I never knew that such a huge portion of my life would be defined by milk.

There’s something about milk. It gives life.  It sustains life. We are all born in and composed of rivers and streams of water, but milk is what helps us grow.  What gives us the potential to thrive.

I have been breastfeeding for two and a half years now, and in that time, I’ve donated literally thousands of ounces of breastmilk. Now, before you start clapping and calling me a hero, please know the truth: I’ve hated 90% of it. Breastfeeding itself is wonderful (Until those teeth come in. Sonnuvabitch! I’ve had a blister on my left nip for two months now. It can’t heal because, well, the kid still needs to eat, right?), but donating is a major pain in the ass.  If you decide to donate through official channels, you need to go through interviews (which are all basically designed to figure out whether or not you are using illegal substances or are secretly a prostitute. Seriously. I was asked the “Have you accepted money in exchange for sexual favors within the last year?” question about four different times. And what does that have to do with breastmilk? Hookers lactate too!), blood tests (I have had 3 HIV tests in the last three years. One for my first pregnancy—it was standard for new patients in that OB’s office—one for the milk bank, and one for my second pregnancy—again, I was a new patient at a new office.  They were all negative, in case anyone was wondering.), and you have to follow very strict pumping, sanitizing, and storing rules.  They send you the containers they want you to store your milk in. Which, of course, are the least convenient containers known to man. They end up taking up about 87% of your freezer space. Because you can’t just drop off the milk as you are collecting it. No. You have to wait until you have at least 200 ounces saved, then you can load it all up in a giant cooler designed for Fraternity-level tailgating, lug it to whatever major urban center happens to be closest to you, and then haul it over to the milk bank’s offices so that they can, once again, check every container, and casually ask you if you’re a prostitute.  Just to be sure.

And you can’t have any medicine. Or caffeine.  Or alcohol. Or fun, apparently.

I got a UTI while donating breastmilk, and I had to actually make the choice between antibiotics or pumping milk for donations.

I chose the drugs.

Because it hurt when I made peepee.

How’s that for a hero?

This time around, I’ve decided to donate to a good friend. Her baby was born 10 days after mine, and she never made enough breastmilk. She lives in my neighborhood, so when my freezer starts to look a little full, I just fill an old grocery bag with those flat baggies of milk, and walk it over. I still mostly abstain from alcohol and caffeine (and I haven’t had to be put on any antibiotics), but I don’t sit around and worry about whether the milk has been sitting in my fridge for over 24 hours, or have to stop and calculate how long ago I took that Motrin for my screaming headache. I can shrug, and say to myself, “Would I give this to my baby?”  If the answer is still yes, then I feel just fine handing it over to her. Once, I even joked that I was giving her a special “Whiskey and coke” baggie that I pumped after a dinner party.  I said it was going to be her baby’s “sleeping bottle.” I see her baby regularly, and I know that he has incurred no ill effects from my having an occasional glass of wine, or an extra cup of coffee, so I feel fine making jokes like this (and, again, I breastfed my daughter while drinking that whiskey, so I had no hesitations giving her the milk).

I’ve never officially calculated how many ounces I’ve given to her over the last nine months (as opposed to the official donation. 240 ounces.). I figure that I’ve averaged about 7 extra ounces of milk a day, which works out to just around 2,000 ounces of breastmilk. Or about 15 gallons.

(Woah.  Okay.  Now that I actually did that calculation, that looks like a lot—like, a lot—of milk. And I’m being pretty conservative with the amounts here. Woah.)

Being so much more relaxed about donating has relieved quite a bit of the pressure of donation, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t bitched about it at great lengths as well. I have. Because I still thought of it as an inconvenience.  As a pain. As a time suck.

I have actually complained about it to my neighbor.  While she fed her son my milk.

Again, how’s that for a hero?

 

Last week, I was approached by one of the instructors at my daughters’ daycare.  “You donate breast milk, right?”

A little surprised by her question, I answered that, yes, I donate to my neighbor. Under the table. Black market donation.

Her eyes grew wide with excitement.  “Would you ever consider donating for this little girl?” She gestured to the infant in her arms.  “She’s four months old, and she’s been prescribed breastmilk, but we can’t always get enough of a supply built up for her. She can’t digest formula.”

I balked. This was a major request.  And I had already been toying with the idea of starting some weaning, some pulling back and cutting down of my milk supply. “Well, my neighbor’s boy really needs it. . . .”

“I know that it would be appreciated.”

Is she speaking for the mother? “Would her mother be okay with this?”

“There’s—“ she hesitated. “Her mother isn’t really in the picture.”

I sighed. “Well, maybe I can give a little. You know, the stuff that my neighbor doesn’t need.”

“Anything! Anything.”

I went home and looked at my milk sitting in my refrigerator. I started the mental math: Honest Baby needs about 18 ounces for her bottles for daycare. But she’s only really drinking about 12 now that she takes three meals a day. And my neighbor just took about 100 ounces, so she’s set for about a week or ten days if she only uses one baggie a day. Just a supplement to the formula. But we’re going to a wedding this weekend, so I need about 8 ounces for bottles for grandma while she watches Baby. Then, of course, we need some “just in case.” So, let’s see . . .

I figured out that I could easily spare about 50 ounces. Easily. Really, I could have given her about 80, but I was worried about setting a precedent.  I didn’t want this woman to start relying on me. I didn’t want to be yoked with this responsibility. I just didn’t want to do it. I figured I could toss her a few ounces of frozen milk, tell her that it was all I could manage, and be done.

This morning, I brought in the milk.

You would have thought I was handing her a bag full of gold.

I was hugged.

There were tears brimming in her eyes.

Someone actually clapped for joy.

It turns out, that the instructor (we’ll call her K) who asked me to donate had just adopted that four-month-old girl. She was the daughter of one of the instructor’s relatives, a woman who has a serious heroin addiction.  K’s relative decided to voluntarily sign away her maternal rights, recognizing that her daughter would be better off with someone else providing her care. K took her in. Against the advice of almost everyone around her, K first fostered, then adopted the little girl (the director of the center told me that she had argued with K for months, telling her to not get involved.  To not get emotionally attached. That there were just too many unknowns in this situation. K ignored them all.  She had fallen in love.).  The little girl has lingering health problems as a result of her mother’s addiction. Mostly, her digestive tract is “immature.”  She can’t digest formula.  One woman at the center described what happens when they have to feed her formula: “I’ve never seen anything like it. That little girl’s belly swells up. It looks like a basketball. Just perfectly round. And tight.  She screams for hours. It’s just the saddest thing you’ve ever seen. We hate to do it.”

And I only brought 50 ounces.

Annoyed at being asked.

Irritated that my oversupply was being “exploited.”

By a baby.

A little girl.

Who hasn’t been able to gain weight.

Who has been born with the cards stacked perilously against her.

Who already has had to fight just to be here.

To be present.

She’s been diagnosed as “failure to thrive.”

My milk could change that.

My milk.

It will make me part of the community that raises this child.  It has the power to insert me into her life, to help guide it.  To help save it.

It won’t necessarily improve her odds.

It won’t really make her a better person.

But it can give her the option of reaching her potential.

It can help give her a chance.  When she was born without any.

 

And I didn’t want to give it.

 

Lord, forgive me.

Forgive me.

And thank you, over and over, for the “curse” of this inconvenience.  For the pain of engorgement. For the sleeplessness that accompanies being needed.  For the tug and rush of the letdown.  For the daily heaviness.  The nightly aches.

For the burden of milk.

Advertisements