Excuse Me While I Pump …

Or, the adventures of a new mother attending a faraway film festival with her first feature — but not her baby.

The last time I was in Scotland, I was 15, sulking in Siouxsie makeup, and vaguely dreaming of becoming some kind of artist. I found in it the lovely, mysterious fog that made my teenage mind feel at home. Never did I think I would return like this; somehow, Edinburgh International Film Festival had decided to include my film Moko Jumbie in their lineup. So now, I was making my grand return upon just giving birth, looking suitably haggard. My awkward, post-baby wardrobe could’ve passed me for a long-lost female member of The Cure, present day. This was my big red carpet look. But, I reminded myself that this was an incredible moment – I was sharing the biggest non-human thing I had ever created.

I was flying solo, so I brought my breast pump. As it turns out, a pump is pretty useless for transcontinental travel if it doesn’t take batteries. You can’t guarantee an outlet on the plane, and forget about those long passageways through to immigration and customs. When I finally reached my hotel room, milk was running down my shirt in two straight lines like in a goddam horror movie. And, in a fucking amateur move, the first thing I did was plug my American breast pump into a Scottish circuit and blow it out. Luckily, I also had a manual pump with me, which was joyously ineffective and left my breasts looking like they had been in a boxing match.

In a “lactation pod” at JFK, gleefully pumping before my flight, totally unaware of my journey ahead …

The Scottish sun was high and bright, and the air was “frrresh.” Men and women darted along the streets, going about their daily lives, as I wandered, intermittently ducking into mythic-looking cemeteries and churches, trying to make the most of the mundane errand of finding a battery-operated breast pump in a foreign land. Edinburgh Castle, visible from, well, everywhere, became an unattainable desire, weighing on the corner of my eye so much that I thought it would be impossible to ever get there. I ended up at Boots. After I inundated a young employee with questions that made him nervous (“How’s the suction on this one?”), he sweatily rang up my purchase. With all its nondescript pieces, it didn’t obviously look like a pump. I couldn’t wait to explain it to airport security on my return. I would threaten to whip my breast out like an assault rifle: “I will do it, if you want me to!”

I wish I were so bold. In real life, during the first few days of the festival, I would tell whoever I was talking to that I had to go do “something” and sneak off to my hotel to pump in bleak, shy solitude. I was too embarrassed to ask the hotel staff to fix the circuit, so while I pumped I would stare at the dark curtains, drawn to avoid onlookers, listening to the sharp, brisk calls of seagulls outside. The humming buzz of my battery-powered pump was no replacement for a bagpipe drone, but I ate the local exotic: a quick Tesco sandwich, chocolate digestive biscuits, a bourbon-barrel Scotch ale, a wee scone blanketed in butter. I had been reminded that “wee” is a preferred adjective there. Pumping breast milk was a wee, solitary act.

Everything changed when my actress, Vanna Vee Girod, arrived. As the pasta was dwindling at a filmmakers’ dinner, I told her that I was really dreading going back to my hotel to pump. “Yeah, just pump in the bathroom. I’ll wait for you,” she casually responded before going back to managing her social media. It was all I needed to hear. Someone was backing me up on this.

Vanna Vee Girod in Edinburgh, on and off the red carpet

“VrrRRmm, vrrRRmm, vrrRRmm,” the pump roared rhythmically as I stood in a bathroom stall. How had I not realized that it was so loud? Woman after woman used the stall next to me, probably silently wondering what the hell was going on next door. My hand jerked at a sudden, sharp pounding on my stall door, and for a second I lost suction. I watched tiny drops of white breast milk soak into my black shirt as I heard Vannas’s unmistakably Trinidadian voice:

“Vash-TI! I have cookies here, and I want some MILK!”

I couldn’t stop laughing. Serves me right for hiding in the stall.

In front of a sea of glowing eyes, I listened to my film being introduced. My soul was filled with ridiculous emotion, some haywire combination of the dream of screening at this festival and leaving my newborn for the first time. These passions converged, and the room felt like a warm cave with wisps of love swirling all around it. Momentarily, a fictional Trinidadian world would be floating like a bubble in the air of a Scottish screening room, bobbing, bouncing and being absorbed. It was surreal.

