A day in the life of pumping in Japan

I have to pump first thing in the morning. My body is confused and engorged. My gear is set-up right next to the alarm clock so that I can roll over and grab it. Afterward, I set a timer for 3.5 hours, the next time I’ll pump again. I roughly assume that this next pumping session will take place after my first meeting. Turns out to be a steep underestimation of how long it is about to take to exercise, eat breakfast, get to work, check-in, and have that meeting. Commute time is often between one and two hours, which is entirely reasonable for a Japanese person.

Image of iPhone timer set for breastmilk pumping

Before I left the hotel each day, I would pick up fresh ice on the way to the elevator. The ice machine is a feature that I never imagined wanting to be near, but this was super convenient. Forget the city view or the river view. I found myself inquiring, “Can you give me the room closest to the ice machine?” Fresh ice gave me the cooling capacity I needed for an entire workday. Toting a vessel full of hotel machine ice meant no need to inquire about refrigeration at work. It would save me from a negotiation that I could not even imagine navigating across English and Japanese. How on earth would I explain why I was seeking regular access to the mysterious basement refrigerator without embarrassing us both with detail. I decided to carry an autonomous cooling system and not have to ask for or rely on refrigerators in Japan. Upon finding final last-minute clarity on the plan, I whipped out of my hotel room, chronically running late. I spun through the nearby ice machine room, filled my vessel, dropped it into my minimalist pumping bag (of redundant sets of parts, a pump, and a cover) and dashed towards the nearest train station.

Using ice to chill breastmilk during the day.

Commuting in Tokyo sounds so efficient by description. Multiple competing train operators offer similar trips giving riders a plethora of options and time tables, which all run precisely on time. My co-workers carry decision trees in their minds that they run through every time they enter a station. Hearing them talk about it is like getting a verbal explanation of a systems engineering diagram. Google has done a tremendous job at grokking this complexity. Traveling around Tokyo as a foreigner in 2006 is simply nothing like today. Google Maps enables me to catch trains that I would have never previously found. With my phone, I can re-map my plans in real-time, relate to cardinal directions when I am completely lost, and in the end, get to places on my own. But, it is never a breeze, even today, even in one of the most efficient and complete transit systems in the world. I always get lost.

The amount of time dedicated to the commute on top of the extraordinary expectation of extended office hours leaves little time for sleep. I sometimes wonder if a large portion of Japanese society is suffering from chronic sleep deprivation. Nowhere is this more noticeable than on the morning train ride where every other passenger is either dozing off or already fast asleep. I was running late after my snippet of exercise, buffet breakfast, and total confusion in the train station. My maps estimated time of arrival was way too close to the start of my meeting time. My pump-again timer had somehow dwindled to only having forty minutes left. I’d have to pump before I arrived. I looked around, and everybody was asleep anyway.

Towards the end of my commute, I started to take out my pumping gear, I tossed on a nursing cover, but then I stopped. Even though I’d pumped on the Narita Express, something about the subway felt less welcome. The silence was so pervasive that the zipper on my backpack had a ring to it. So many different angles presented themselves as possible view points to what might be a naked breast. Had I thought of it sooner I would have bought a romance car ticket. There I’d have far fewer angles to contend with. Instead, I waited until the last leg of the journey, a cab ride. It was only a fifteen-minute opportunity, but I figured that I could pump a bit off and then pump again after the meeting. This way, I would mortify only one unassuming Japanese person, the cab driver.

This story humiliated my teammates, who quickly became fascinated by my continuously running clock, the logistics of toting around two chunky canisters and needing to disappear to obscure places. After pumping in the broom closet for most of the trip (the cleanest one I have ever seen), I decided to take a walk and pump breastmilk on a bench outside. Angles abound now that buildings were above me; I just hoped that my stealth skills at setting up the pump parts while dressed were serving me. It felt great to be in the sunshine and the anonymity of the public. Hearing this later, my teammates only compounded the storyline of brazen acts. Some names emerged for this milk “crusade.” The not-so-beloved nickname came from a very well-meaning place, though it did inadvertently articulate how disruptive this whole ordeal was to them.

At the end of each day, I rolled back into my hotel with five bags of milk. Too beat to deal with asking the front desk to freeze them, I went to the ice machine and filled freezer bags with ice. I could make an ice bath in my cooler and leave the milk to chill overnight safely. In route back to my room, I stopped again at the ice machine which only ever dispensed one perfect little cup worth of ice for each button press. As I pressed the button over and over, I longed for the ice machines in America with giant quart-sized scoops and mounds of ice ready for the taking. One final pump before bed to drain what I had left, and let the sleep hormones kick-in.


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