By Caroline Herman – Rockville, Maryland, USA
I want to tell you a story about pumping breastmilk. I want to tell it mostly because that’s what we do as humans when we are feeling lonely or frightened or unsure of ourselves. We tell our stories and hope they have the power to banish our ghosts.
Before my daughter Cecilia was even born, her big sister, Lizzy, died very suddenly of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) pneumonia. Lizzy was two years old and the light of my life. Cecilia was born a month to the day after Lizzy died. They never even got to meet. By the time Cecilia was four months old, we were told she needed glasses. A few months later, we were told she was blind. At nine months, they told us Cecilia had a rare genetic disorder that causes both blindness and eventual kidney failure, although she has no signs yet of kidney disease. We were also told Lizzy’s death and Cecilia’s disorder were unrelated.
I breastfed Lizzy every day of her life until the morning we took her to the emergency room. I breastfed her even when my pregnancy with Cecilia made it painful. I nursed her for ten minutes every morning, gritting my teeth through my breastfeeding aversion until the morning I lost her.
I breastfed Cecilia too, effortlessly and wonderfully, for almost a year. Just before she turned one, I made one of the biggest mistakes of my life and had her lip and tongue ties reversed. She was so traumatized by the procedure and the pain it caused her afterwards that she has refused my breasts from that day forward.
Learning new ways to love my daughter
I have been exclusively pumping now for three months. My milk supply has dropped to a third of what it was. I reserve most of my milk to get us through the nights, carefully measuring two ounces for each bottle: the first bottle to help her fall asleep, the second for waking in the night, and the last for waking in the morning. I give her the final two ounces before her nap every day.
Most days, I feel like I’m just limping along, hoping against hope that one day Cecilia will decide she wants to come back to the breast. On other days, I feel sure that she won’t. Sometimes, I don’t know how to cope with the reality of my life, of Lizzy’s death and Cecilia’s disease. But I do know that breastfeeding was a security blanket for us both that has been ripped away, taking with it the comfort and bonding it once provided.
Since losing breastfeeding, I find I track Cecilia’s moods like a farmer tracks the weather. I read her cues like a language no one else has yet discovered. We’ve become addicted to storytime as a panacea for tears. I can feel her mind stretch and grasp towards the rhythm of my voice reading the same books with the same intonation, as if I’m weaving a magic spell used only to calm babies. I sing lullabies too, with my weak and discordant voice that pales in comparison to the perfect pitch of her various coos, hoots, and sighing calls that she uses to tell me she’s happy. We bounce on an exercise ball, swing in a bucket swing, and practice standing at her baby piano while I drop kisses on her neck, shoulders, and upper arms. At night, she snuggles close to my breasts, compulsively kneading the skin above them as though she’s trying to summon a memory of what we once had. We fall asleep as I hold and stroke and sing to her, and I find that losing breastfeeding has forced me to learn new ways to love my daughter.
Pumping as the new logic of love
The whoosh of the breast pump provides rhythm to our days, along with the streaming fall of milk pooling in the bottle. Cecilia likes to scoot close to me as I pump, chubby fingers exploring the tubing, bottles, and flanges with endless curiosity. She wraps those tiny fingers around the lip of the flange and pulls it off my breast with a popping sound. I offer her my nipple, saying “This is your mama’s milk. This is milk. Would you like to have some milk from your mama?” And then I swallow my tears and pretend like my heart isn’t breaking as she pushes me away and reaches again for the flange.
So why do you do it, someone might ask. Why offer yourself up daily to that kind of pain?
I suppose the short answer is that I do it because it’s not Cecilia’s fault that she is blind or her sister is dead or the surgery traumatized her. I do it because I believe that my milk is her right, her heritage, and her evolutionary legacy as a human baby. I do it because no matter what solids she elects to eat or refuse that day, I know she is still receiving full nutrition from my milk. I do it because she is only fourteen months old, and her immune system is still walking around inside of me.
I do it because I am her mother, and she is my baby.
I think I would do it even if her big sister hadn’t died of disease or even if we weren’t in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. I would do it even if she wasn’t blind or didn’t have a genetic mutation that might one day decide to take her away from me.
