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Pumping is so hard. Is it worth it?

February 03 2020 – Kathryn Wepfer

Bess Dopkeen head shot - pumping working mom
Bess Dopkeen head shot - pumping working mom

She switched jobs coming back from maternity leave and spent six months pumping in the Pentagon while running a major study for Congress.  Though she describes it as a pretty dark time in her life, she pumped until the one-year mark and says it was all totally worth it.

Name: Bess

Children:  Son, age 2 1/4

Occupation:  Professional staff member of the House Armed Services Committee

What do you do for work?

Currently I am a professional staff member of the House Armed Services Committee, overseeing the Department of Defense's science and technology and countering weapons of mass destruction portfolios. When I left for maternity leave, I was the program manager of a 40-person team in the Pentagon that was working to improve all the weapons systems' cost data that analysts use to help Department leadership make decisions.  When I came back from leave, I accepted an offer to be detailed over to the Defense Innovation Board to run the Software Acquisition and Practices Study for the Department of Defense for the Under Secretary of Acquisition - it was time for a change in my career, and the opportunity was too good.  Someone once told me to never take a new job when you have a new baby, and yet that’s exactly what I did, though I didn’t think about it that way at the time.  I thought that because I had been in the Pentagon for 13 years working in related areas that it wouldn't really feel like taking a new job, but it was really hard.

Why is your work important to you?

Working in government has always been important to me. I came to DC right after college on a fellowship hoping to make the world a better place, and specifically make the government a better place. I ended up working in weapons acquisition, which was a funny place to have found myself, but I’ve always loved trying to make the government function better and make what we do more efficient and useful, and I just so happened to find myself doing that within the world of weapons. Now I'm lucky enough to work on advocating for important next-generation science and technology, and countering of weapons of mass destruction, which after 15 years in Defense feels like the softer side of National Security.

What was your overall experience returning to work and pumping?

I was able to piece together 5 1/2 months of leave, which is amazing, and I'm very lucky to have been able to do that. I came back wanting to breastfeed my child for as long as possible, so when I returned to the office at 5 1/2 months I pumped three times a day at work.  I would wake up early in the morning and it would take me about three hours from waking up to getting to work, having breast-fed once, or probably twice, in the morning before going to work.  Someone told me you get the best milk in the morning so I would do a pump session first thing after getting to work, and then try to remember and find time to eat, and then pump again a couple hours later, and then again a couple hours after that, and then I went home to see my baby and breastfed him as soon as I got home.

Tell us more about the logistics of pumping at work for you:

I would get to work, drop off my stuff, and run through the Pentagon hallways over to the closest shared breast-feeding room.  The Pentagon has about 6 of them and I was lucky that one was pretty close to me, but I'd heard horror stories of women having to walk to the other side of the Pentagon, which can be a good 10 or 12 minute walk. I have a second pump that one my friends gave me so I could leave it at work. I would go in and start up my slow government computer and set up all my pumping stuff so I could get some email in while pumping.  It took about five or six minutes to set it all up (after a five minute walk to get there) and then about 15 minutes to pump while I worked, and then maybe five or six minutes to rinse all the parts and put everything into the refrigerator, all while being careful not to spill any milk on me or my computer, and then run back to my office for meetings. The other women using the shared pumping room seemed to have the same approach – we were all just focused on getting it done as fast as possible.

I had a team and they would try to book me in meetings for two-hour increments between pumping sessions.  I did three pumping sessions at work and then ran home around 5:30pm (well really 6:00), and at that point my baby was almost ready to go to bed.  My husband took our son to and from daycare every day and got him fed and ready for bed, and I’d run in and nurse him before he went to sleep.  After bedtime, I’d eat dinner and work until between midnight and 2 AM, go nurse the baby one to sometimes three times again before finishing work, and then finally go to sleep.

Bess Dopkeen, working pumping mom, and her family

How long did you breastfeed and pump?

I pumped at work until the one-year mark.  At my son’s first birthday I started to taper down to two pumps a day, and then after a couple weeks I went down to 1 pump a day, and then I phased it out after a few weeks, so I only breastfed him at night and only pumped when I traveled.

How did you feel during this period?

There was so much stress and exhaustion.  I definitely understand now why Europe does a full year of maternity leave because it is crazy and there were so many times when I just felt like, “I cannot do this.” 

What was it like traveling for work and pumping?

