Milk, guilt, and turtles

Expectation: Leaving my smiling baby each morning to have a perfect day tracking turtles in the field with one private and sterile 10-minute break to pump out my liquid gold.

Reality: Leaving my stinky (but still smiling) baby each morning, filled with milk and guilt. During the day, tracking some turtles but spending a fair amount of time figuring out when and how to pump with stinky waders and dirty hands, all while my brother guarded me with a towel from passing hikers.

I was only in my first trimester during the previous (re)productive field season, so the only thing that changed was my morning sickness.  I would just pretend I was searching for a turtle while I discreetly threw-up into the marsh.  

“(Re)productive fieldwork is easy,” I tried reassuring myself while battling the next wave of nausea.

 I expected pumping in the field would be just as “easy.”  However, on top of the normal hurdles of going back to work, there are a ton of other considerations when pumping in the field.  Can I pump in a stand of cattails next to my turtle traps?  How long will my milk stay fresh in my wader pocket?  Will the squeak of my pump attract the attention of a breeding marsh bird or a curious hiker?  Is it even possible to pump in the field?  I could not find answers to these questions or any established “pumping in the field” protocols so I was starting from scratch. 

Prepping for the field season always comes with lots of planning, from buying equipment, hiring technicians, deciding where to trap for turtles, applying for permits, coordinating with our vet partners, and more.  On top of those, I had two very new planning hurdles: Covid and pumping.  I am sure everyone has stories about how Covid interfered with their summer plans. We were fortunate enough to be able to continue fieldwork, but we could not hire as many technicians (leaving me with more fieldwork when there was a new baby at home) and our starting date was delayed until safety protocols were created and approved.  It was looking like I was going to have to work alone, tracking 50 young turtles each day.  I was lucky that my brother was available for the summer, in my quarantine bubble, and best yet, familiar with radio-telemetry!  Throughout the summer, he did various job tasks while I was pumping in the background: driving to field sites, epoxying on transmitters, recording habitat data, radio-tracking, and measuring turtles.  He did not know that in addition to learning about turtles, he would also be learning about human lactation.

Most days, I would be gone for 8 hours and had to pump 3-4 times.  My trusty pumping kit was stocked with hand sanitizer (like we all had this summer), a backpack cooler, ice packs, milk bags (twist top type that don’t leak), a manual hand pump, a gallon plastic bag, water wipes (for removing the dirt and pond hitchhikers prior to sanitizing), and a towel (for covering up).  I didn’t want to spend a ton of money on nursing clothes, so I just used my regular old field shirts with the cheapest nursing bras I could find underneath. I would pump either in the car to and from the field site or in an upland shady spot between tracking turtles. Fortunately, breastmilk can be stored for up to 24 hours in a cooler after being expressed.1 This also applies to pumps, so I would just store my pump in a plastic bag in my cooler alongside my liquid gold.  Then, at night, I would put it all in the freezer, sanitize my pump, and get it ready for the next day.

After a few trial runs, I established my own routine for pumping in the field and the whole thing was not as daunting as it was in the beginning.  The whole process made me feel like an empowered nature goddess.  It became a relaxing ritual that I looked forward to because it forced me to take a break during my field work and just enjoy the wilderness around me.  Sometimes I would forget where I was and my brother would politely point out birders walking by with binoculars and telephoto lenses. 

Even on my best days, I still had lingering feelings of mom guilt.  Was I being selfish by leaving my son while I went out to do the work that I loved?  If I didn’t pump enough milk, was I depriving him?  Was I prioritizing my turtles over my baby? 

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At the end of the day, I hoped that by pursuing my dreams and being passionate about my work, I would be setting a good example for my son.  I hope that my example can show people like my brother and my son that women can do anything!

I am by no means the first person to figure out how to pump outdoors.  In fact, there are three other tales of (re)productive fieldwork on this blog.  After my field season, I compiled a few considerations about pumping in the field that I hope others can use this as a starting point.  While I still do not have all of the answers, here are a few things I learned:

  • Think about your circumstances.  What does your fieldwork look like?  Who are you working with?  What are the weather conditions?  Do you have access to shelter, power, or plumbing?  Are you on public or private land?  How long will you be gone for?  How often will you have to pump?  How will you keep everything clean?
  • Make a plan.  Think about when you will be able to step away and pump during your fieldwork duties and what this will look like.  Is there a natural stopping point in your day or a nice shady tree to sit under? 
  • Be flexible. Inevitably, Plan A will not work out, so you have to be prepared to try out Plan B or Plan C.  This is not a new concept for people who have been doing fieldwork. 
  • Have the right equipment.  What kind of pump will work for your situation (manual, electric, battery)?  What clothes do you need to wear (nursing shirts, bras, covers, outer layer)?  How will you store your milk (coolers, ice packs, storage bags, refrigerator)?  How will you clean yourself and the pumping supplies before and between pumping sessions (water wipes, microfiber reusable cloths, hand sanitizer, pump wipes, microwave sanitation, soap and water)?
  • Communicate your needs. Most people do not know the ins and outs of pumping, so you have to advocate for yourself.  Let the people you are working with know what you need.  It might take a while to figure out the right rhythm, so keep an open dialogue.
  • Take care of yourself.  Make sure to stay hydrated and well-nourished because these things are especially important when you are nursing.  Also, be kind to yourself and if you can, have a sense of humor about it all!

Other tales of (re)productive fieldwork: A (re)productive Master’s | International travel/field work while breastfeeding – A mommy’s tale | Another tale of (re)productive fieldwork


  1. CDC: Proper storage and preparation of breast milk.

Other recommended readings: Your guide to pumping at work – What to expect blog, How to keep pumping when you return to work – The New York Times

Interested in telling your whole tale? We would love to hear from you!  We are very interested in interviewing women of color who have published cool field science.  If that’s you, or someone you know, please tweet at us or email us and point us to the paper.

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