Yesterday, as I was driving home from work, I received a text from my husband Josh, who was home watching our seven-month-old daughter, SJ.
“How long ‘til you get home? Had a problem with the milk.”
My heart dropped into the pit of my stomach, and I instantly panicked. I called him back right away and asked, “What do you mean a problem with the milk?!”
Apparently, he had taken a bag of frozen breast milk out of the new chest freezer in our garage and, once warmed, it smelled funky. He took out another bag, and then another, which yielded the same results. I confirmed when I got home that each bag, pulled from different months, seemed sour. (Yes, I tasted it. Get over it.)
The rest of the evening went by in a blur, I felt in a daze as I waited for a few more bags to thaw overnight. I reviewed over and over again in my head the things that could have gone wrong. We didn’t have any long power outages, nor did I leave my milk out to spoil before freezing. Noticing my dismay, Josh asked me if I was okay, and I shrugged. I tried a few times to articulate the myriad of feelings I was experiencing. And it was then that I realized I was grieving.
I was grieving the potential loss of about 500 ounces (that’s about 20 days worth of milk) that I’d carefully and consciously saved over the last 6 months. When I said it out loud, it almost seemed silly. Who grieves over MILK?!
But I wasn’t necessarily grieving the loss of the milk — I have nothing against formula and would give it to my baby in a heartbeat if she was hungry. I was thinking about the countless hours I’d spent pumping at work in a cold, stark, windowless room. The mundane nightly routine of washing the pump parts and the bottles. SO MANY BOTTLES. The labeling of baggies. The investment of the chest freezer, just for the milk. The illnesses, complications, and personal sacrifices — all for the purpose of keeping my baby full and fed and happy.
Let me explain. I am “lucky” enough to have an oversupply, which means I produce more than enough milk for my baby. Sometimes way too much. Which is why I’ve been able to save up 500 ounces of milk in the freezer. Some mothers I know would kill to have this “problem,” and I realize this every single day. But oversupply is not without its own complications.
This past summer, after several days of waking up painfully full of milk — in wet sheets from milk leaking during the night — I developed a clog in my left breast that would not break free. I spent hours in the shower, massaging the hard lump with my fingers and even with an electric toothbrush! I took supplements, nursed on all fours, pumped, and used heating pads. Eventually, the hard lump became warm and red, so I visited the doctor who prescribed an antibiotic for mastitis, a breast infection.
A week later, I developed a fever and revisited the doctor, who whisked me away for an ultrasound. I was diagnosed with an abscess, and sent to a breast surgeon the very same day. Luckily, the doctor was able to aspirate the abscess with a very large needle instead of performing surgery. He diagnosed it as staph, and with a harsher antibiotic, I was free of symptoms within another few weeks.
This whole ordeal lasted about six weeks, and I was lucky enough to be able to nurse SJ throughout. All the while, I worried and fretted over our breastfeeding relationship, and if it would cease due to this severe complication. I rode an emotional roller coaster, similar to the experience of last night, wondering if I could continue to provide the nourishment that still tied us together months after SJ was born.
My story is not unique. I am lucky enough to have several friends with young babies, and we’ve all shared our stories and struggles. One friend pumps for hours every night while her baby is fast asleep to ensure she has enough milk for daycare the next day. Another struggles with baby’s food allergies and must adhere to a strict diet herself, so her daughter will not have a reaction. One friend exclusively pumps, just so her baby can drink her milk in some way, shape, or form. And some cannot nurse at all, with no lack of relentless trying.
We use nipple shields, special pillows, supplemental nursing systems, lanolin, breast pads, nursing bras, hospital grade pumps, lactation rooms, and support groups. We bake lactation cookies and brownies and eat oatmeal everyday, even when we’re sick of it, with the promise of increasing milk production. We endure the first few weeks, when feeding every other hour feels like tiny razor blades slowly tearing apart our nipples. We get up multiple times during the night, every night, when the rest of the house sleeps.
All the while, we soldier on, mostly silent, as we bear the heavy weight of keeping another human alive — our most important responsibility as mothers. We hide the emotional burden of breast milk under our tired smiles, just as we uncomfortably hide our infants under nursing covers in public.
As it turns out, SJ drank the defrosted milk today. With help from an amazing online community I belong to, I deduced that I likely have high lipase levels in my milk, a harmless condition that causes milk to taste funkier at colder temperatures. As long as she continues to drink it, we’re in the clear.
But the temporary grief of last night still lingers with me, which made me realize how emotionally and personally invested I am in this breastfeeding journey. Besides the fact that I spent countless hours producing, pumping, and storing all the milk in that freezer for SJ’s future consumption, I am completely in awe over our special bond formed by the simple act of nursing. I am thankful and grateful everyday that I am able to breastfeed my daughter, even with the struggles and complications that come along with it.
And for all the other moms out there who struggle with the emotional burden of breast milk — whether you have too much, don’t have enough, or choose not to nurse at all — I see you and I recognize myself in you. You are doing the best you can everyday, and that will always be enough.