Thursday, August 5, 2010

Life of a Milk Donor

The International Breastfeeding Symbol August 1-7 is World Breastfeeding Week, so I have decided to repost the four journal entries I have written so far on milk donation. I originally posted these on a parenting forum. This might seem a little strange to my male and other non-mother readers, but I assure you guys, this is a completely natural thing and I am not the least bit ashamed of it. If you are uncomfortable with it, just skip reading it instead of harassing me about my choices. My goal is awareness, not criticism.

Part one: (written 4/15/10)
You never realize how much something that comes naturally to you is worth until you find someone who needs what you have and can't provide it herself. My hidden talent is priceless to the two women two babies who receive my extra milk. I have a precious gift, and it means everything to them.

Breastfeeding did not come easy to me. My milk came in on the third day after my son was born, and on the fourth, the engorgement began. For two excruciating weeks, every thing that touched my breasts was agony. My husband often had to hold my hand when I fed my son because his small mouth and shallow latched caused more pain than most of my contractions did. My little Bs swelled past a DD and walking up and down the stairs felt like having a pair of bowling balls ripping through my skin. My overactive letdown made my son cough and sputter.

Two weeks of ice packs, hot showers, and no painkillers, and the engorgement finally ceased, though the pain continued for a couple more weeks. It wasn't until 8 weeks that I was nursing pain-free and my son learned to handle the letdown.

At 3 weeks I began to pump the opposite side my son nursed on so I could build a supply for when I went back to work. My first couple of sessions, I got 1.5oz from either side. Within a week, I was getting 2.5-3, and by the time he was hospitalized with bronchiolitis at 12 weeks, I was averaging 3.5-4oz per side per session at work, and 6-8oz from the side opposite of feeding in the morning plus another 2 or so from the side he ate off of. I had 900oz in the freezer and could barely open the door anymore without something falling out. I was freezing 15-20oz a day over what he was sent to daycare with. I pump twice at work, once in the morning after we nurse, once on the opposite side after we nurse after work, and then a final time to clear out the remainder before bed.

I suppose I could have cut back on pumping so I was such an overproducer and tried to reduce my supply, but that seemed such a waste. I had all this milk, was continuing to make more and more every day, and knew someone out there might be able to benefit from it. I researched milk banks and was qualified to be a donor, but quickly realized I didn't want something I made in abundance to be broken down, pasteurized, and sold for pharmaceutical profit. I contacted the local La Leche League and went on Milkshare, and that is where I found my two recipient families.

It turns out dairy-free donors are in high demand. So many babies can't handle cow proteins. I am a long time vegan and still taking prenatals so my milk is pretty much benign and allergy free. I had inquiries from all over the country, but after some deliberation decided I wasn't comfortable with shipping such precious cargo. Through my two contacts, LLL and Milkshare, I found two local mothers, both parents of adopted babies. The first was given about 750oz, the bulk of my original stash, and a week later when the second one contacted me, she received 250oz. I'm giving her another 300 that I've accumulated in the last 3 weeks when we can arrange a time.

I'll never forget the gratitude of either mother when I gave them my milk. Both were amazing women who were inducing lactation, but did not make enough milk for their adopted children. They made the decision to give their babies the best start possible by giving them breastmilk and I was only too happy to help. They help me clean out my freezer, I help them feed their little ones with the most valuable liquid in the world. Both of them thanked me profusely and called me "amazing", but I think they are the ones who are amazing. It is a tough decision to choose to feed your child another woman's milk instead of resorting to formula, but now that I've seen it, I know I'd do the same thing in their position. I've developed an appreciation for breastmilk, so much that I do not consider breastfeeding a "choice". I am helping to grow two beautiful babies besides my own thriving boy. Any little inconvenience pumping causes is totally worth it.

At just under 4 months, my son eats more now at daycare, 12-16oz, but i still pump twice that. A 10oz surplus day is a bad haul. I use my work pumping time to read. I've read 7 books since going back to work, more than I read all the way through the pregnancy fatigue. I'm hungry all the time, but I can eat whatever I like and still safely but slowly lose weight. I'm still a very heavy, though high volume, eater since I want to produce the best quality milk I can. I take care of myself to take care of my son. My son is only on the breast at home so we still get our mommy time no bottle can replicate. I know my body will never be the same, but for the first time I love it because I know what it can do. I can give birth all naturally and I can feed a small village. I now love the battle-scar stretch marks covering my thighs from the edema and slashed across my breasts and abdomen, the new Ds that feel bolted to my chest when full, the occasional leak that reminds me everything is working as it should. I am proud of my body. It is not the traditional skinny waif beauty anymore, but I have faced the battle to motherhood and won. My skin is better than it has ever been and I'm blessed with a total cease-fire with my former enemy AF.

I am nursing while writing this one-handed and I plan to breastfeed until age two and will continue to donate until I don't have to pump anymore. I have many varied skills and talents, but being a milk donor has brought me a bigger sense of self-worth than anything else I've done. All babies deserve the best start to life possible and I've helped bring that start to three.

