Monday, October 18, 2010
I hold a vision of myself, face puffy and tear-streaked, eyes red, hair hanging slack around my horrified, angst-ridden face. I have no shirt on. I am about to get into the shower, and my breasts are as hard as concrete, every node popped out to its fullest, the sides dimpled all the way around to my back as each and very milk duct was being pumped fuller, fuller, fuller... and not a drop expressed. I remember pushing with my index finger, pushing from the top down towards my nipple to let just a drop or two come out, and feeling surprise at the thick, fatty stream that instantly poured down my breast and dripped down onto my belly, still swollen. I put my finger to my daughter's milk and tasted it. I hadn't known it would be so sweet.
I had to ask, when I was in the hospital, what to do about the milk. The midwife held my hand, told me about putting on a tight bra, about the cabbage leaves, about trying not to touch my breasts. I remember her telling me that any time my breasts were stimulated, whether it be changing my shirt, or the hot water, or my touch, that more milk would come. If I could avoid such things, the milk would soon pass.
As with almost everything at that time of helplessness, I took her advice and clung to it. I was a mother without a baby, and therefore I must make the milk stop. I must do what she said and put on that teeny tiny bra my sister lent me, and take advil, and keep ice on my breasts to dull the pain. When I took a shower I stood with my back to the water, knowing that I shouldn't let the water touch my breasts, lest the milk be permitted to flow.
I compare these moments to the experience of watching my baby girl be taken away from me, and I wonder how it is that I can repeatedly say that the milk was the hardest part. In hindsight, though, I think that part of it being the hardest part was not just the slap in the face that my body was working furiously to provide food for my baby who had died, but the fact that I didn't know that I didn't have to make the milk go away as fast as possible. It could have been a piece of her to keep for a while.
I don't think I would have been in the mindset to pump my milk and donate it, although looking back I wish I could have come to that place. But what I do wish is that somebody had told me that it would be okay for me to pump a little to alleviate the pressure, and that I could take the weaning of my breasts, so to speak, at my own pace. At the time I felt so compelled to make the milk go away because I felt it was my duty; it was what I had to do because there was no baby. But at the same time I was obsessed with the milk; I was constantly taking off that bra and looking at my breasts and crying and letting some milk escape, and feeling guilty and proud of myself for making it and wishing I could keep some of my baby's food all at the same time. It never occurred to me that I could take this process at my own rate. I never thought, let's just let this happen in a way that doesn't hurt, and maybe the milk will last a while, and that's okay.
When the engorgement went away, and the physical pain was gone, I felt freed. I squeezed milk from my breasts every day, let it drip into the sink, tasted it, let it soak my bra pads, and dreamed about it. I dreamed that I was in the locker room at my old middle school, getting changed, and a girl called across the locker room that I was wearing a padded bra.
It's not a padded bra, the girl me said, they're nursing pads, I had a baby.
I was fiercely proud of my milk, because it made me a mother, and I did, in fact, have a baby.
I wonder now, what it would have been like if I had been allowed to go about this at my own pace, if someone had offered me the choices that were out there: to make it go away very fast, to let it come and help it go at my own pace, to let it come and let it keep coming, or to give it away. As with many things, I can't truly look back into my bedraggled, addled brain at that time and know what choice I would have made. But at the time I didn't make a choice, because I wasn't offered one.
*written in response to a conversation I had with a local lactation consultant who attended my seminar last week. She and I were discussing the idea of teaming up to create a resource for bereaved moms that explicitly provides the different options available to moms and perhaps touch upon the emotional journey of the milk. More to come on this.