Milk, But No Baby

The following is written from the point of view of Thursday, December 2nd, 2021. Five days after Benjamin was born.

Today felt like a milestone. But first I have to explain why.

Monday night my milk came in, which felt horrible and unfair, not to mention VERY physically painful. All my thoughts went about like this: This milk was supposed to be for my baby, and now he isn’t here for me to nurse. And the lack of him being here is causing so much pain in every sense of the word. I lay in bed and sobbed that night over this terrible, tangible reminder of my baby’s absence. Overnight things got even worse. Three times one kid or another was up during the night. Any loving thought I had toward them or toward Nathanael for taking care of them made the pain of my milk coming in spike, like a really painful let-down (the nursing mommies reading know what that’s like). The reason? Feelings of love cause a release of oxytocin in the brain. Oxytocin causes milk to be squeezed into and out of milk ducts. Early in a breastfeeding journey, that squeeze is often painful. So all night while I tried in vain to sleep through the pain, it was only made worse by having any loving thought whatsoever about my needy children who were also waking me up, or about my husband who was taking care of them. It is literally painful to love right now.

Tuesday was even more awful. The physical pain of engorgement was all-consuming, on top of the already impossible emotional pain. I felt suffocated by this dark cloud that was descending and thickening around me. I spent Tuesday and yesterday using every method I know of to try to dry up my milk, including forcing down the most disgusting tea I’ve ever tasted. I had reached a mostly tolerable physical balance, but even that didn’t make the situation with my milk feel any more tolerable. I was really torn those two days about whether I actually wanted to dry it up, so even while I was doing everything I could to do just that, I was hesitant whether that was really what I wanted. It felt like the only way I could deal with the physical pain, and yet making that milk go away also felt wrong.

When our daughter Hope was in the NICU after being born at 30 weeks’ gestation, I donated a LOT of milk to a regional milk bank that supplies area NICUs with human milk for babies whose moms aren’t able to provide that. It was an incredibly meaningful experience at that time, and I always hoped to be able to do it again. I had thought in the years since then that I would donate if I ever had it to give again, even if it was because I lost a baby. Once faced with that reality, though, I didn’t know if I could emotionally handle pumping without my own baby here to feed.

And that brings me to today. Three days of this mental and physical torture had felt like so much more than three days. Today a wise friend shared her “two cents” about my dilemma. She suggested that creating a built-in cadence to my days of stepping out of the chaos of raising little kids so that I could pump could give me space to be alone with my feelings and thoughts. She said that might be really therapeutic even while painful sometimes. She also said this could be something Benjamin and I get to offer other moms and babies as a team. And it could even be a helpful way for me to not feel guilty for needing to step away from the demands of our girls, since they’ll also get used to the routine. Her input really resonated with me, and as I listened to her tearful words, I felt a weight lift from my shoulders.

So today I stopped drinking all the teas to dry my milk and spent a few minutes pumping a couple of times. It felt surprisingly grounding and brought a sense of relief I didn’t expect. I thought I’d be a puddle of tears, and I’m sure later I will, but somehow it actually really helped me feel like myself again. Something I’m mourning is not getting to nurse this baby. Nursing is near and dear to me. If you’ve ever heard me talk about nursing in person you know how geeked out about it I get. And while it’s still super painful that I can’t actually hold and nurture MY baby, I’m still in awe of the miraculous way human milk works, and I’m excited to be able to gift that to somebody else.

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