Before I gave birth to my son, one of my biggest fears (aside from pushing a tiny human out of my vagina) was breastfeeding.
I’d heard horror stories of bleeding nipples, over-engorged breasts that leaked night and day and babies who wouldn’t latch, wouldn’t eat or wouldn’t even try. So imagine my relief when, moments after my son was born, he latched and refused to let go — like the boob barnacle he is.
Many thoughts ran through my head, such as, “He latched!” and “My breast milk is immortal!” and “I need a nap.” Flash-forward 10 months, and I’m defrosting a bag of that same breast milk to put in a bottle — for someone else’s kid.
For a couple of months after my son Trip was born, my breasts took a while to figure out the whole supply-and-demand thing. They didn’t produce enough milk. This led to something parents dread: Your child is screaming because he’s hungry, and you’re not able to feed him. I spent many nights shushing and rocking my baby boy, crying and apologizing for my lazy boobs that just could not seem to get their act together. My husband went on countless midnight pharmacy runs to get formula while I pumped for two hours straight and only produced half an ounce of milk.
Eventually, my supply evened out, but all those sleepless nights led to one outcome: My son will not take a bottle. Maybe it’s because he had to wait too long for those measly pumped half ounces; maybe it’s because when my breasts finally started producing enough, he was like, “This is what I’ve been waiting for,” and clung on for dear life. However we got here, if it’s not a boob, my son has no interest in drinking from it.
We went through dozens of different kinds of bottles — round nipples, flat nipples, one bottle that looked very (a little too) much like a realistic breast, all to no avail. I’m fortunate enough to be at home with Trip most days, so although his bottle refusal was annoying, it wasn’t really a problem since my breasts were always available. But it did mean I had bags and bags of valuable pumped breast milk left languishing in my freezer.
When Trip was about 10 months old, the family my mom nannies for had a newborn — a baby girl. When my mom came home one day and suggested that I donate all those bags of frozen breast milk to that newborn, I balked. At first, I was completely weirded out. Why wasn’t her mom breastfeeding her herself?
“She tried it and just really hated it,” my mom explained. “But she recognizes that breastfeeding is better for the baby, so was wondering if you would donate yours.”
At the time, this seemed ridiculous to me. “You think breastfeeding is better for your child, but you’re skipping it because… you don’t like it?” I wondered. I was surprised that I actually felt angry about this, especially because I knew this newborn girl had a 2-year-old sister in day care who would likely bring home all kinds of germs to the poor defenseless newborn. Could breast milk actually help keep her healthy even if it wasn’t her mom’s?
I stared at the stacks of frozen breast milk crammed in my freezer, jammed under the waffles, and tried to put my emotions aside. “If Trip doesn’t drink these, which he won’t, all this breast milk will go to waste,” I told myself.
Still, it seemed too personal, like sharing a toothbrush with a stranger. Breast milk is a bodily fluid after all, like blood! Although, OK, donating blood is completely accepted and normal. So why did I still feel uneasy? Maybe I would have felt better if this were a total stranger — some nameless, faceless baby I didn’t see on a regular basis. I had thoughts of running into this girl at the grocery store when she’s a teenager and awkwardly blurting out, “You drank my breast milk!”
I polled some of my mom friends. They all said it was weird. But I agreed to do it anyway.
I gathered up the bags of breast milk, put them in a cooler, and dropped them off with my mom to give to the newborn. I didn’t mention any of this to my husband or even some of my friends because I knew there would be people who simply wouldn’t understand. Sure, if the mom was unable to breastfeed for some reason or had an illness that affected her breast milk, they might get why I would donate my milk. But donating my breast milk to a healthy mom who simply chose not to breastfeed? Was I just some kind of modern-day wet nurse?
Today, though, I get that I was off base in my initial questioning. Trip is a year-and-a-half now, and I feel like I’ve seen it all at this point. I have friends who breastfeed, friends who tried for a while before opting for formula and friends who never tried at all. And guess what: It’s all totally fine. It took me a while to realize that breastfeeding isn’t for everyone, that “fed is best” and that all parents have to do what feels right for them, even if that means getting donated breast milk from your daughter’s nanny’s daughter. Who knew?
Despite my initial hesitation, I’m really glad I donated my breast milk to that baby. And I would absolutely do it again — if I can ever get my own little barnacle to detach, that is.