By Claire DeBerg
I have heard it called liquid gold. I would call it liquid love. Or perhaps liquid life. Life juice, maybe. Holy juice? Juice of the Divine? Certainly the small yellow swirl tipping out of the bottle was worth more to me than a rare metal. That liquid, now flowing in a water treatment plant somewhere in the middle of Iowa, was my first expressed breast milk.
The nurse, her rough hands dry from over-washing, had come slowly to my hospital bedside—suspect of me, a new, able mother placing her baby for adoption. She picked up the bottle from my side table, pretended to hold it to the light of the window (though it was an overcast midmorning) and frowned. She continued her judgment of my situation by theatrically holding the bottle high above the sink and pouring down my achingly expressed milk, giving the bottle a one-two tap to make sure it was empty. I physically shook as she spoke the next words to me without catching my disbelieving eyes: “That wasn’t enough.”
It wasn’t enough? It wasn’t enough that I would, in the next day, be giving my child, a child I carried and cared for, to other people to raise? The nurses had been warned about my choice—our hospital room and situation was on high alert. Staff had been told to keep their comments on my child’s beauty and goodness, about the miracle of birth, at a minimum, if at all. Not only had I endured nine months of being a young, poor, single pregnant woman, but I was being set apart yet again. So why not let me give all I had—even if it seemed not enough? What would have been enough for this woman? What is enough for any of us?
My request for a breast pump to be immediately available after birth was questioned, but it arrived, and for 45 painful and strangely alien minutes I watched my red and scarred nipples being sucked and pulled by this machine on wheels standing at attention next to my bed. At the time I was confused about the lack of streaming milk, thinking I’d done such good work during my pregnancy that the milk would all but gush out. Instead, my breasts were weighted and taut. For all the suction and mechanical coaxing, only a few heavy yellow drops emerged and gathered at the base of the bottle. The two breasts together perhaps made a tablespoon of colostrum which I carefully closed up in the bottle, certain not to spill a drop.
I hadn’t been inundated with baby books while pregnant, knowing this new life was not part of my plan of marriage, home, babies, dog. So I wasn’t preparing for the ins and outs of what it would be like once the baby arrived and breathed on her own. The pregnancy side of birth I knew—it was the baby part I knew nothing about and invested little energy with those details, as my plan to finally be baby-free was what I looked forward to. The few pregnancy and birth items I checked out from my local small town library were passable, charting for me the stages of a fetus’s growth from conception. Like huge flipbooks, the pencil-drawn babies grew and grew and grew until the super gives her eviction notice. One item I clung to—my last loving act for my child before I said goodbye to her—was the importance of this first milk: colostrum.
Colostrum, the strange word, one I still think must be describing an Indian banjo, was a holy juice. This yellow, creamy milk is available for only the first few days of a baby’s life. The wonder of our bodies makes this then and only then until the “milk comes in,” and then the body changes again and gives a different sort of milk—basically whatever the child needs. So, with the nurse’s turn of her wrist, into the swirl of the sink went a dose of antibodies; a daily immunization; vital proteins that help babies pass that first dark, sticky, tar-like excrement; vitamins; calcium—and my heart.
I had found that there are breast milk collection centers where a woman can donate her precious and valuable breast milk. Milk banks. Perhaps Milk Investment Centers. Milk City. I called the nearest breast milk bank and explained my situation—I was due to give birth to a child whom I would place for adoption, could I please give my milk away, too? The desire to purge myself of all memory of being a heaving woman with child was overwhelming. I wanted to give my baby and my milk. So I acted and found the parents and found the bank. The woman I spoke with was kind, trained to speak with mothers in difficult situations since some donors to milk banks would be those women having lost a child to death. She gave me detailed instructions on sanitation and expressing and transporting the milk at certain temperatures. I asked twice to be sure that my milk would help a child live. The woman assured me that this life-giving substance, unlike anything else on earth, this creamy, light drink of nectar was like liquid gold. Premature babies, babies who’d lost their mothers, twins and triplets and multiples, all of these babies would get milk from this bank.
I had planned, though, to be with my baby two days before saying goodbye. I wanted to give her this warm part of me, my antibodies, my last protection before I placed her in the giving basket I had prepared. Bringing her tiny head to my chest made me ache. She rooted all over my gaudy pink and flowery hospital gown, desperate for my breasts. In the womb, my child had sucked so hard on her hands she had caused red, angry blisters to form, which turned into scabs and then open wounds as she continued to suck over the blisters. I was alarmed when at the last hard push she emerged milky and wet and bleeding from the hands. Her primitive impulse to suck was abundantly apparent.
How could this be happening, I wondered. Though now, as I write and revisit this moment, perhaps it isn’t as devastating as it then seemed. So some breast milk went down the drain. So what? It wasn’t like my baby was born with three arms or no earlobes. At the time, however, with the revolving door of my hospital room ushering in the social security secretary asking what this baby’s name would be or whether she should contact the adoptive parents, the hospital social worker who let me know she was available anytime if needed to discuss this most loving and difficult of decisions, my lawyer with updates on relinquishing my parental rights, the baby’s nurse telling me my baby wants to be held all the time in the nursery, my nurse explaining how she placed a baby when she was 16, the baby’s doctor handing me his card in case I changed my mind, my midwife crying with me as we talked through the labor, my family bringing me flowers and supporting my wishes, my church friends passing around the baby not sure what to say, food service, cleaning staff—with chaos in my environment, and all the pictures I kept taking to remember my child, with uncertainty in my head and longing in my heart for something different, I think it is okay that the pouring out of my first breast milk hit me especially hard.
