Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Johanna Sargeant, Waedenswil, Zurich, Switzerland
The use of informal milk sharing among mothers continues to be taboo in our modern, medically driven society. It seems everybody holds a strong opinion on the subject. Milk sharing is viewed as either one of the most wonderful gifts a mother can give or it is irresponsible and reckless, particularly without rigorous medical checks and screening of mother and milk.
Many people struggle to articulate exactly what it is that they find off-putting about milk sharing, seeing it as “weird” and “kind of gross.” The use of donor milk, however, is seen by the World Health Organization as the best nutritional option for a baby after mother’s own milk.
The use of donor milk, however, is seen by the World Health Organization as the best nutritional option for a baby after mother’s own milk.
The idea of using another mother’s milk only occurred to me when spending time with a close friend. In many ways my friend and I are similar: both musical and literary, both fans of sport, both introspective and prone to bouts of anxiety, and yet we can both be very sociable and talkative. Since having our babies, though, a very big difference between us has emerged: I have a low supply of breast milk, while my friend has an abundance of it.
While we sat together feeding our babies (her little boy is five weeks younger than mine) she would insert special cups into her bra to catch the excess milk that dripped from her other breast. Meanwhile, I would be breastfeeding while simultaneously attempting to one-handedly unscrew the lid of my thermos and fill the bottle of my supplemental nursing system with water, tip in the appropriate amount of formula, tuck the bottle under my bra strap, tear off pieces of medical tape, tape one of the bottle’s tubes to the opposite breast, tuck the other tube away, and ensure that my breastfeeding necklace was at a more easily available position to grab than the tubes.
During those first months, my friend would leave these milk collection cups in her bra throughout the day. If she absentmindedly bent over, the milk all tipped out. It was when I saw her pouring her excess milk down the kitchen sink that I knew I had to ask.
I asked my friend if I could have her excess milk.
I have an unexplained low supply and have battled with the practicalities, the stigma and the heartache of this for both of my beautiful babies. Asking my friend for her excess milk was not something I did lightly. I have such an inexplicably strong desire to be the sole person to sustain my baby. This need seems to defy all logic, and is firmly embedded in the primitive, instinctual roots of my heart; nobody’s attempts at making me feel content with my situation would improve that.
On my bad days, I would find myself looking at my baby’s little toes and wondering how much of that glorious chub was due to supplement: the first knuckle, was that the supplement knuckle? That deep ankle roll, was that a supplement roll? I was scared if she gave me her excess milk that I would begin to wonder how much of my little boy was mine, and how much was hers. Would it mean that she would hold a particularly special role in my little one’s life? Would I really be able to manage this without it further consolidating my feelings of failure?
I was scared if she gave me her excess milk that I would begin to wonder how much of my little boy was mine, and how much was hers.
I was scared to ask her, scared that it might risk our friendship in some way. Would she feel obliged to continue to provide for us, even if she decided that she’d like to start storing some milk herself? What if she became unable to continue producing such an excess of milk so effortlessly? Would this make her new life as a mother even more complicated?
And so we talked about it. A lot. We each researched the benefits and risks. My friend asked if I would want to get her milk tested, or for her to undergo a variety of medical checks. We talked about our worries, about the emotional risks, and I am so thankful that we have the kind of friendship where such discussions are possible.
Feeding a baby is such an emotionally fuelled journey that neither of us could say for certain what lay ahead.
She told me that she felt worried her supply would level out very soon, and that she would feel as if she was somehow failing me and my baby. She was worried that there would be residual emotions if that were to occur, ones that neither of us could foresee, and I agreed. Feeding a baby is such an emotionally fuelled journey that neither of us could say for certain what lay ahead. She concluded that it was probably best for her not to give us her milk, and I totally supported her in that decision. Our discussions had planted a seed in my mind, though.
That evening I bought six boxes of formula, continued to drink my breastfeeding tea, baked another batch of lactation cookies, took my fenugreek tablets, my milk-building homeopathics, my 120mg domperidone, my Saint John’s wort, boiled up more barley water, had a dark beer, and continued to breathe.
Less than a week later, I received a message from my midwife. “Good morning dear Jo. It might be Xmas and Easter together for you today! I have a mamma with a baby—same age as yours—who has pumped and frozen litres of milk … I can say with all my heart, it is the very best quality!!! Interested? She would probably also continue if the flow is right!”
This lovely woman, Lisa, was pumping around 150ml from one breast, once a day in the morning while she fed her boy from the other. We spoke on the phone and an hour later, I was at her front door with flowers, chocolates, a pot plant and three cooler bags. We had a pot of breastfeeding tea and fed our babies together on her bed: she from just one breast in ten minutes, I from both breasts with my tubes and bottles for forty-five. We connected, laughing and chatting as if we had known each other for much longer than just half an hour.
As she spoke to me about her worry that all her curry eating might cause my boy some problems, I realized that I trusted this woman infinitely more than a formula company. While being reassured of the basics of her medical checks, I could also see how much she loved her baby. She would do anything for her little boy, just as I would for mine, and her desire to give him the best possible milk trumped any formula company’s claims.
Lisa handed me the dozens of frozen bags of her milk, and explained how her little one seemed to get particularly gassy when she ate cauliflower or dried beans. She showed me how she had drawn a small flower or bean on some of the bags, in case I had the same issue. I left her house with a huge load of milk and a date to go baby-clothes shopping the next week.
Interestingly enough, feeding my baby an exclusive diet of breast milk did not heal my heart, as I thought it might. It was only when I began using the donor milk that I realized my grief had nothing to do with the milk. I had thought all my problems would be solved, and I would finally be able to breathe a sigh of relief when my baby was getting the best possible nutrition.
It was through this process, though, that I realized that breastfeeding, to me, was about the act, and not just about the milk.
Breastfeeding, to me, was about the act, and not just about the milk.
Just before my baby turned six months old, and with just one bag of donor milk left in the freezer, we began to be able to feed supplement-free. Now, 14 months into our journey, he breastfeeds for comfort, breastfeeds for milk, breastfeeds for connection, breastfeeds for pain relief, breastfeeds to sleep and to wake, breastfeeds for solace in an at times overwhelming world.
Lisa and I still occasionally share photos of our growing boys and admire their chubby little cheeks. She played such an important role in our convoluted breastfeeding journey, and I know that she feels incredibly proud to have helped my boy be the happy and healthy little one that he is. Lisa was simply a mother helping out another mother in her time of need, and for that I will always be thankful.
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