Historic Precedent of Milk Sharing
Since mothers first gave birth to children, they fed their infants with breast milk. In communities, mothers who could not produce enough milk would often share the responsibility with other mothers rather than let their babies go hungry.
This practice is not the same as wet nursing. A wet nurse was hired, usually by someone wealthy, to nurse the child solely.
Milk sharing, on the other hand, varies in its forms. In some cases, a mother may allow another mother to help nurse the child directly. In other cases, the milk is expressed and fed to the infant through a bottle or, historically, trickling into the mouth. The main point is that, though the mother cannot produce enough milk to feed her child, she still participates and is the mother. She is not giving over her child to another. She is just letting someone else help her feed.
The Shame Complex
So that leads to the question, why is it so hard not to feel ashamed when we can’t produce enough milk? With my first two children, I had no problems producing enough milk. But for some reason that I still do not understand, I could no longer produce enough when my eldest son was born.
A Generous Donor
Donated milk is scarce, and the places where you buy it from generally process it. I don’t want to give that to my baby for the same reasons I don’t want to drink processed milk. Fortunately for me, the internet now makes it easy to connect with mothers kind enough to help.
My research led me to some popular online communities, including Eats on Feets and Human Milk 4 Human Babies. While I intended to actually join one of these groups, I actually ended up receiving a surprise call. “Dana said you need breast milk,” the woman on the other line said. And with that abrupt start, she introduced herself as Madelynn, a friend of a friend. As I listened, she told me a great deal about herself, including her medical background and lifestyle choices as well as the number of children she had and their health. She ended her monologue with, “I understand that this is a hard time for you, but I know where you’re coming from. I couldn’t feed my babies at first either, and someone helped me. That’s why I want to help you.”
Before I knew it, arrangements were being made. We agreed to meet for the first time at the local flower shop. I sat in the car, Corrim wrapped in the baby sling and pressed close to my chest. He was particularly thin when compared to my other children, and the long sleepless nights had drained my last reserves of strength. Then Madelynn arrived.
She had the milk in small containers, frozen but ready to be defrosted. Wrapped in a deep green scarf and smiling broadly, she extended her hand to me and said, “Thanks for being open to this. I hope that it helps Corrim. You know we’re sisters now.”
“They used to do it all the time in those old days. If a woman couldn’t feed her baby, then her sister would help her. Or someone like a sister. I don’t know. I thought maybe it would make you feel better.” She shrugged again and then went on to tell me about a tribe in Africa that practiced this. Apparently she had traveled there at some point.
I nodded blearily, hardly paying attention to the jumble. But then she offered me the basket. Madelynn had even been kind enough to prepare a bottle. As we continued to talk, I offered it to him, and my baby boy latched onto that bottle as if he had been starving.
Feelings of Helplessness and Inadequacy
I wish I could tell you that I was at once delighted to see my little boy drinking with such vigor. But somehow with each slurp and guzzle, another chip of my self-esteem slipped away. I felt as if my ability to provide and to even be a mother had vanished down the drain. And suddenly, there was another woman feeding my son. She was able to step in and do what I could not.
Now I don’t know if it was maybe the hormones or the lack of sleep inside of me or if this was just a nasty part of my psyche that I did not want to address, but before I knew it, I resented Madelynn. The only reason that I stayed in touch with her was because I knew how much Corrim needed the milk. And as I watched him grow and strengthen, I felt worse and worse. His cheeks filled out, and he slept longer. His little sighs at night became far more contented and far less contentious.
These feelings were ones that I did not dare to reveal to anyone. They were much too dark. But finally I broke down and told my mother exactly how I felt. And like any good mother, she listened while sipping her steaming white pear tea.
“Of course it’s not easy, Ana,” she said. She stroked Corrim’s head as he lay nestled against me. “But you’re still his mommy. And you have to remember that you are not helpless.”
“But I can’t give him what he needs!” I wailed.
“Shhh. Don’t wake him,” Mom said. She shook her head and smiled at me. Corrim only stirred a little. “Yes, Ana, you made a choice. You could have put him on formula, but you chose to find a better alternative. You chose to give your son what you thought was best.”
I nodded, but I really didn’t believe her. The fact was that I felt like Madelynn was somewhere in between an angel and a demon. She was generously donating all of this breast milk to me, and she would not accept any payment in return. But at the same time, whenever I saw her or the milk in the little clear plastic bottles, I could not help but think how worthless I was as a mother.
But sometimes motherly wisdom takes time to sink in. And for me, it sunk in when I realized what an idiot I had been. Though I had said the words “thank you” and offered Madelynn gas money and fresh made cookies when she came out to the house, I had not really been grateful. I knew in my head the benefits of the breastmilk, but I had not taken them to my own heart.
I realized right then that I needed to do something to show Madelynn how grateful I was to her. Having a passion for art, I decided to use a website I had found called Vision Bedding. (We had discovered it earlier when my older son destroyed his friend's blanket!) They allowed clients to upload pictures onto the website and arrange them on comforters and blankets. And I knew exactly what I was going to put on it.
Once I reached the house, I began painting in water colors on matte board. The colors swirled together as I sketched and painted the images I knew Madelynn would like. Portraits of my son and hers, a tribal village, two women carrying babies in baby slings, and the like. I chose deep reds, strong blues, bright ochres, and vibrant greens as my primary choices with mahogany brown to set them off all the more.
When we demonstrate our gratitude and accept someone’s kindness to us, it puts us back in control. Or in my case, it made me realize that I had never been out of control to begin with. My darling Corrim was healthier than ever, and I had made the best choice I could for him. Showing gratitude is important and helps to ward off depression.
While I loved the blanket for Madelynn and Madelynn loved it just as much, you can choose any number of ways to show your thankfulness. In my personal opinion, when you make or do something that takes effort, it has a far stronger impact on you as well. Here are some other ideas.
When you are unable to provide enough milk for your children, you are not a failure. And if you are blessed enough to find a woman who is willing to share her milk with you, then know that you are indeed blessed. She is not replacing you. She is helping you as women have helped one another for ages. Take the time to thank her, and remember to acknowledge yourself. You are making the decision to participate in this arrangement, and you are doing what is best for your baby.
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