Colostrum doesn’t last forever and no matter what I did, I wouldn’t get it back. The thoughtlessly wasted breast milk, the judgment of my supposed bad job of pumping—this is how I finally looked at my choice of adoption. Adoption is forever and I would sign on the dotted line, and wouldn’t get my baby back.
My focus on keeping this baby healthy was of utmost importance— though at times I was overtaxed with guilt and let tremors of grief wrack my body. I wanted, ultimately, for this child to be an impeccable gift to the new parents—a package so amazing and pure you’d want it for your own. If I were planning on being my baby’s mother, I would have brought her to the light of my breast as soon as I eased her out of me. But I knew the bond that could be formed; I knew the love line that would grow from watching my baby nurse at my breast. So, instead, after the bright arc of pain from contractions ceased with one gentle push, my midwife bundled my daughter, handed her to me, and I cuddled her on my chest. I wasn’t sweaty or wincing—just confused and floored with the insane and gorgeous idea of humans growing in other humans.
The months of waiting gave me time to prepare for saying goodbye in the healthiest way I knew how. Finding my baby’s parents was a task unlike any other. I felt the rush of consumerism and comparison-shopping and weighing risks and benefits. Folders of potential parents began piling into a luminous tower beside my computer. At first I meticulously read each profile, looked deep into their pictures, tried to get a sense of a family from eight scrapbooking pages. And then the skimming began since I’d grown cold to the idea of investing all my mind’s energy on who would best parent my child. i opted out of the family whose traditions centered on making over 500 cookies for every national holiday or birthday. I couldn’t bring myself to get excited about the extremely conservative religious family with two children of their own already. I felt terrible, of course. Here these people desperately wanted to love and raise a child and I desperately didn’t want the life I’d created, so it would seem any of the profiles were perfect. But I had high standards and wanted a family that fit my mold. Only two weeks before I gave birth did I find my baby’s family. I hadn’t known I would have a girl—the answer to the gender question was quietly slid and sealed in an envelope after an ultrasound.
While I pumped that first morning of being a birth mother, I called the eager and overjoyed family I’d chosen and said, “I gave birth to your daughter this morning, but I don’t know her name.” Sophia Grace was the name given to her. Sophia was angry. She was not interested in the bottles of formula offered to her and spit angry, staining liquid from her mouth. I caught her twice sucking her arm, drawing blood, but finding no colostrum. What Sophia doesn’t know and what I hadn’t shared with anyone until a year after I gave birth to her was that on the morning planned for the Giving Ceremony, the early morning, the 4:00 a.m. morning when darkness is hinting at lifting, I sat her down for a serious talk.
Sophia didn’t sit well, actually, so I propped her up with a pillow on my bed so she could face me. She slept through most of our conversation—a private conversation just between us. Twice Sophia winked open one of her slate-blue eyes and watched me crying and talking to her—her brow pensive. A nurse had come to check on us, wondering if I wanted a break from being awake (I hadn’t slept at all since I only had 48 hours with my baby). I told Sophia all I had needed to say, and then I got up and put the “Do not disturb” sign on my door and got busy setting up my tripod and camera. The morning light was perfect— golden, awash on the plain gray walls of my hospital room. I looked in the mirror for the first time since labor and brushed my hair, tried out a smile. Complications of the birth made standing longer than two minutes a dance with faintness, so I sat in the rocking chair I had positioned in the light and breathed. Once calm and sure of my choice, I picked up my baby and started the timer on my camera. There are less than 10 seconds before the shutter exposes the film and takes the shot, and in that short time I sat in the rocking chair with my daughter, renamed her Gloria, and gave her my breast.
Author’s Note: Choosing to be my daughter’s mama was a singular moment of my transformation into my new, powerful self. I wrote this soon after the experience, though I’ve kept this story close for 10 years. I was reminded of it when I gave birth to my son, Harold, at home last year and he nursed like an old pro at 7 minutes this side of the womb. As he nursed that first, deliciously thick colostrum, my grip on this essay loosened and here it is, offered now with open palms. Since Gloria and I first met those 10 years ago, we’ve been creating a beautiful, hilarious, good life as mother and daughter. While pregnant with Harold, I shared some of this story with her. We had tears during the sharing, but now she quips to me, “Mom, I’m so glad you kept me.” Agreed, agreed, agreed.
When Claire DeBerg isn’t writing snappy copy for her commercial writing business or managing content and timelines as editor of the magazine, Timbrel, for Mennonite Women USA, she is eating an ungodly amount of peanut butter right off the spoon, prepping for a modeling shoot, unschooling her pre-teen, playing a Chopin piano prelude, or nursing her baby. She’s put over 3,200 miles on her legs after training for and running seven marathons but now she needs to pit some miles on her fingers and finish writing her novel. She always adores her littles and her darling husband, Darren, and occasionally adores her hairy Airedale, Velvet.
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