I sat at my computer and opened a message, hesitating before I started. What if she doesn’t like me? What if there are other people she is more interested in? I carefully crafted my message, conscious of every word, comma, and exclamation mark. I was writing to reply to an offer for breast milk, but it felt as though I was responding to a personal ad. I kept it short and to the point:
“Hi there! I saw your post on the Human Milk 4 Human Babies site. I have twin girls who were two months premature and are now two months old and home from the NICU. I was never able to pump more than 6 ounces per day, and my small supply has tapered off. Either myself or my husband would gladly meet you close to your home or work. I am also able to replace any milk storage bags, breast pads, or pumping supplies. Thanks for considering!”
I quickly proofread. Perfect, only two exclamation marks. I hope she appreciates my use of the Oxford comma. I paused as I read the outward admission of my first failure as a mother, summarized into 85 words. (Or, maybe it was my third failure. Did fertility challenges and preterm labor count?) I hit send.
I always had high breastfeeding aspirations, even before I got pregnant. When I pictured myself as a mother, I saw the picture-perfect attachment parent. Babywearing, breastfeeding, bedsharing–I wanted it all. I pictured a deep freezer full of so much milk that my baby never had to have a single drop of that far inferior substitution, formula. Yuck.
When my babies arrived two months early, the first thing I asked for in my postpartum room was a breast pump, please and thank you. If I couldn’t be holding my babies and taking those pictures that all new moms take in their hospital gowns with their squishy looking babies all wrapped up in the white blanket with the blue and pink lines, I was at least going to be productive.
I pumped every 3 hours. I pumped in my room, I pumped in the NICU, I pumped in the cafeteria (just kidding about that last one). Around the 24 hour mark, I finally produced a drop of milk. Yay! As soon I had enough drops to cover the bottom of the small collection bottle, I put my patient label on it and marched it over to the NICU with a grin on my face. The nurse smiled back and gave me such encouragement. I met with a lactation counselor and confirmed that I was using the right size flange, and assured me that my milk would come in soon.
On day three or four, my milk came in (or so I thought). I was finally able to get almost one ounce on each side per pump session. Overnight, I was even able to get an ounce and a half. I met with the lactation consultants daily while the babies were in the hospital. They continued to encourage me, and soon I was able to feed my milk to the babies via feeding tube and a tiny syringe.
About two weeks after the babies were born, I met with a new lactation consultant who I hadn’t seen before. I was still pumping, up to 8-10 times per day. I was drinking “mother’s milk tea,” baking lactation cookies, and drinking the occasional hoppy beer, all in desperate attempt to increase my supply. I was making about 8 ounces, total, per day. When I explained this to her, she smiled at me, hesitantly. She explained that the milk that I was making now was probably the most I was ever going to make. I’m sorry, what?
I started going to acupuncture specifically for lactation. I researched incessantly. I pumped until it hurt. I cried. I took baby blankets home from the NICU and inhaled the scent of my babies (or rather, the clean, hospital scent) to help release more oxytocin. Ultimately, the lactation consultant was correct. Soon enough, the babies were eating much more than I could even dream of keeping up with.
When we were finally all reunited at home as a family of four, six weeks later, I continued to try and pump and nurse, but ultimately there was never enough for a full feeding for even one of the babies. The babies were spitting up their formula, and I was spitting up guilt.
I looked in the mirror and faced that shamed, sleepless mother. After much crying, self-shaming, and guilt, I pulled myself together to come up with a solution. I realized that while I was desperate for the breastfeeding experience, what truly mattered to me was that my babies had breast milk. I wanted them to have the most gentle nourishment for their immature bellies. I wanted them to have every possible chance at disease protection, healthy growth, and intelligence. They could be attached to me in other ways.
My research ultimately led me to the world of milk sharing, which is an informal but informed method of directed milk donation. This is different from milk donor banks, which is a formal process of milk collection, screening, and distribution. In milk sharing, the milk is not tested. It is up to the milk-producer and milk-receiver to communicate with one another and ask appropriate questions. There is absolutely no money exchanged with milk sharing. It is a true selfless labor of love and appreciation.
The majority of milk sharing is done through social media. Once my husband and I decided that this was best for our babies, I quickly looked up my state’s network and started reading. The page would post multiple times daily. Posts would be either from parents looking for milk or moms with milk to share.
After a few days, I saw a post in my feed from a mom named Lilac. What a beautiful name, I love lilacs. I love their heart shape, their sweet scent, and their devotion to return every year.
That’s when I sat down at my computer and crafted my response to her personal ad. She responded quickly, and within a week we met and she sent me home with 1500 ounces of milk. She was immediately like an old friend to me, hugging me before I left, and texting me the next day to make sure everything went well. She had milk to share at least monthly throughout their first nine months of life. I reserved the milk for when they were particularly gassy, when they were teething, and when they had sniffles. One of the girls had a bit more sensitive of a stomach, and she never spit up after a breast milk bottle.
Lilac gave my babies the important nourishment that I couldn’t provide, and I am so grateful for that. However, her selfless act of generosity gave me permission to forgive myself. As I fed my babies breast milk from little lilac colored bottles, the guilt started to melt away. I was no longer the mom who couldn’t stay pregnant long enough. I was no longer the mom who couldn’t keep her babies safe, healthy, and nourished. I was deserving of my children, no matter how hard and long I tried to conceive them.
Ultimately, providing breast milk to my babies was more nourishing and healing to me than it was to them. Finding Lilac validated me as a new mother and taught me that whatever I decide is the right thing for my babies is actually the right thing. She helped me learn that it’s not how we feed our babies that defines our motherhood. Rather, like a lilac, it is the shape of our heart, our sweet scent, and our devotion that shows our babies the magnitude of our love.