Wednesday, May 17, 2017

An Ode to Breastmilk: Bye-Bye to the Baby Years

I was unable to feed my son Luc on the day he was born; nor was I able to in the 3 days to follow since the magnesium sulfate IV drip meant to control my high blood pressure delayed my milk from coming in. I was too stubborn to succumb to formula due to the societal focus on the benefits of breastfeeding, but as I watched his lips dry out and his skin and eyes yellow from jaundice, a mounting panic gripped my heart, compounding my sense of helplessness. I cranked up the borrowed hospital-grade pump, watching in frustration as hours upon hours of pumping yielded the thinnest layer of condensation on the breast shields like how a window may frost over on a cold day, not even enough milk to scrape off with a spoon. Where was this mythical yellow-gold colostrum that was supposed to come in thick like honey to flush out his jaundice and save his life? I brought Luc frequently to the breast, watching him suck and suck and give in to crying, expending more energy than he was able to take back from my dry breasts.

This is a mother’s fear brought to life, and nothing makes you feel like a failure like the inability to feed your baby. That “F” you got in school from laziness to study, those goals you gave up on, those resolutions that you never saw to fruition—they don’t compare to the feeling of watching your little one go hungry. I had myself known hunger and cold; the unsureness of a long immigration journey; the pain of sprains and bruises from years of martial arts training; and nothing broke me like not being able to provide the only food my son could eat. I cried openly in front of family and strangers, an act so foreign to me from having grown used to hiding my feelings in public.

My milk did come in on the 4th day, in which time I had caved and introduced a bit of formula, constantly fearful that Luc would then not want what I was finally able to give since the first food he knew was this artificiality. But he did take to the breast like there was never a blip in our earliest days together, and thanks to the care that family members lavished upon me with fresh-cooked food daily and extra hands to mind my baby as I got a new mother’s much-needed rest, my milk continued to flow. Luc never went back to preferring formula the very few times it was offered to him, so he stayed on breastmilk. 

At first, I worried about undersupply. I took blessed thistle and fenugreek pills and filled my diet with natural galactagogues like oatmeal, flax seed, cinnamon, and lots of protein. I got to know two pump brands and their various parts, keeping up my supply with religious pump times around the clock. 

Eventually, a good yield

When I went back to work, I frequented the New Mother’s Room and set up calendar reminders to make motherhood my priority around a chaotic schedule of meetings and project deadlines. Twice a day at work, I’d hook up my pump supplies and listen to the drone of the motor as I worked around the tubing with my laptop balanced precariously on my knees. 

Medela pump all hooked up

Worried about the work stress and the separation from Luc causing a dip in supply, I baked and consumed lactation muffins to keep up. 

A fresh batch of lactation muffins: oatmeal, yeast, flax seed, and chocolate chips

A lot of women joke about burning their pumps, annoyed by the whole time-consuming process, but I was thankful for how hard my pumps worked to help me make and store milk. I felt calm and soothed within the dark-purple walls of the tiny New Mother’s Room with its two glider chairs, dim lighting, and low hum of the mini-fridge where we stored our milk.

My own little world, visited twice a workday

Luc would not take my breastmilk that had been frozen due to my high lipase, so the limited free time that cushioned my tending to him was filled with washing and boiling pump parts, racking them up to dry, reassembling them, and remembering to pack them for work. Whatever milk Luc didn’t consume, I’d painstakingly scald to cut the lipase smell, dunk it in ice to rapid-cool, measure it into storage bags, and fill up the freezer to store for a rainy day. 

Rapid-cooling the scalded milk

Whereas before I used to stumble around the whole breastfeeding and milk-pumping experience with a rookie clumsiness, I deftly learned its ins and outs, assembling the gazillion pump parts in record time without having to consult the User’s Manual, learning how to travel with fresh and frozen breastmilk and how to handle the TSA pre-check, and how to feed the baby in 15 minutes without having to worry about his latch, carrying him around with one arm as he fed and doing light chores with the other arm.

The myriad Medela PISA and Spectra S1 pump parts freshly washed and ready for assembly

My worry over undersupply gained way to a freezer stocked with bags of breastmilk and us cutting down on buying frozen food in bulk to make room. 

Bounty of breastmilk

I have only given birth to one baby to date, but I helped feed 6 others. From a friend’s recommendation, I joined a mother-to-mother group and offered to donate my milk. Reading the stories of some of the babies, I felt very fortunate to be able to offer my healthy baby boy a continual supply of milk. My first donation was to a mother who could not breastfeed due to having cancer and undergoing chemotherapy that renders her breastmilk unfit for consumption. I had grown to think that deciding to give breastmilk or formula was largely a personal choice, but some babies could not tolerate formula as it causes them terrible stomach upset and sickness. I also thought budget constraints were a major factor in moms preferring to give breastmilk since they could not afford formula, but a lot of the moms requesting breastmilk are successful career women whose milk supply might’ve tanked from life stressors, or who never had enough to begin with. Even with money at their disposal, they are sometimes unable to provide their babies with something so essential. I know a thing or two about what that feels like. Whereas I never had to alter my diet to feed my son, other babies require dairy-free milk donations for their unique health conditions. Some moms were local enough to pick up milk after I arranged a rendezvous point, while others were willing to trek across hundreds of miles to collect enough to feed their babies for a month, a week, or just to hold them over for a couple of days before they could devise a new game plan. The donors are generous, too—some offer to ship their milk, or run it to new mamas who could not yet leave the hospital. For some babies, the walls of a hospital are all that they know, having grown up in it or frequently checking in for life-saving surgeries as breastmilk is requested to boost their immune system and help them recover. I continued to pump, store, and give, and eventually I was able to donate 801 ounces to 6 babies in need.