My first time traveling for work when I was breastfeeding, I flew out to Lockheed Martin in Ft. Worth Texas with my baby on my lap to see the Joint Strike Fighter team, and I spent three days in a classified SCIF (secure compartmentalized information facility) with all men, while my son wandered around Ft Worth with my mom, who flew in to help me.  (It takes a village.) I actually had to tell Lockheed Martin all about my Spectra breast pump in advance so their security people could clear the device before I brought it into a classified facility. I was in all-day meetings with these executives and had to excuse myself three times a day to go pump.  I would just disappear and go down the hall, and I don’t know what all the other people thought I was doing.  Lockheed let me use a desk in a large room that had what looked like some fancy Defense hardware work tables for me to pump in, and an armed security guard had to stand outside the room while I was in there because it was a secure facility.  Then I’d run back into the meetings and join the fighter jet software discussions. Then I'd run back to the hotel to nurse my baby to sleep, and then head out to a work dinner. All my work trips were crazy and I barely made it through every single time.

What was the hardest part of returning to work and pumping?

Initially it broke my heart to not be with my baby all day long because I really loved being with him.  There was something really beautiful about being able to spend this time with my child.  It was like he was still a part of me.  He grew inside my body and I was so immersed in him and this breastfeeding thing and it was great. When I went back to work it felt like I kind of ripped my baby – a part of me – away and was giving him to someone else to take care of, which felt foreign and terrible and weird.

When I went back to work it felt like I kind of ripped my baby – a part of me – away and was giving him to someone else to take care of, which felt foreign and terrible and weird. 

And then I still had hormones like crazy. I was still breaking out all over and feeling hot and cold, and my body was not back to normal in any way, so I went back to work not feeling like myself.  I couldn't remember words as well, and I just didn't have the ability to be back in a meeting and take ownership of it like I did before.  I couldn’t summon my thoughts as well as before – like I know I have three things to say, but I can only remember two of them at the moment, and that’s still kind of a problem for me to this day.  It was hard facing all of that while fitting my day into two-hour blocks.

Was there a point when you started to feel more like yourself?

I think it was the one-year mark when I started to feel like a normal person again.  I no longer wanted to spend all of my time with my baby, and he also needed more stimulation than just me.  Because we introduced cow’s milk at the one-year mark, there was no longer the need for me to pump at work anymore, which was huge.  Once I stopped pumping at work I felt more capable every day.  My day was no longer artificially cut into these two-hour blocks and I felt like a more normal person again.

There is something really terrible about making women not be with their baby who they want to be with, and then sending them back to work to pump.  We need to be more like those Scandinavian countries with one-year maternity policies.  We need economic and workplace on and off ramps that would allow us to disappear for a year and then come back in a better place mentally and physically than where we are at 12 weeks - or whenever most women return to work.  I totally think that something clicks at a year and you’re like “I’m ready,” as opposed to “damn, I can’t believe I have to make this work, and I just want to quit my job.  I don’t care that I spent my whole life building a career that's important to me, I want to stop because this is just too terrible, and I’m okay with never going back to work again.”

I totally think that something clicks at a year and you’re like “I’m ready,” as opposed to “damn, I can’t believe I have to make this work and I just want to quit my job.  I don’t care that I spent my whole life building a career that's important to me, I want to stop because this is just too terrible, and I’m okay with never going back to work again.”

How did you get out of the house in the morning on workdays, prepared for pumping?

It’s hard enough to get myself out of the house without all of my pumping gear, but to have everything prepared for you and the baby every day… thank goodness my husband did 85% of the preparation because it was so hard. I remember thinking “this is this is why people drop out of the workforce. I'm ready to do it, I'm ready to drop out and I've worked my whole adult life, and have always been totally committed to my work. It brings me joy, and now I want to quit.”

I remember thinking “this is this is why people drop out of the workforce. I'm ready to do it, I'm ready to drop out and I've worked my whole adult life, and have always been totally committed to my work. It brings me joy and now I want to quit.”

I definitely had some nights in which I would cry and told my husband that I want to figure out if we could financially make it so I didn't have to work anymore, which I think scared the hell out of him.  It was a hard time.

How did you prepare for the transition back to work?

Well, figuring out daycare was a big part, and we were lucky to find a wonderful daycare, but still I remember dropping him off for the first time and feeling so devastated.  One of the other parents tried to comfort me by saying, yes, it’s the worst to drop them for the first time, but this daycare is so wonderful, so it makes it all okay.  I remember thinking “I don't feel that way at all.  There is nothing about this is that feels okay.”  At the time I couldn't appreciate how lucky we were and how wonderful that daycare was, because I was just still so devastated about the fact that I had to part with my baby and go back to work, and I was dreading it.  Absolutely dreading it.

Other than that, I had to figure out all the pumping stuff.  Because of good friends who had been through this before, I went to the Breastfeeding Center for Greater Washington to take a class about returning to work, and that was really helpful.  There are people who go back to work after eight weeks and 12 weeks, and I could barely get out of my house with the baby by myself at 12 weeks without it taking me forever.  I don’t know how people do it. It’s beyond me.

Bess Dopkeen, working pumping mom, and her family

Is daycare drop off easier now?

