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Liquid Gold

Jessica Lietz
Columbus OH USA
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 25, No. 3, 2008, pp. 14-15

On becoming a mother, a woman must give much of herself. Whether you consider motherhood begins at conception, birth, signing of adoption papers, or at any point in between, an implicit sense of selflessness takes over. Nothing can prepare a mother for just how much of herself she can give.

Breastfeeding my daughter, Natalya, was something I knew I would do. Factually, I knew of all the benefits for both of us: reduction in risk of obesity, allergies, and diabetes for her; decreased risk of breast cancer and a quicker return to pre-pregnancy weight for me. While pregnant, I read a lot about breastfeeding; my husband and I took a class at the hospital, and I canvassed my co-workers about their experiences. Because I would be returning to work after a three-month leave, I had many questions about breast pumps, giving my baby expressed milk, stockpiling my milk, and milk supply. I knew I wanted Natalya to have the best start in life and I knew that the best way to do that was to breastfeed exclusively for at least six months, and continue for as long as we wanted to.

Following the advice of several co-workers and International Board Certified Lactation Consultants, when Natalya was six weeks old, I began using an electric double breast pump to begin storing up my milk for my return to work. One Saturday morning, I asked my husband to give her a bottle of expressed milk, so she could get used to taking milk from an artificial nipple. I hovered outside the doorway, tears in my eyes, knowing that my maternity leave was coming to a close. Natalya must have felt the same way, as she screamed when the bottle emptied. My mind flooded with worry that I would not be able to pump enough milk for her when I returned to work. With both of us crying, I scooped her up in my arms and she immediately latched on. I wondered whether all I had to give would be enough.

I prepared for my return to my position as an epidemiologist at my state's health department. I was quite lucky in that my agency had two dedicated private rooms for nursing mothers to pump their milk. The rooms were equipped with hospital grade pumps, and each mother was given her own kit for use. As there were five mothers, including me, who would be pumping, we devised a schedule so that our pumping needs would be met. Because Natalya was, and still is, a frequent nurser, I scheduled myself for four pumping sessions each day. Before I knew it, the stockpile of milk had overtaken my freezer's capacity. So much for worrying about my supply! Because there is no way to tell how much milk a baby has taken from the breast, I had no idea how much would be needed at daycare. I soon realized that I needed to do something with all the extra, precious milk, lest it engulf the entire kitchen!

So much is written and discussed about ways to increase a mother's milk supply, but I could find little information about decreasing it. Instead, I searched on the Internet for things to do with my extra milk. I came across recipes for mothers' milk soap, homemade lotions, and "momsicles." Lacking both time and energy to devote to such endeavors, I was thrilled to come across information on milk donation. I took my time in reading about the uses of donated human milk and the process of becoming a donor, but, in all truth, I had already made my mind up. Although the process of becoming a milk donor is involved, donating your milk is a gift of life that is more precious than gold.

I contacted the Mothers' Milk Bank of Ohio, and a warm, friendly voice greeted me. We spoke at length on breastfeeding and the benefits to mother, baby, and society as a whole. I completed the initial health survey over the phone and a lengthy written assessment with contact information, so that the milk bank could contact Natalya's pediatrician and my obstetrician-gynecologist to ensure that donating our extra milk would not be harmful to either of us. Once the milk bank received the signed documentation, I came in for blood work to screen for hepatitis B, hepatitis C, syphilis, HIV, and HTLV. Once I had passed the screening tests, I officially became a milk donor. It was a family affair when we took our first donation to the milk bank on my 28th birthday.

On that first trip to the milk bank, the director showed me a scrapbook of donor mothers and of recipient families. To say that it brought tears to my eyes would be an understatement. Some of the donor mothers had only precious hours with their babies, due to genetic or developmental birth defects, yet they chose to honor their children by donating the milk meant for their own babies. Some of the recipient families described their harrowing experiences in neonatal intensive care units, lengthy hospitalizations, and surgical interventions on their precious miracles. I understood what the gift of milk meant to these parents and families because my only sibling was born prematurely at 23 weeks gestation, and, due to her prematurity, she has severe physical and mental handicaps. She could have benefited from mothers' milk. My "oversupply" is a blessing, and I do not see the extra milk as "mine," but rather as a gift meant for sharing with others.

As the anniversary of my first donation approaches, I am reminded every day when I see my healthy daughter, of the goodness and blessings of my milk. I will again visit the Mothers' Milk Bank of Ohio on my birthday this year, to have my lab work updated so that we can continue donating our "liquid gold."

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