I used to imagine that being a freelance writer would be glamorous. I pictured traveling to exotic locales, sipping espresso in nice hotels before heading out, notebook tucked discreetly in my practical-yet-stylish shoulder bag, to interview some fascinating person or other. And okay, maybe the reality never really fit the dream (for starters, my shoulder bag, made by Keen, is tattered and grimy). But I did drink some damn fine coffee once while on assignment in Ethiopia. I wouldn’t describe my work life as anything close to glamorous. But on a good day, it might have rated shabby chic.
Or at least it would have before I had a baby, three months ago. Just how far below swashbuckling my life has now dipped hit me shortly before Thanksgiving. I was out to lunch with two journalist friends at a marginally stylish restaurant—the kind of writerly comportment my younger self would’ve sanctioned. My son was along, and he started getting fussy. I scooped him up to change his diaper, which promptly leaked all over my shirt. The bathroom had no changing table, not even a countertop to rest him on, so I laid him on a changing pad on the floor (thankfully it was a very clean floor). And there I was, kneeling on the tiles of a public restroom in a pee-soaked t-shirt, wiping another human’s butt, when I just started laughing out loud. If only my once-aspirational self could see me now.
One nice (and also not glamorous) thing about freelancing is that “going back to work” after having a baby doesn’t always involve putting on real clothes and hiring a nanny. At some point, though, reporting involves leaving the house. So six weeks after he was born, I took the baby—and my extremely supportive husband—along on a reporting trip to Montana. Traveling on assignment while nursing, it turns out, comes with its own set of totally undignified experiences. On the day I was out in the field with a scientist, I brought along my breast pump. For the uninitiated, that doesn’t just involve one piece of equipment.
There’s the pump itself—plus the cord, and a car adapter, and all the little parts that collect and store the milk. Oh, and then there’s the cooler bag, and the ice packs. And the bra that lets you do the pumping hands-free (because how else are you going to take notes at the same time?). And the black poncho-type thingie I was inspired to buy to help retain some shred of self-respect—which had nonetheless vanished by the time I’d finished setting it all up and then pumping milk in the passenger seat of this very understanding scientist’s car while she drove me on back roads between Missoula and Butte, talking about entomology.
A couple weeks later in Santa Fe, I pumped in the living room of a forest ecologist, who kindly retreated to his home office for fifteen minutes, leaving me alone on his sofa watching the finches congregating at his backyard bird feeder. Once I’d safely stashed the milk in his kitchen fridge, we headed off to do our work. A few weeks after that, I pumped in the spare bedroom of a USDA geneticist, storing milk in his fridge and ice packs in his freezer while we tromped off to look at some plants. That evening outside Des Moines, on my way to catch a plane, I set up the pump in my car behind a movie theater, where I tried to park far enough from the lampposts to have some privacy but not so far as to feel completely creeped out.
I still wouldn’t swap my freelance life for a cubicle. Sure, the other day I actually conducted a phone interview from my nursing chair. And soon enough I’ll be packing up the pump again as I set off on assignment to Kansas (yet more travel to exotic lands!). But today I’ll be playing with my baby in between interviews and writing, and he’ll nap in my office with the sun streaming in. I may have spit-up on my shirt, but I’ll trade it for glamour any day.
Image credit: Hillary Rosner