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Nobody Told Me Motherhood Was Going To Be Milking Myself In An Airplane Bathroom

There I was at 32,000 feet, hand-expressing in a tiny airplane bathroom, wondering how it came to this.

Written by Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani
A cyan colored plane in a shape of a baby bottle flying through orange and purple sky
Emma Chao/Scary Mommy; Getty Images

“How accurately can I milk myself into this airplane bathroom sink?” is not a question I thought I would be asking myself…ever. But 32,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean, there I was, head-cocked over my boob with nipple in hand, trying to figure out the best way to angle my teat-stream into the miniature basin, like a modern-day Pythagoras, with tits.

The reason for my Beautiful Mind breastmilk moment was my first baby-free flight in 18 months, and my first airplane work trip in over two years. I was flying to NYC from London to interview Venus Williams at a conference. I was jazzed. Flights were booked. The prospect of uninterrupted hours above the ocean with no wifi and nothing more than a stack of Vanity Fairs to command my attention was tantalizing.

Needless to say, it did not go how I dreamed it.

The morning of the trip, I had a clear plan. The taxi was collecting me at 5:30am. I’d dream-feed the baby about 30minutes before I was due to leave, so a) she wouldn't feel too cheated when Mummy wasn’t there at breakfast, and b) I’d give my breasts a proper let-down before the transatlantic journey.

But, when I snuck into her room she was so darn out of it–angelic in her crib– mom-guilt struck hard. I didn't have the heart to wake her, in case she didn’t go back to sleep, and I really would be leaving my husband with a cluster-fork on his hands. I already felt bad enough about being gone for 72 hours (ridiculous, but this is a thing we do!) so I backed up and closed her bedroom door. My boobs will be fine with a bit of light pumping, I reasoned to myself in the cab.

And at first, everything went pretty smoothly — even factoring in the additional stress of traveling during the pandemic. I made it through security in good time, got myself into an airport lounge, and even prioritized feeding myself (huge mom win) with a vegan breakfast plate. Aside from feeling like I was the mom from Home Alone — that frenzied state of constantly forgetting something (erm, my baby) — I was getting back into the groove of flying solo.

I used some miles to bump myself up to premium, slunk into my seat with a glass of something vaguely bubbly, and sighed with delight when the pilot gave us a flight estimate of roughly eight hours. Eight hours of uninterrupted “me” time. Bliss, I thought, as I plugged my headphones in, fired up my Lizzo playlist, and started in on my haul of royal gossip rags.

But by hour five, it was no longer the gossip that was ripe. It was me.

Missing my morning lactation-offload had created a pair of mammary monsters. I tried to ignore it, but this, combined with the altitude, had me engorged to roughly the density of Arnold Schwarzenegger's pecs in his heyday. And contrary to all the insta-posts about getting great tits when you’re nursing, by month 18, they don’t so much swell out as swell around. Think less cup, more saucer.

I’m no scientist, but I’m guessing part of the reason my boobs were so buoyant this late into the breastfeeding game was that our family had just been through COVID-19, and I'd been nursing my little one what felt like eight times a day. So my boobs were full-on Holstein Friesian udders.

Now, I’m not a total novice. I’d expected to have to do some light pumping on my trip and I had a portable, battery-free silicone breast pump hidden in my hand luggage. It normally works like a charm. So I reached into the overhead locker, pulled out my mesh bag with my pumping paraphernalia in it, and made my way to the bathroom - trying to be as discreet as possible.

I slid into the tiny-ass stall (literally — these stalls are designed for people with miniature asses) and tried to sterilize the sink area with the hand sanitizer they gave me in the “welcome aboard” pack. I put my pump down on the washroom countertop, and started to strip off the five layers I was wearing to combat the airplane AC. When my boobs were finally free, I suctioned my haakaa and waited for it to work its magic.

But something to do with my anxiety at having to try and pump and dump the size of the Himalayas meant that the suction-pump didn’t get a flow going the way I would have expected. I took the pump off and reattached it three times, but no dice.

Frankly, taking longer than 20-something minutes in the airplane restroom is always a slightly nervous proposition when your surname is even vaguely ethnic, nevermind “Modarressy-Tehrani.” I had to expedite things.

So, in the middle of the transatlantic flight, I took matters into my own hands — literally — and started to try and milk myself by hand into the teeny tiny bathroom sink. The bathroom mirror became a splash zone. The toilet floor was already sticky, which as we all know is a given on any flight, no matter how short, so I didn’t feel so bad that I probably contributed in some small way to that with a few errant drops of milk that I wasn’t able to shoot straight. Looking at myself in the mirror, I realized that I was a hot mom mess: an eye mask sitting like a hairband on my face, one tit in hand, and a haakaa on the other.

Don’t get me wrong: My breasts are amazing. The female body is amazing. Nursing women have around 18 milk ducts, all of which help funnel the life-sustaining liquid for our babies. But, unlike, say, a penis, there’s no real ability to aim a singular jet-stream into a target. So when you’re hand-expressing into an airport bathroom sink, it’s a bit like a shower head where the spray pattern is set to “random soak” mode. This was hardly relaxation mode unlocked.

When I got to the conference, after two more bouts of hand-expressing in the hotel shower, I bumped into a CEO who told me she’d spent the morning pumping into the hotel toilet bowl while looking at photos of her 12-month old to try and get up a steady flow, so she could spare her silk blouse from tell-tale leakage.

As we commiserated together, we agreed the annoying thing is that moms make these kinds of equations all the time. We’re used to having to pump and dump in the wildest places, and we’ve learned not to take up too much space.

Modern society in America is all about the illusion of giving women space when you’re pregnant. Expectant mothers are allowed to take up space in part because, well, we’re pretty conspicuous. But this country is notoriously - now infamously - crappy at letting post-pregnant people take up space.

Imagine if moms designed airplanes. Instead of taking up precious airplane space with a fancy, rarely-used bar area exclusively for first class passengers, there would be kid-friendly playmats and activity benches where they play, plush couches where moms could slink into to nurse in without having to be awkwardly cocked into a window seat with the baby’s head on top of one leg and the other leg attempting to act as a shield so no passerby is scandalized, a dedicated pumping area with outlets for battery pumps, plenty of baby wipes on hand for any spills… Are you listening, Delta?

As I cram myself into another small bathroom to do the whole song and dance again on the flight back home from the conference, shrinking in space again to minimize the discomfort of others, I have to ask: why are we still doing this?