At six months old, before food had ever touched her lips, my infant daughter went into anaphylactic shock. Her eyes swelled shut, hives blistered over the terrain of her tiny body, her blood pressure plummeted, and she vomited uncontrollably until her throat clamped down. She was having an allergic reaction to the food proteins transmitted to her through my breast milk.
The doctors who saved her life at Boston Children’s Hospital told us that such a severe reaction via breast milk is rare, but not unheard of. Her doctors then painted a grim picture of what our daughter’s future with life-threatening allergies and respiratory issues would look like, and told us that although the best thing for her would be to keep nursing, I would have to eliminate several major food groups from my diet. They also told me that it would be too dangerous to give her any of the freezer stash of milk that I had already pumped. I’d have to discard it.
If I hadn't been wholly consumed with fear for my daughter, I would have felt sorry for myself. I looked at the freezer shelves filled with frozen bags of milk. Pumping was not something I did with joy. It represented everything I hate about the kitchen -- the appliances and cleaning -- combined with everything I hate about a trip to the gynecologist -- the indignity and intimate body parts being tugged unnaturally.
But I did it. I was trying to return to my career as a lawyer. And this was my first child, which to a Type A mother like me, meant doing everything in my physical capacity, no matter how unreasonable, to protect whatever raw idea of “best” had sunk in somewhere along the way. So I obstinately filled shelf after shelf of my freezer with frozen bags of milk that stiffened as they froze, like soldiers coming to attention. As much as I loathed the pumping, I felt less anxious with those bags standing watch over my baby.
On a rare night out, which had come at the intervention of close friends, I sat taking pursing sips of a too-sweet margarita. I had insisted on the mostly empty restaurant with stale chips, because of its proximity to our apartment. I was struggling to leave my baby, feeling a base-level terror that even the warm, syrupy tequila couldn’t touch. While I was filling in my friends about my daughter’s recent diagnosis, the hospital visits, specialists, diets and all that entailed, I mentioned in passing the pang of suffering I felt at having to dispose of my freezer full of pumped milk.
Immediately, a woman at the table perked up and explained that a new mom in our neighborhood was experiencing her own serious health issues and could not produce breast milk for her preemie babies. She gave me the woman’s contact information and encouraged me to offer her my stash of milk.
What kind of person would want a stranger’s breast milk; isn’t that just a bit gross? I wondered aloud. “Well,” my friend shrugged, looking down at her cheese enchiladas, “it's not that different from this milk, is it?” “Perhaps,” I admitted. “But in a lot of ways, it’s just not the same, right?’ Another friend chimed in, giggling, “If it is, your being a vegetarian, means that’s some of that fancy grass-fed milk you’re slinging.” I felt grateful that she tried to make me laugh, but I couldn’t quite muster it.
Before I had a chance to settle on if I was the type of woman who would be comfortable sharing something as intimate as breast milk, the woman seeking milk called me. She told me about her year and the fear she had for her babies. She told me that the doctors had told her how beneficial breast milk would be for her fledglings and her sense of loss at not being able to provide it to them. “I’m trying.” She whispered into the phone. “I’m trying.”
She wanted the milk.
When her mother (the babies’ grandmother) came to pick up the freezer of milk that I couldn’t safely give to my own baby, I was overcome with grief.
The truth is that I had given that milk an unholy amount of symbolic value. It was the only thing that had made me feel even remotely successful as a mother. I knew that the World Health Organization, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Academy of Family Physicians all recommended exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life and continued, along with complementary food, for two years.
And I was raising my children in a community where there was tremendous “support” for breastfeeding. “Nursing is the gold standard,” a male pediatrician instructed. “Of course you want what’s best for your daughter and ‘breast is best,’ even if it means a little hard work!” The lactation consultant cheerfully crooned over my bleeding nipple. “The Nine Hidden Super Powers of Breast Milk” read an email from a new-mom friend. “The best medicine is breast milk--it’s liquid gold” coached the pediatric nurse pasting electrode heart monitor stickers onto my baby’s chest.
However, in recent years the assumption that breast milk is a panacea has been called into question, notably with Cynthia Colen’s study, published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, which looked at 1,773 sibling pairs between the ages of 4 and 14, where only one sibling had been breastfed, and on 11 measures of health and intelligence found negligible long-term differences. I had nonetheless become highly attached to the idea that breast milk was nothing short of a magical elixir, because I needed to believe that there was something I could do to heal my daughter. Despite the reality that it had nearly killed her.
So when this stranger carried out the heavy coolers filled with milk, I felt her ripping away the life I had imagined for my baby, who would now need more care and attention than I knew how to give.
Halfway out the old wooden door that had looked after the comings and goings of a hundred years of families, the grandmother stopped. She squared her shoulders and said with a frightening vulnerability, the kind that you feel when your dad cries, “Thank you. My daughter has had an unfair go of things lately, and I know this will help ease her mind.”