Emotionally, for sure.  It ended up being the most amazing place and my baby loved it there - and thankfully I’m now closer to the mental/emotional place where that woman was. It just took me probably a year to get there.  Daycare is a wonderful thing and it’s become such an asset to our family.

Any tips for women planning for their return to work and pumping?

I would’ve liked to have found a bra that was nice to wear and was also a pumping bra. Instead I had to always wear a normal nursing bra and put a pumping bra on top of that, which felt like it involved more undressing and redressing in the pumping room. I probably could’ve worn a few more items of clothing if I didn’t have to deal with the bra thing.  Also, a helpful tip that I got from the breastfeeding center was that you don’t need to store up a bunch of milk ahead of time when you’re planning your return to work.  I get the reason for wanting to create a stash of milk, and admittedly I only ever had a day or two of extra milk, but what was most useful to me was accepting that I didn’t need to build up a large storage of milk, and I could start pumping a week or two before I went back to work, just once a day.  That gave me an initial supply, and then I transitioned to pumping at work.  That took off a lot of pressure during my maternity leave instead of feeling like I had to save up for a larger stash.

What do you want men to understand about the process of returning to work and pumping?

Before I had a baby, I spent my whole career working at the Pentagon with almost all male colleagues, most of whom were ex-military and had wives who stayed home and raised the kids.  There was definitely a weird expectation among my office mates that maybe I wouldn’t come back.  And I was like “why would I not come back??” and then I had a baby and was like “OH, I get why people don’t come back. This is terrible.”  But of course I’m glad I went back, and I do enjoy working, and I probably would’ve come back just to show those guys.  Working in this environment I made it very clear on my calendar for my team when I had time blocked to pump or to go home to my family, and I made it very clear in every meeting where I was going when I went to pump, and why I couldn’t be available at certain times, and I was very loud about it. I specifically put PUMP in bright red on my calendar when I blocked time for everyone to see and work around.  I wanted to be very clear about what I was doing and how the world needed to fit into those plans.

I specifically put PUMP in bright red on my calendar when I blocked time for everyone to see.  I wanted to be very clear about what I was doing and how the world needed to fit into those plans.

It’s what I had to do to survive.  I also talked about it as much as I could to normalize it in my workplace for all the women (and men) who would go through this after me. Pumping in my organization still felt like a foreign concept in 2017. People were initially awkward, but they got over it.

What was your back to work pumping wardrobe?

I bought some nursing dresses at the Breastfeeding Center.  I pretty much created about five outfits for winter and five outfits for summer, mostly accessible dresses, and rotated among those outfits.  For two years of my life I wore only nursing-accessible clothing.  For the last six months it didn’t really matter because I only nursed him at night, but I still wore them just in case he needed access during some rare daytime emergency.  I only recently started to rotate my regular wardrobe back in.

Were there any normal wardrobe items that you particularly missed while you were nursing?

All of my clothes!  I just stopped all breastfeeding last month and I’m definitely not back to my regular body shape and weight, and so I’ve decided if I don’t fit into things anymore, I’m getting rid of them.  I’m just not into it anymore. I do not need to keep things that are too small for me and make me feel bad.

Any time-saving tips for pumping?

You don’t need to wash the pumping parts every time you pump.  All you need to do is rinse them and put them in a clean bag in the refrigerator and use them for the next pump.  At the end of the day, take them home and clean them for the next day.  You have to take the stuff back and forth each day, but it saves you cleaning time during the work day.

How does your work make you a better mom?

No matter what, at this point in my life - and I wouldn’t have said this from six months to a year when I felt like could easily take off of work for a year - being a parent takes a lot of energy, and I find that as a working mom I come home at the end of the work day really wanting to be with my son and able to bring more of  my energy and attention to him.  I’m more patient with him and enjoy it more than I think I would if I didn’t have work in my life.  Of course I’d like to have more than a couple of hours with him each day, but I do think I’m more patient and loving having that balance between those two parts of my life.

You characterized your pumping experience as being a pretty dark time for you, particularly given the added stress of starting a new job.  Now that you’re on the other side of it, do you feel it was worth it to pump until a year?

Oh yeah, I would do it again.  The thing is that I wanted to nurse my baby.  I nursed my baby for two years and two months, and I still feel like it wasn’t long enough.  Pumping is miserable, and it’s the worst thing in the world, but it’s the best thing in the world to be able to nurse my baby. So pumping is what I did in order to continue nursing my baby.  I hope today he has a great immune system from nursing, and I hope he’s stronger (and maybe even more emotionally secure) because of it.  I know that he has an amazing connection to me because of it.  He still wants to go to sleep with me and he falls asleep right next to me where he did when he was nursing, and I love that.  That’s why it was worth it.


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