One of the moms is crying again.
I keep my daughter cradled against my breast with one arm, and—while trying not to flash everyone too much in the process—hand the baby nearest us the rattle he is straining to reach, listening to her explanation between the sniffles and sobs.
Next to us, a different mom tosses a shirt, bib, car keys, smushed granola bar, tubes of nipple cream, diaper rash cream, Vaseline, crinkled paperwork from a pediatrician appointment, wipes, and a pink stuffed cat out of her bag before finally discovering the last diaper at the bottom. She manages to keep the tears (her baby’s and her own) at bay for now.
Crying is pretty standard in a room full of people who recently pushed a child out of their bodies. Or had one violently cut out. All those hormones and feelings leave you with crippling self-doubt and often quite a few tears to shed.
There are feelings about having to pause your entire career or leave it behind to care for this tiny human—which, for some reason, you are instinctively expected to know how to keep alive, happy, and cared for. Or feelings about going back to work and somehow damaging a miniature person so indescribably dependent on you.
Throw in some postpartum depression, and it’s pretty standard Monday-Sunday stuff, the crying.
This particular day of the parent-baby group, and this particular instance of crying, however, seems to have an easy enough solution. This mom (let’s call her “Returning-to-Work Mom”) is distraught because she is unable to produce enough breast milk.
Easy! I have plenty. In fact, I have an accumulating stash in my freezer.
Toting my squirming three-month-old, I make my way to Returning-to-Work Mom after group and express my empathy. I lend her a shoulder and offer her a hug. Then, I offer her my extra breast milk. She accepts the hug, but not the milk.
At this point, you may not be aware of the vast community of breastmilk enthusiasts out there, stemming only partly from the pressure of breastfeeding (“breast is best!”)– not to mention the extensive network of milk exchange that happens with the help of milk banks, in organized Facebook groups, at lactation meetups, and between new parents everywhere everyday.
Like most new moms, I wasn’t aware of this community until I became pregnant and started really thinking about breastfeeding and what that would entail.
Only then do you learn, for example, that nipples express milk like a showerhead rather than the squirtgun you imagine. Or the many, many benefits of breast milk. Or, the (very cool) advocacy and subsequent debate about calling it “human milk” and “nursing” to be (rightfully) more equitable and inclusive.
Or how many times a day (about 12 times in 24 hours) your tiny human will be latched to your chest, and what that means for sleep and your physical and mental health. How many more calories can I eat when nursing, and what is that in brownies? And how many ounces of milk do I need to accumulate in my freezer before I go back to work? I had done the math. I had plenty– in fact, I had a surplus. But this mom didn’t want it.
My milk would again be rejected by another mom who had a low milk supply and whose baby had always struggled to keep up his weight. This mom, Cute-Hippie Mom, had specifically reached out to any mom in the class who had milk to spare. Yet, the product of countless hours spent trying to drown out the hum-and-trickle of my breast pump was deemed unworthy. Postpartum depression meant I was taking a low dose antidepressant every day, and a small amount of this medication likely found its way into my milk. Even though my daughter guzzled it down, they did not want their babies to have it.
I understood. Why expose a vulnerable, adorable little blob to a potential hazard when there was no need?
On the other hand, I felt…unclean. And I, once again, questioned my choice to breastfeed and ruminated with considerable guilt over my inability to function without some help in the serotonin department.
Maybe I could do it without help. Maybe I could get through the surge of nonstop changes and hormones and whatever else without that stupid little pill. If I could do it, wouldn’t that make me a better mom? A stronger person?
According to The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and The American Psychiatric Association (APA), between 14 and 23 percent of American women experience some depression during pregnancy while postpartum depression occurs in about 15 percent of women. Furthermore, untreated postpartum depression has been connected to impaired child development.
Still, I had a hard time shaking the guilt for taking a medication prescribed by my doctor for a diagnosed and established condition of my mental health negatively affecting not only me and my relationship, but also potentially my baby. Part of that is just because of the stigma of mental illness, and part of that is because of people like my well-meaning friend who encouraged me to “just try” to go without it (again).
Yes, I feel judged. You’re judging me right now (for good or bad), aren’t you?
Yet, without my medication, I would not be able to rise out of bed early each morning and greet my daughter with a smile. Without it, she would feel the cold distance that pulls me away into a tailspin of thoughts of self-harm in each hug I gave her. Without it, there would be more days than not where I would struggle to take care of her with the full energy, attention, affection, enthusiasm, and the love she deserves.
With it, we enjoy our long walks in the sun at the park. We sit in the drizzle of the Pacific Northwest and watch the ducks. I smile, genuinely, when she quacks back at them and tries to share her cheerios. We learn sign language, and when she signs “play,” or “food,” or “music,” I’m right there responding happily with a full heart, playing with Moana and Elsa, baking warm banana bread, and dancing to “Baby Shark.”
Still, in my freezer, I had almost two hundred ounces of apparently unwanted extra milk. Was that emotional labor to be wasted, to remain a continual reminder of my imperfections every time I reached for the ice cream?
Luckily, that second mom told me that there were people who would want that frozen stash and directed me to the network of moms and caregivers in need. When I posted in a local Human Milk for Human Babies social media group about the freezer stash at 10pm on a Thursday night, four people responded within the hour.
I packed the small plastic bags into another plastic bag and that bag into a cooler bag brimming with ice. On the freeway, I felt like a secret agent making an exchange of black market goods. Opting not to wear a trench coat and oversized sunglasses, we met in the parking lot outside Starbucks. As I handed over the frozen baggies, I glanced at the baby in the backseat of the stranger’s car and at the bold brown eyes peering at me. What a bizarre and beautiful human connection between us.
In the end, someone did want the milk. Not just the mom who helped me make room in my freezer, but my daughter. She’s almost 15 months old now. Most days I am able to recognize that she is thankful for my milk and our continued nursing relationship, for my “bobs” and for mama’s antidepressant that ensures I can be whole and present for her. I’m thankful too.