I reached into the freezer and retrieved a bag of frozen breast milk. On my hip, my 6-month-old started waving her hands with excitement knowing that a meal was coming. The milk wasn't mine: In more than two combined years of nursing my daughters, I've never been able to pump an amount that was significant enough to freeze. While other moms talked about their coveted "freezer stash" I just hoped to keep my supply high enough to feed my child. This proved impossible despite lactation teas, "power pumping," and even prescriptions, which is why we ended up using this milk—donor milk. As my daughter nestled into my arms and took a bottle before falling asleep I paused, as I often did, in thanks to the woman who took time out of her days to help me feed my baby.
At my daughter's four-month well-child visit she dropped off the growth curve. When the pediatrician told me it was time to start supplementing her feedings I wasn't surprised. With my first, I needed to supplement from the time she was two weeks because my milk supply was chronically low. We were able to combo feed using formula and breast milk for 18 months until I chose to be done nursing.
While I was pregnant with my second baby I vowed if I had a low supply again I would supplement without the stress and sadness it caused me the first time, since I now knew that supplementing wouldn't spell the end of breastfeeding. After that pediatrician appointment, I picked up a can of formula on the way home.
The baby, however, wasn't as adaptable. She spat and gagged when we offered her formula. She would take my pumped milk in a bottle, but formula made her rage. For a week I offered her different types of formula in various bottles at an array of temperatures, all the while worried that she wasn't getting the nutrition that she needed. In a moment of desperation, I emailed the leader of a local breastfeeding group asking if she knew anyone who was looking to donate milk.
A few days later I got a message from a woman I had met once before at the group. Although her baby was a few months older than mine, she still became painfully engorged (something most moms only experience during the first few weeks of nursing, until their milk supply regulates). She had been looking to donate milk and wanted to know if I was interested.
By that point, my baby had started taking some formula, so I was less stressed about her nutrition. Since breast milk can be lifesaving for premature babies, I wanted to be sure there wasn't a younger or needier baby who could use the milk. There wasn't and my donor couldn't give to a milk bank because of a very minor risk factor that I was entirely comfortable with. After a few more messages we got on the phone.
Perhaps because she had already spoken to a milk bank, my donor knew everything we needed to cover: she told me she drank occasionally, didn't use drugs, and was on a common prescription. I let her know that my baby didn't technically need the milk since she was tolerating formula. If the donor was going to take time out of her day to pump (which any nursing mom can tell you is a hassle), I wanted to be entirely honest about our situation.
I fretted about how to tell my husband. He had been worried about our baby's growth, but I still assumed he might be skeptical of using another woman's milk. Although I was entirely comfortable with the idea and felt there were minimal risks (if any), I knew he deserved a say in this. Over drinks one evening I told him I had connected with someone willing to donate milk.
"How much?" he asked. Whatever she could pump, I explained.
"No, how much?" he said again, rubbing his fingers together in the sign for money. I hadn't even thought of paying.
"Nothing," I said. "I don't have enough, she has too much… she just wants to help."
He shrugged. "That's fine. But why would anyone do that?" From watching me struggle to nurse, he knew just how overwhelming it could be.
A few days later I met the donor in a parking lot to pick up more than 60 ounces of milk, enough for a week's worth of supplements. When she joked about not selling the milk on the black market, I told her my husband was baffled that about why she was taking the time out of her day to donate.
"There's just a community around breastfeeding," she said. "Moms helping moms."
It's now been three months since I started using donor milk. My daughter sometimes needs additional formula supplementation, but she's mostly on breast milk, mine and the donor's. I like thinking that she's getting bonus benefits from the donor milk: the immune fighting powers of two moms working to feed her. There's nothing wrong with formula (I've used it with both my children), but I think it's great to have my baby on as much human milk as possible.
Although the donor and I chat for a few minutes each time we see each other, with four kids between us someone is usually in a rush. We're essentially still strangers, but she's giving a huge, selfless gift of helping feed my child. She always makes it sound like this is a mutually beneficial relationship, but I know she's giving much more than the small relief she gets from pumping when she's engorged.
I know that breast milk is only "free" if we don't value women's time. I do small things, like buying her pumping bags and sending a heartfelt note, but ultimately there's nothing I can do to equalize our relationship. So, I express my thanks and focus on being on the receiving end of kindness, even when I don't have anything to send back. And although I can't donate milk, I look for other ways to support moms when they're struggling, continuing that feeling of community that the donor has given me.