By Krystal A. Sital
We meet at the side of the road, in parking lots, and on rare occasions, in our homes. Our clandestine encounters are often laced with surreptitious glances thrown over our shoulders but end in tearful embraces, an alliance, an understanding, a mutual love so deep, we carry it forevermore.
The first time I donate my breast milk to another mother, my husband and I organize and label five hundred four-ounce bottles into three coolers, a total of 2,000 ounces that could feed a newborn anywhere from two to three months. As we stack the bottles like bricks and I register the pleasant click-click-click of the frozen bottles being wedged together, my two-year-old asks, “What’re you doing? What’re you doing with Mommy’s booby milk?” My six-month-old rolls around on the floor as we try to explain that we’re giving away her sister’s food. “But that’s for Emi,” she says, “that’s for my baby sister.” How perceptive to know the milk is for her sibling. But this time around, breastfeeding, albeit with obstacles, has been successful thus far.
After my first daughter, Amelia, had spent three weeks in the NICU, I realized how precious this liquid gold was. For some babies, it could be the difference between life and death. For Amelia, who was delivered two months early, it probably was. I had an oversupply of breast milk; only a very small percentage of women do. Unable to directly breastfeed Amelia due to a host of complications, I became a slave to the pump, allowing it to suck everything out of me at the times I would normally feed my daughter. By the end of our year long journey together, I’d racked up thousands of bottles of breast milk and I could proclaim she was one hundred percent breastfed—not in the traditional sense—but the nutrients worked their miracle nonetheless.
The second time around was no easier than the first and so I locked myself away in a room with Emelina to make breastfeeding work. Just the thought of that mint blue Ameda pump had me ready to puke. While I vowed never to pump again, I physically needed to and that blue brick stayed anchored in my house for the better part of a year. I only pumped twice a day yet filled bottles at a time, stacking more than a thousand in my freezer within six months. Though we had a rocky start and I was perpetually frightened that it would all fall apart at any moment, we were, again, running out of space. The freezer drawer now creaked when opened. There was no denying it needed to go. This is where Willow came in.
I find Willow after searching on a few sites tailored to mothers looking for breast milk for their babies. I’m surprised by how many sites there are and how many women are desperate to acquire only a few bottles. When I post I’m willing to give away a large amount, I’m plied with questions—Where are you located? How do you handle your milk? What is your diet like? When can you meet? There was no decision making on my part, I just went down the list and responded to other mothers in the order in which they sent me emails. Their stories were heartbreaking and I wanted to give milk to all of them, I even thought of parceling it out but in the end I thought it best used as sustenance for one child at a time. Many things didn’t pan out for the first few responses—location, diet, allergies—but eventually Willow and I got the timing right and we connected via phone.
“So,” says Willow, “about how much do you get in one pumping session? And can you remind me how many ounces you’ll be willing to donate?”
This is a question I’m both proud and timid about answering. “I pump about 10 to 15 ounces per session twice a day. And I have 2,000 ounces to give to you.”
She is completely silent save for an almost inaudible, “Wow.” I want to say something, I’m about to say something but I hear her crying. Willow shares her story with me. When she was a teenager, she underwent a procedure that rendered her body unable to ever produce human milk among other things.
“Krystal,” says Willow, “I will pay you how I can. I can give you bottles and bags, pay for the pump rental, just let me know.”
“Willow, I’m giving this to you and your baby. I already have everything I need. Please don’t think you have to pay me in any way.”
Willow breathes into the mouthpiece, “This is a tremendous gift.”
* * *
“Charge her,” people tell me, “you will make so much.”
Why should I? I wonder. If we didn’t use the milk and no one took it, I’d have to pour it down the drain. I look at Amelia, at how much she has grown in two years. From that frail, three-and-a-half-pound baby with skin hanging off her bones to this vibrant two-year-old with sass and brains. If I could help another mother in any way I could, I wanted to. I was done hoarding my stash. Now, when I sit down to pump, I feel a surge of excitement strike through me and I count the ounces I accumulate knowing I can give yet one more to another baby in need.
We meet Willow and her two children at the back of a restaurant. She is parked right next to the dumpster. Being my first exchange, I approach her with trepidation. I’d even brought my husband with me just in case. We’d been caught in traffic and Willow had been stuck waiting for me in the cold for half an hour. The brisk winter air forces me to stuff my hands in my pockets. She has a girl and a boy their ages not much different from our children. When Willow emerges from the car, she embraces me with such tenderness and love I know I will think of that moment for years to come. She caresses Amelia’s cheek and blows our sleeping Emelina a kiss.
In the midst of hoisting the coolers from our trunk to hers, Amelia starts bawling and at first we’re confused but I’m able to discern, “Mommy, that’s my mommy’s milk. Give it back, that’s my mommy’s milk.” I try to muffle what she’s saying by pressing her against my shoulder but for a two-year-old, her enunciation is near perfect.
“Sugar plum plum, Mommy is giving her milk to another baby, to help another baby. Don’t worry,” I say, “your baby sister has enough milk. Mommy has enough booby milk for Emi.” The tears subside but the upside down U is prominent on her little mouth, her bottom lip quivering away.
Willow attends to her own crying children. I wave to them and blow them kisses, the two of them as precious to her as mine are to me. As Willow and I hold one another in an extended embrace she whispers into my hair, “I don’t know how to thank you.” To which I reply, “You already have. You’ve shown me where my milk is going. Thank you for the opportunity to meet your family.”
* * *
These exchanges were usually short. But, I’ll never forget these women—their tears, their words, their beautiful families. I gather their stories along the way just as they gather mine along with other donor mothers. We share the most intimate parts of ourselves with strangers and in the end only the most beautiful thing blossoms from it.
On our way home that first day, Amelia chants in the car, “Mommy give milk to another baby. Mommy give milk to another baby,” and each time she says it, she wants to be acknowledged. She repeats that for days, weeks, and months to come, my very own cheerleader reminding us all.
Krystal A. Sital is a PEN Award finalist whose work has been published in Salon, Akashic Books, The Caribbean Writer and various other literary journals. She lives in the suburbs of New Jersey with her husband, two children, two dogs, and quite the assortment of writing jobs. Follow her on twitter: @krystal_a_sital.