I decided to celebrate with a monumentally decadent three glasses of wine at the festival’s Waldorf Astoria party. While I was still on my first glass, I overheard a filmmaker saying it was annoying, but he had to excuse himself to apply medicated eye drops in the bathroom.

I took the opportunity to butt in: “You think that’s bad; I just went to the bathroom to pump my breast milk!”

He looked at me with the patient, patronizing look that drunkards get: “Oh, cool,” and he backed away.

I downed another glass of wine and started telling everyone about pumping – men and women, anyone who I happened to be talking to. We would be talking about film sales and distribution, and I would work it in. I didn’t give a shit anymore. Nobody had ever given me this kind of breast-milk-pumping-FYI before, certainly not at a film festival. But in that moment, it was such an integral part of my experience as a mother and a filmmaker. I couldn’t and didn’t want to ignore or subdue either of those fortunes of my life; embracing it all was as much for me as it was for those I forced it upon.

My footsteps echoed and my shadow danced in waves over the cobblestone streets. The sun had never really set, and pink puffs of clouds were appearing in the whitish sky. It was 4 a.m., and a thick layer of plexiglass separated the taxi driver from me. He said something incomprehensible over the intercom. I had stayed up all night, and my head was in the sky. I didn’t respond. He wasn’t going to let it go.

“Tchrrrch!” went the intercom. “I said, there’s a wee bit of cloud this mornin’. Crchhh.”

I smiled. “Yeah, there is.”

At my transfer in Heathrow, I expected to hop directly onto my flight to New York. Instead, I was directed through a rat maze of bureaucracy that spanned the length and depth of the universe. I sprinted to the gate, thinking the end was soon in sight. My mind was on hydration and lactation and the potentiality of missing my flight. Security questions were repeated; I was checked and double-checked. Finally, as I was approaching the airway, with that little distant light in sight, a man stepped in front of me:

“Ma’am, you’ve been selected for random additional screening. Please step aside.” Well, no shit.

I stepped up to the table and the inspector, of course, went straight for the pump. He held it up in the air. I could see his blood rushing in anticipation of the biggest moment of his career – finally the random searches were about to pay off!

“What is this?!”

I gave him a moment. Then, “It’s a breast pump.”

“A what?”

“A breast pump.”

The man looked around. “You have a baby? Here? Where?”

I paused. “Yes. No, not here. That’s why I need to pump on the plane.”

He was pretty disappointed, but he quickly turned his attention to harassing some old woman with a shit-ton of halva in her purse.

On the flight, a mother sat between her daughter and me. The mother kept turning down food on her daughter’s behalf, and I was beginning to wonder what the hell kind of abusive weirdo she was. With the crinkling of a wax-covered bag and the intermittent sound of retching, I got my answer. A few years ago, I would have been repulsed, but now that I was a mother too, I didn’t think twice. I simply reached into my seat pocket, pulled out the barf bag that had been designated for me, and handed it to the girl’s mother. She thanked me. I assembled my battery-powered pump, put on my headphones, and expelled breast milk as the airplane carried us over the Atlantic.

I had stashed my bags of breast milk in the back of my hotel mini-fridge, on the off-chance that they would actually freeze through and make it back to Brooklyn without melting. That mini-fridge had my back. In the end, my baby couldn’t tell whether the bags of milk were pumped in moments of solitude or wild abandon, and neither could I. But, I remember how each felt, and one was definitely better than the other.

Vashti Anderson is an American filmmaker and published author based in Brooklyn. She has been working in film and TV production in NYC since the late ’90s and, since earning her MFA in Film at NYU, has written and directed several narrative films. Her first feature, Moko Jumbie, was filmed in rural Trinidad and premiered at Los Angeles Film Festival. It screened in competition at Bentonville, Urbanworld, Edinburgh International Film Festival and others and is now available on Indiepix and Amazon Prime Video. Vashti currently spends her time writing stories, developing her second feature and making sure her kids don’t kill each other.