For a moment, the grandmother and I were frozen solid. I searched for a joke to escape the moment but I couldn’t cobble together a sentence. I did manage to finally meet her eyes, and I could see that the emptiness I felt in giving away my milk was matched by her heaviness as she carried it away.
And for the first moment since my infant daughter went into shock, I took a deep breath. Encased in those bags were my prayers for my daughter, and now they were hers.
The last few months had been a sentence of isolation. My nights were spent in the dark chambers of our little apartment pacing the floor with the writhing sack of my baby, or bouncing her furious body on a yoga ball. My baby’s screams cut through the night. I knew something was not right. She was in pain. Yet there was nothing I could do to soothe this tiny human entrusted to me. I was exploding with love, and yet all the love in the world couldn’t make her lungs or immune system work properly. The profound helplessness was unbearably lonely.
I spent night after night poring over all of the facts and laying out the evidence that my baby’s suffering was my fault. I had worked too much. I had travelled internationally. I had exposed my fetus to stress and pollution. The testimony of playground moms who held in their arms healthy children, and who would ask "Why do you think she has that?" or "Have you tried such and such therapy," proved especially persuasive to the case. The cross-examination pointed out that if I were a good mother, I would know why this was happening, my baby wouldn't be in pain, and I would be able to soothe her. "I don't know what I'm doing,” I’d plead. “I don’t know how to do this.” I could not see the hubris in this self-flagellation. I suppose it was another attempt to feel in control.
But in sharing my milk and nourishing these babies that were not my own, I felt, for the first time in my life, that I was not separate from any other living thing. The familiarity of this stranger’s grief and love revealed to me that these moments of weighty isolation were precisely the moments that most profoundly connected me to the vocation of motherhood.
I’ve tried to carry this moment with me through the last five years of medical management and emergencies with my daughter. I can’t change the way her body responds, but I can teach her that we are not alone in our pain. We can choose whether or not we suffer alone. And we can choose whether or not we let others. And in that time I’ve had the honor of watching how her pain has led her to be an astonishingly compassionate and tough little girl.
But on that day, in my doorway, halfway up a triple-decker walk-up, I simply shrugged, looked at the grandmother, and said, “You don’t have to thank me for being a mother. Let me know if she needs any more.”
When I later mentioned this unconventional donation to my own mother, I expected her to be horrified. She’s the kind of woman who whispers when she says the word “vagina,” so I assumed the unregulated exchange of bodily fluids was sure to make her gasp. But I was surprised that instead of expressing revulsion, she said, “Well, you know, we never talked about this, but when your dad was born premature, he was breastfed by a wet nurse at the hospital. Your grandmother was so sick, and the doctors said that the wet nurse saved your dad’s life.”
Maybe this donation wasn’t so unconventional after all. Maybe the only bizarre part is that right now, in our culture, we are so alone in breastfeeding, and in so many other aspects of parenting. Women have been nursing one another’s babies since the dawn of humanity, and in some cultures they continue to do so. But we do not. And I’m not convinced that makes any sense.
Despite the mountains of encouragement I received as a privileged nursing mom, the support came to a sudden halt when it came to actually doing the job of nursing. And when it became clear that my baby needed more care than is typical, the stakes were suddenly much higher. Some nights, the costume of “support” would unravel and I would catch a glimpse of the pressure and guilt dressed up underneath; but regardless of what it was called, it left me feeling alone. Breast may be best for baby, but what about for mom? Isn’t a sane and healthy mom, who doesn’t feel alone, also good for a baby? Could both things be possible?
Most people balk at the idea of shared nursing because it feels gross, it is unfamiliar, and we aren’t entirely comfortable with the idea that a body part, at least a female body part, can serve both sexual and utilitarian functions. We’ve also accepted a narrative that tells us we are uniquely suited to serve our own children’s needs. But I have to wonder if that kind of radical individualism deprives us all of a real community.
And if ever there were a time when I needed community, it was in those early days of motherhood.
Breast milk may or may not be a miracle cure, but it is certainly a convenient way to meet a baby’s real need. And it’s difficult for me to accept “gross” as a sufficient argument against anything that is meeting a baby’s need.
Of course, there are some actual health concerns when sharing breast milk, such as the transmission of communicable diseases like hepatitis, syphilis and HIV. But those risks can be screened for (as I mentioned to the mom who received my milk, I had been recently screened and cleared as part of my obstetric screening), and in a healthy mom, there are also several well-researched health benefits.
When I think about what my job really is as a mother, fundamentally I feel that I must leave my kids with a sense of respect for themselves and for the world around them, which requires them to give and to receive freely. I want them to understand, decades before their mother did, the folly of imagined control. Rather, I want them to accept the gift and responsibility of community, even if that appears to be at odds with their culture.