Part 2: (written 4/29/10)
I gave one of my recipient mamas a big surprise on Tuesday. She lives two and a half hours away so it can be difficult for me to get milk to her since we obviously both have little ones. My family was driving through her town on their way home from visiting us, so I had them make the delivery. She was only expecting 200-250 ounces, but I sent her 450! I didn't realize I could make so much extra in a month plus a little leftover from earlier. I was shocked the day before, when I did a preliminary count of the storage bags in my freezer and came up with 90 bags. I freeze in 5-6oz portions, so she got over 450oz for her gorgeous little man. This was enough to supply them for about a month, since she was able to breastfeed him some herself. I kept 50oz in my freezer and have continued to add since my big freezer clean-out, round 3, on Tuesday.

As of now, I have donated somewhere in the neighborhood of 1500oz to two different families. Being the science nerd I am, I had to do some calculations to put my excess milk into different perspectives...

1500 ounces is...

11.7 gallons

44.4 Liters

187.5 cups

46.9 quarts

93.75 pints

44,360 mL

30,000 calories (at 20 calories/ounce)

99.5 lbs (at 8.5 lbs/gallon... this is 5/6 of my post-baby body weight)

And this is only from my extra! I've produced so much more than this for my own son, since he's on the breast at home and gets sent to daycare with 16 ounces on weekdays.

I find these numbers empowering. I suppose I could have done something silly, like take a bath in my leftover milk or make a metric ton of soap (I actually did make a little from expired daycare leftovers), but my milk is worth so much more than that. It was worth the initial agonizing pain and latch struggles to watch both my son and two other babies grow and thrive because of the incredible gift I am giving them. Maybe I have an altruistic streak, or maybe I just hate to see something precious wasted. I am proud of my body and what I can do. I love it even if I don't always love to look at it. I found I am almost euphorically happy to help other mothers in such a profoundly personal way.

Since my parents made my most recent delivery, they finally understand what I am doing and how much it means to both myself and my recipient families. After my mother saw how full my freezer was after emptying it not a month earlier, she finally got it, and no longer admonished me to save my extra in case I ran out. She had me in a time when new mothers were counseled to keep timers handy and only feed for 5 minutes on a side. No wonder so many ended up resorting to formula to keep up with a hungry baby! I know my little guy would suckle for 45-60 minutes at a time when he was a newborn, so expecting a grazer to only feed for 10 total minutes is asking for a hungry, unhappy baby and a low-supply mother. Anyways, she understands now, and after my family finished the rather strange task I gave them of delivering body fluids to a complete stranger, I received a happy text from my mother exclaiming "The dairy truck has been emptied! You just made someone very happy."

Milk sharing is not a new thing, in fact it is as old as humanity itself. I decided to open up and write about it because so many people now think it is strange or even disgusting. I have extra, someone else needs more, it is only natural for us to cooperate in making sure everyone involved has the right amount. I am so happy my body does what it is supposed to do, and more. I guess in a way it is one of my callings, to make a small sacrifice of convenience on the sometimes rocky path of motherhood. I now live for others more than myself and I wouldn't give it up for anything.

Thank you to all who have read this and my previous entry. I hope you all realize what amazing people you are, no matter what paths in life you choose.

Part 3: (Written 6/8/10)
My freezer is once again mostly empty, but the belly of my little recipient isn't. Both my own little firecracker lovebug and the handsome little man adopted from Africa who I currently donate to are growing big, healthy, and chubby thanks to this amazing substance my body is able to provide them. It is the most valuable substance in the world, simple and natural and far tastier than gold, diamond, or oil. My milk is a cornerstone for their futures, a foundation to grow their bodies upon.

To date, I have donated 2100oz of breastmilk to two babies. My most recent donation was on Sunday, a substantial 600oz that I accumulated over 5 weeks, which along with what his mother can provide will feed my little recipient for at least a month. I've donated 1350oz to him and thanks to my donations and smaller donations by several others, he hasn't needed formula since he was less than a month old. All I've asked in return is reimbursement for the storage bags, a nominal amount I just use to buy more storage bags.

My own son's well being is certainly not being neglected by my donations. I simply make too much and instead of leaving the extra in the freezer until it is no good, I am putting it to good use. I pump at least 30 ounces a day in addition to exclusively nursing when we're together, and he usually only takes 15 at daycare. He is not on solids yet and has never eaten anything but my milk. He gained almost two pounds last month and should be somewhere around 16 at his weigh-in for his 6 month appointment in two weeks. His feet are starting to hang off the end of his carseat. I'd say that is pretty good for a baby who started out at a tiny 6 lb 5 oz and 18.5 inches long. I'd swear my milk is caffeinated even though I don't consume caffeine because my little boy is a bouncer, dancer, kicker, of extraordinary energy. He'll play in his jumparoo for an hour straight without getting tired, doesn't take more than cat naps, and sleeps soundly for 9-10 hours a night. I either have super milk, super baby, or both.

