There’s one word to sum up my month at work after maternity leave – intense.
I gave birth to my little girl, Isadora, in May and then chose to return in October to cover what was expected to be an interesting time on my patch.
Presidential elections in Bolivia and Argentina, protests across the region and the story of Amazon destruction as well as controversies over Jair Bolsonaro’s leadership in Brazil.
I was excited about my return and my partner was preparing to start daddy duty with five months of shared parenting leave.
There was one hitch. I might be back at work but Isadora’s main food supply was still me – and that made my job a little bit more intense to say the least.
When I had my first baby three years ago, I fed him for as long as I could. Eight months in all. But then I got sent to Venezuela for two weeks. When I came back, he looked at me – and my boobs – quizzically as if to say, thanks but no thanks, I’ll stick to a bottle from now on.
I was a bit sad but I figured hey, he’s happy and the bonus was I was no longer pulled in two directions. And I found pumping awkward. There aren’t many young mums doing my job and I guess I didn’t want to make life difficult for me or my team as I tried to get back to work. Fed is best (rather than breast is best) after all, so I stopped pumping and we switched to formula.
This time though, I am determined to keep going as long as possible. I adore breastfeeding and after I get back from a long period away, there’s nothing better than reconnecting over a feed and feeling that closeness.
So I planned ahead. I started stashing away milk within a month of giving birth which meant I started back from maternity leave with 16 days’ supply in case I had to travel.
And sure enough, two days in, I flew to Bolivia to cover the elections. While my baby drinks what’s stored in the freezer, I have to pump to replenish the supplies. And it’s a lot! Every three hours to keep up my supply. I don’t have an office job where I can plug a pump in and sit at a desk.
So I realised that if I didn’t do it in public, I wasn’t going to keep it up for long. Plus, I refuse to spend half an hour every three hours sitting in a dirty public toilet. This is my baby’s food I am producing after all.
So I’ve made some great discoveries of late – first, that my Argentine poncho doubles as a nifty pumping cover. Second, that a plane engine provides excellent white noise which enables me to pump away quite happily without anyone hearing the pump’s mechanical purr.
And I’ve also discovered that I need to declare breast milk to customs because it’s technically considered an animal product – Chilean authorities got quite cross when I nearly smuggled my liquid gold through without telling them.
Things didn’t get off to a great start though when I landed in La Paz to cover the elections. Within a few hours of arriving, I was bed-ridden with the most awful altitude sickness. I think the low-point was when I was slumped next to the toilet being sick, while attached to my breast pump, all in the name of keeping up my supply for my baby!
So what to do with all the milk I’m producing? Pumping 30oz a day, storage becomes a problem. So it usually starts with a minibar (move over fizzy drinks and chocolate to get you through those late edits, this fridge is full of milk now) and then I befriend the reception and chefs to store the overflow and freeze the ice packs in the hotel kitchen. Some look a bit queasy, but so far I have found everyone on my travels to be helpful.
My team, too, no longer bats an eyelid when I don my poncho and pump in the car or at a restaurant – or even, as I did the other day, in a toilet at the presidential palace as I was preparing to interview Chile’s leader Sebastián Piñera.
There is often no choice when you’re filing pieces with little time to spare. But I also feel strongly about normalising something that’s natural. If you can feed your baby in public, you should be able to pump too if you’re away from your baby.
From covering protests to interviewing presidents, it’s not always easy to stick to my timetable of pumping every three hours. But I have regular alarms on my phone telling me “pump” – they act as guilt-trips. Miss too many and my supply could go down. Quite apart from the fact your body cries out for relief if you aren’t doing it regularly. But there’ve been a few times when that alarm has gone off as I was about to do an interview. My team now shout “PUMP! every time they hear it.
The combination of late edits and setting alarms to get up in the middle of the night to pump can be brutal. And as the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child – my colleagues, hotel staff and airport officials have all been great.
As has my partner, who at one point brought the whole family to the airport as I switched planes – landing from one trip and within two hours flying off to another.
All for the sake of one feed with my baby, and to offload 28 bags of milk to get them to a freezer back home, leaving me to jump on the plane to my next deployment, pump in hand.