I pump because I believe that my milk, no matter how it is extracted, is the most precious gift I have to give my child. It is too easy in this culture to focus on what makes our lives more convenient or economic. Pumping is none of those things, and it would be very easy to just stop and feed her formula or cow’s milk. But there remain cultures in this world that name human milk “white blood” because of how essential it is to life and how necessary and critical it is to proper human development. And no matter how much Cecilia pushes away my breasts, she still receives her bottles with squealing delight and guzzles down my milk with breathless abandon.
Sometimes, the ache is overwhelming when I summon the memory of Cecilia’s half-asleep, slow-motion, newborn-baby latch. Sometimes, this memory is the only way I can trigger a letdown, no matter how many breathing exercises I do. I have pumped too many times in tears, in a rush, or exhaustion to not realize that the only way to effectively bring down my milk is to simply let myself feel love for my daughter.
Abolishing a victim
When the single most effective mothering tool I had was taken from me, I had to learn quickly how to fulfill the frantic unrest of my blind, high-needs child. When I lost the dopamine-enhancing and oxytocic effects of high levels of prolactin, I learned to discipline myself to levels of patience and stamina I never needed with my first daughter. And when my period finally returned and I wanted to feel like a breastfeeding failure, I swallowed my guilt and shame and instead researched ways to encourage sensory stimulation in blind children.
When the most precious things are taken from us, we are forced to find new ways to live a different kind of life.
Sometimes, I look into our future and wonder how long our days will be dictated by my need to pump or how many hours I will have cumulatively spent washing or sterilizing bottles and flanges when all is said and done. There are days when I’m low on sleep and the ungentle suction makes my nipples scream in protest; just as there are days when my total output looks more like six ounces rather than nine, and I fear I’m losing my supply for good. The moments when she is accepting nothing else and crying only for milk are by far the worst. When once I would have simply drawn her to my breast, I now have no alternative but to let her cry while I desperately try to squeeze out a single ounce. But no matter how much I resent the counter-intuitive logic of pumping or how much I miss the beauty of breastfeeding, I refuse to stop pumping.
I refuse to stop because pumping is something that I can do.
The past eighteen months of my life have been a living nightmare. For much of it, I have felt swept up in the tide of inexorable helplessness that has claimed both me and my daughters as victims of circumstance.
But I am not helpless, and I refuse to be a victim. The will to survive is strong: much stronger than we give it credit for.
One small step at a time
Sometimes, life takes away choices we once believed would always be our right – our heritable legacy as human beings. When you find yourself stripped of options, it is easy to feel frozen in time, as though the only feasible path forward is simply to wait to be rescued. And when the rescue doesn’t come and despair sets in, you find you must plunge inwards for answers you were too afraid to face in the light of day. Mostly, you will find that the answers are slow and small. While you are waiting for the bombastic and sweeping solution, these still, small voices are telling you to keep it simple and take one thing at a time.
Pick up your baby. Soothe her. Smell her skin. And when you feel you can manage it, sit back down for one more session at the pump, even if it is to be your last.
If you listen hard enough, these voices can tell you how much that one session matters. How even the smallest acts of love can contain an eternity within them. How sometimes the only choice left before you is just to stand up and keep breathing. And along the way, you may also discover that the voices you are hearing are the voices of women who suffered and gestated and birthed and grieved and breastfed and loved . . . just like you.
Permit me to add my voice to theirs – to this unspeakable legacy of courageous persistence – and tell you that if you are one of those brave women struggling with pumping or grieving the loss of a child or raising a baby with a disability or any number of the heart-shattering challenges that we face as mothers: what you do matters. That even the smallest effort you are making to love your child or to give her your milk matters. That you matter.
And you are not alone.
Caroline Herman is a single mother who lives in Rockville, Maryland. She has a background in philosophy and creative writing and a master’s degree in theology. She is trained as a La Leche League Leader and a Bradley Method Natural Childbirth educator. She authors two blogs and is working on an autobiography about her experience with motherhood and grief.