I'll have to find a new recipient family next month since my current one is moving far out of the area. They weren't really in the area to begin with, a 2.5 hour drive away, but we managed since they lived in the same city as my in-laws. This last time, recipient dad drove all the way out here to pick up the milk. I'd like think it was worth the 5 hours in a car, since my donation will feed his little one for a full month while they get settled and find donors in their new city. I don't think I'll have difficulty locating a new recipient since dairy-free donors are in high demand. The only difficulty I foresee is choosing... choosing which baby receives my donation, figuring out whether I am willing to ship the milk even with the recipient paying and arranging all the shipping. It is hard giving up something so personal and meaningful, especially when it is hard to guarantee it reaching its donation without damage, and especially during the summer heat. It's hard to chose between families when every family has an equally heartbreaking story to tell. So many babies can't tolerate or thrive off of formula and can't digest milk proteins, and so many adoptive families and low-milk supply mamas want to give their little ones the gift of breastmilk.

I am about 1/4 of the way to my two year goal, and I don't see any reason why I won't be making at least a couple more donations. My little boy's intake has gone up, but I still freeze at least 10oz extra per day. This strange and often overwhelming gift I have is his as well as mine. Up until this point and until we introduce solids in a couple weeks, every ounce of him was grown by my body, both before and after birth. I might leave the messy solids feeding primarily up to my husband, but my body is no where near done providing nutrition for my little lovebug yet. I don't know how and where this journey will end, for we are still just under 6 months in. I feel I still have a lot to give, both to my son and the children I will donate to. This ride is taking me to places I never even considered before, but I am so glad I was able to hop on and enrich the lives of those I have shared my milk with so far.

Part 4: (Written 8/1/10)
I began celebrating World Breastfeeding Week a day early by cleaning out my freezer. To most people, this would mean defrost and disposal, but for me it is something far more meaningful. You see, I cleared my freezer when I donated my 22nd gallon of breastmilk via a 700oz donation to a family who drove 700 miles round-trip to pick it up.

What was my extra milk worth? An ounce per mile, 128 miles to the gallon, 5.5 gallons. Enough milk to supplement a low-supply mama with ongoing health problems and her baby for at least six weeks. Most people wouldn't make that trip, but those who would know that an ounce of mother's milk per mile is worth far more than the gasoline it takes to retrieve it.

Would I go so far if I was in the same situation? Probably, but I've been lucky so far. Low supply is not something I've had to deal with so I don't know exactly what I would do. I do know we are definitely not a formula-feeding family. I guess it works for some families, but it is not for us under almost any circumstances. I know I would find a donor if one was needed. One thing I have noticed in the three families I've donated to is that the entire family is on-board with the decision to use donor milk. This weekend was the second time it was just the husband or husband and an older child who came for the pick-up. They were extremely grateful, and more than that, they understood. My husband knows my wishes if anything were to happen to me. He knows where to seek donors and what to look for because he saw it from the donor end.

My bond with my son is more than just holding him and looking into his eyes while feeding him. I am growing a person, a little man whose future is being shaped by the actions I take now. My body grew him when I was pregnant with him, continued growing him while I exclusively breastfed him, and is now further growing him as we are slowly introducing solid foods. Up until 6.5 months, every inch and every ounce of him was grown by my body. There is both power and empowerment in a bond like that. My body is not only doing what nature intended of it, it is going even further. I have not fed one baby, but four, four unique individuals, one entirely grown by me, and three growing with my assistance. I may end up being just a small part of their growth, but I was part of it so we share a bond far greater than mere strangers, even though I have never met any of them in person. Every painful early latch, every moment of severe engorgement the first couple of weeks, every minute spent attached to the pump was worth it. I am giving just a little bit to the future of the children I feed.

I do not know where I will go from here. I resigned from my job recently because I realized the immense amount of overtime I was doing due to recent environmental disasters and the horrible stress was not worth the small paycheck. I was turning most of my paycheck right around into daycare and I was losing far to much time with my family. I gave my two weeks notice and that was it. I trained my replacement, packed up my desk, and became a stay-at-home mom on July 23.

I am still pumping in the morning and before bed because of my oversupply and so I have extra milk to mix with my son's food and for babysitters. I am freezing at least 10oz a day, which is about what I froze before I quit my job. We bought a used chest freezer for the garage a while ago, but haven't been able to hook it up since all of our downstairs furniture was in the garage following a flood and repair work. Once we get it running, I'll start filling that freezer. I imagine barring anything strange happening or my supply tanking, I'll be donating again in the future. My son is 7.5 months old and I would like to breastfeed him until around age 2, so we have a lot of time and a lot of milk left.

I don't need to change the world on a large scale. I only need to better the lives of those around me and those I can. My experiences donating milk have changed my outlook. I now know what gratitude means. I know about bonding and sacrifice and love, and I don't need to look any further than the photographs of the families who have received my milk and even more, the eyes of my child, asleep in his room above my head.

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