A donation stash - roughly 100 oz make up a monthly donation

Oversupply had one nasty side effect that reared itself when I tried to naturally cut back on pumping: mastitis. In late-January when I grieved over my grandmother’s declining health from Alzheimer’s and her impending death, I woke up in the middle of the night with a dull pain in my right breast that felt at first like I had gone too long without emptying it. Exhausted, I fell back asleep and hoped it would go away after unsuccessfully attempting to dream-feed Luc. The next time I woke up a few hours later, the searing pain got worse. I attempted the manual pump that always sits on my night stand, but I couldn’t get but an ounce of milk. I trekked to the refrigerator to grab my pump parts in the Ziploc bag, and after my usual 20 minutes of electric pumping, the milk was still largely clogged and the pain didn’t go away. Chills started to set in, and I shivered with fever through the rest of the night. The Motrin I took didn’t do much for the pain, which I was starting to fear would not go away for days like when I dealt with my numerous milk clogs in the past. The next day, the Year of the Monkey ended, and my family ushered in the Year of the Rooster as I lay feverish in bed and the milk I managed to pump became laced with blood, indicating that an infection had set in. 

Pink-tinged milk that I had to dump

That evening, I waited for close to two hours in Urgent Care, the first time I could remember going to an emergency room over the weekend to get treatment for myself. After a round of antibiotics, plenty of warm compresses in an attempt to get rid of the clog, massages with turmeric (anti-inflammatory) and crushed chrysanthemum leaves (traditional treatment), I was on the mend. Along with probiotic pills to combat the effects of antibiotics, I added anti-clogging lecithin pills to my daily regimen of prenatal pills for breastmilk nutritional health.

By February, I actively cut down on my pumping; by March, I dropped pumping sessions and pumped for less and less time to taper off, cutting down my sessions by 2 minutes every couple of days. I downed Earth Mama’s “No More Milk” peppermint and sage tea and ate Altoids mints to cut my supply.

Curiously strong peppermints to naturally decrease supply

I had been pumped for 14 months, two months longer than I had thought to go before stopping. I had been given advice such as:
  • “You’d better start your baby on formula soon so he could get used to the taste and you could stop breastfeeding.”
  •  “Your baby’s so skinny—your milk must not be nutritious enough.”
  • “You’re so skinny—you’re giving away all your nutrition. Why not try formula so you could pump/feed less and gain some weight.”
  • You’d better quit night-nursing or else your baby will never sleep straight through without expecting to be fed.”
Luc started naturally sleeping through the night on his own without asking to feed by the time he was 15 months. This is longer than a lot of babies whose parents put a conscious effort into sleep-training, but he weaned himself from night nursing all on his own. When he turned 16 months—two months after bidding farewell to my rendezvous times in the New Mother’s Room at work—I dropped his last feed, the one right before bedtime. 

A fond adieu to the New Mother's Room as I closed its doors, along with this chapter of my life

The first night, Luc cried himself to sleep as his dad tried to console him while I left the room completely and took a shower, hearing him scream through the noise of the water. The second night, he cried less and soothed to sleep faster. The third night, after gulping down a warmed bottle of my meticulously stored frozen breastmilk, he cuddled with me and fell softly to sleep without crying.

Some days, I wish I were still nursing him, to have such a natural and sure-proof method to soothe away his fevers, pains, and distress. Some days, I long for the time when he was still a baby that fit comfortably in the crook of my arm, those lazy summer afternoons when I was still on maternity leave, when my life was regulated by his internal clock and not the one on the wall that dictated schedules and deadlines to adhere to. Some days, I miss the gentle tug of his suckling as we nestled together in bed, lulled to sleep by the magic that accompanies a beautiful and complete nursing session. I miss the way he looked up intently at me as he nursed, curiously exploring the terrain of my face with his hands, or lovingly stroking my belly as he filled his, or how he’d pull away from the breast with a few last suckling motions long after he drifted off into a satisfied slumber.

I stopped short of several goals in my life. I was behind two people to be valedictorian of my middle school and was only about Top 5 of my high school. I was one rank away from earning my black belt in aikido and one speech away from earning my Competent Communicator award in Toastmasters. But one goal I did exceed at from my target of 12 months, and that is to keep my son on breastmilk. It was a journey complete with physical and emotional pain, blood from mastitis, tears of frustration, smiles of gratitude, and gained wisdom and experience by the end. As I bid bye-bye to my son’s baby years and buckle up for his adventure into toddlerhood, I mostly look back with fondness to the hours of nursing, frozen stored bags, and 801 ounces of donated breastmilk. 800 ounces in honor of the 6 babies I helped feed. And 1 ounce in homage to the first one I pump in the hospital room on the day I was able to successfully feed my little boy a part of my sacrifice, and all of my love.