisely how to muffle a pump on a conference call. Something that I tried over and over to the chagrin of my co-workers before finally finding a solution. I have pumped in more places than I ever imagined and at this point I feel like I can find a way to pump almost anywhere. I always managed to pump every three hours even if it was inconvenient, reveling, or painful. Nonetheless, I now have some serious doubts. Equipment is strewn all over our house, ice packs crammed into every crevasse of our freezer, a ream of paper has been used to sketch out packing lists and process plans.
My boss texted me two months into maternity leave asking if I could go to Japan the week I got back. She apologized for the fact that this would be early upon return, but the request to travel internationally was not at all out of the norm. Only when replying “need to do some math” did I realize this would be a first. I had never taken an international trip while pumping. The year of pumping for my older daughter had been a fluke, just a mix of project work and timing that I had never noticed but should have been deeply grateful for.
The math was humbling. The frozen archive of breastmilk that I had been so diligently labeling would cover about three days of sustenance at my daughter’s current consumption rate. If I added a pumping session to each day, I could contribute another two days of breastmilk by the time I had to be back at work. I was still one day short. But I could negotiate for a slightly shorter trip. Powering down enough oatmeal to breastfeed day and night and make enough surplus milk to save would be demanding but possible. Long after I texted “OK” and started my new overclocking regimen, I realized that I had only considered half of the question.
How would I get the milk back home? I googled this for days. Each time I tried I returned with the assumption that I had previously chosen lackluster keywords. Most of the stories that I read were about pumping and dumping or embracing formula. No judgement about either of those approaches but I wanted to keep the milk and replenish the frozen archive. The story that felt most similar to my upcoming trip was this post by Sally Madsen sharing her experience traveling in Asia and subsequently losing weeks of pumped milk.
This story brought to mind many of my own experiences in Asia feeling lost in translation. Unable to buy train tickets, unable to find my hotel, getting on a wrong train three times in a row and arriving hours late for a meeting that I scheduled. How on earth could I begin to explain breast milk and all of its complexities through drawing, hand waving, and short English phrases? Please don’t freeze it, it already has been frozen. Please don’t shake it, the structure of it will be damaged. Please don’t open it, the bag is sterile.
Even just trying to get access to the refrigerator sounds seemingly impossible. I can barely get into the building of the company of which I am an employee, never mind into the bowels of a hotel basement with a cooler full of breast milk. Of course the two countries that I fly to most are France and Japan, and unfortunately for me, both countries have generous maternity leave and thus very little understanding of why a woman would be in another country without such a young baby in the first place.
Even if I can navigate the day-to-day realities of pumping and saving milk, refrigerated or frozen, then comes the problem of getting it back home. Sally’s story of trying to work through the import and export rules around carrying perishables (breastmilk) and hazardous materials (dry ice), at the same time, sounds like nothing short of a time-consuming feat that no doubt would end in tears. Not to mention the need for a foam cooler and the acquisition of dry ice overseas which surely was no quick task. She recommended checking the milk in luggage, but this is also not a sure bet. Vanessa Kasten Urango wrote this frustrated letter when she lost all of her milk for not following the invisible yet specific rules around how to pack a cooler full of milk and dry ice which ended up being different from what a Delta phone representative told her. Searching “breastmilk” on Delta’s website still brings up nothing.
The little milk that Sally did successfully get back she stuffed into thermoses, froze solid, and let slowly thaw throughout the flight home. That small glimmer of success is inspiring a sense of possibility that I can do this. I know real research needs more than a sample size of one, but I’m working with what I’ve got. If I can contribute a couple more case studies to this body of work, then I am happy. I refuse to accept the conclusion that in this day in age a lactating mother cannot take an international business trip and bring back her milk.