I won’t lie — I’m not a mother, a working mom, or an entrepreneur. I’m actually the opposite in a lot of ways — an undergrad who still feels like a kid most days, teetering on the edge of a pandemic-laden graduation with a degree in one hand and uncertainty in the other. So, of course, scared undergrad plus uncertainty equals internships. In my most recent opportunity, I’ve spent my time listening to a working mom and entrepreneur named Moni. Sitting over Google Meet learning about breast pumping blew away my naive twenty-one year old mind and made my mind race a million miles an hour. Moni’s a natural-born storyteller. Every story she tells, even if it’s about a moment in the park with her son, is textured, specific, and oh-so real. She narrates through absorbing energy from others and using it to propel her next thought, a kind of verbal hopscotch of sorts. If there’s anything I’ve absorbed about women, however—especially working moms—it’s that they’re too close to their own actions to feel any awe for themselves. So here I am, the twenty-one year old intern you never asked for, here to tell her story the way you need to hear it.
I sit at my desk as the entire office slouches into an unmoving Monday afternoon. My phone buzzes beside me: “MR open” lights up the screen from the pumping moms group chat. Amidst the quiet of the office, the Shot Clock goes off in my head, launching me into action. It must look like I go bowling at regular intervals throughout the day with my bag hauled over my shoulder like this. My head rings with every echo of the buzzer as I head down the skinny hallway. This is my second trip today past my usual audience—the sprawl of cubicles, the C-level execs, the boardroom beside my destination—all encased in glass. The wooden office door sticks out like a sore thumb compared to every other office, including my own. The laminated label says “Contact HR” or “Room Unavailable” or something like that, but to be honest I never spend my time reading it. The sign’s not for me, it’s for anyone who has a question. I imagine a label stuck haphazardly to the door titling it “Mother’s Room.” Would that lead to more questions or less? I don’t have the brainspace to find an answer. A makeshift sign for a makeshift space.
I shut the door and lock it. The click of the lock is so loud that I’m sure it echoes down the hallway each time. Along with that is the sound of three hangers holding men’s suits knocking against the door. A mother’s room slash changing room — right. Another reminder of just how makeshift the space I occupy three times a day five days a week is. I almost huff an amused laugh at the absurdity of it all, but the Shot Clock wails in the back of my mind to remind me of my jammed schedule, so I make my way over to the most tired-looking desk chair. Yellow foam protrudes out of a cushion that’s definitely seen better days. It’s hard to look at for too long so I throw a cardigan over it to create a thin polyester barrier between my soon-to-be-naked thighs and the yellow material. I place my pump parts to the side and start the undressing process—and boy is it a process. I fight the urge to roll my eyes, but only in the interest of time. My eyes simply can’t afford to be in the back of my head right now, not even for a moment. I pull out my pumping bra attachment and my pump parts. The pump parts are cold to the touch from sitting in the mini fridge in my office. I didn’t have time to wash them after my morning session with a meeting encroaching and my fellow pumping mom in desperate need of a place to pump. The whole process is like a dance routine—if you imagine a dance routine that involves putting together a twelve piece Lego set for each of your boobs. Thanks to my last night self, everything was assembled when I came to my first pumping session this morning.
Once I get going, my body falls into a rhythm somehow. I pull off my heels and pull out my flats from under the desk before throwing my track jacket and swaddle blanket combo beside me for easy access when the AC descends on my exposed body. Whoever thought it was a good idea for office AC to be freezing clearly wasn’t a pumping mom. Let’s go, let’s go let’s go, let’s go — the shot clock sounds again as I strip out of my dress and drape it over the back of the sad computer chair. As promised, the AC rushes in to give me goosebumps. I go on autopilot. As I pump, my eyes land on the unplugged dust-covered HP printer in the corner and the empty Pepsi crates pinned under a pile of outdated Budweiser giveaway t-shirts.
A knock on the door startles me for a half-second before my knee-jerk reaction, which is yelling, “Not open!” There’s no second knock afterwards. I huff a breath, irritation swelling in my chest. I’m not sure if the vague sign we have now or a “mother’s room” sign would deter people more, but I’d agree to anything if it meant having a moment of peace while I rush around this abandoned-office-turned-supply closet. The room suddenly feels quiet except for the sound of my own breathing and the occasional buzz of the Shot Clock. This room always feels so stagnant, so stuck. A room that no longer exists in the same universe that my colleagues and I exist in. Everything here feels unfinished, forgotten, unnecessary. Two white boards lean haphazardly against the wall, unmounted and smudged with black ink that refuses to go away. They’re more of a hazy gray now.
Now that I’m settled I finally pull out my phone, a familiar giddiness replacing the irritation that occupied my chest. I check my watch and cross my fingers before sending a text to the nanny at home to see if Julian is awake or already down for his nap. As my anticipation builds, I occupy myself with grabbing my lunch from my bag and eating a quick bite. My phone vibrates and I nearly knock my sandwich onto the floor.
A text lights up the screen: He’s awake! Not down for a nap yet.
If it wouldn’t risk spilling breast milk everywhere, I’d leap out of this ugly chair and do a happy dance. Without the patience to even send a text back, I go straight for a FaceTime call. The moment it connects, I feel my entire body change, a spark of joy lit like a match in my chest and warming my belly. My jaw relaxes and my mouth breaks into the widest grin you can imagine. The Shot Clock is silent for these moments, nearly nonexistent. I wave at him. He giggles, nearly knocking me off my yellow cushion with joy. The room around the screen blurs as I allow myself to sit in this moment, the connection between us filling the room with warmth and color. The odd space I occupy is no longer worth my anger. I shift my phone to hide the pumping operation going on below my shoulders, but I’ve never felt like hiding it less. We say goodbye and release a long breath. I glance at my watch and start to pack everything back up, the same process done twenty minutes earlier played in reverse.
I finally pull my dress back on and look down at my pump parts. Will I have time to clean them? It feels like an afterthought now — a rushed hobby or a privilege. No time, won’t be able to clean them. I place them into a few Ziploc bags and then into the Red Bull mini fridge that has the sole purpose of holding all the parts. I pack everything into my bowling bag before switching off the painfully fluorescent light. The walk back to my office takes me past the same offices, the same meetings. Once I’m back in my office I place the milk in the mini fridge that sits beneath my desk and shove the bag behind it where it will wait until my last session in a few hours. I lean back in my chair and release a breath. Back to work.
By Samantha Bittman