The first night I spent apart from my children was the first night I spent in the hospital. For four and a half years of nights, without exception, I had slept next to my babies. My older son weaned the day after my younger son was born, so I had also been nursing every day and many nights for that window of time. I sat in a hospital bed on Friday, September 3, 2010, and held my eight month old infant to my breast to feed him. It was to be the last time he ever latched. That night, instead of cradling my suckling son, I slept alone on a vinyl mattress while an IV pump whirred and hummed toxic chemicals directly into the vein above my heart. Lysander had his first bottle while John and Wallace ate pizza with friends.
Breastfeeding is nourishment in so many ways other than nutritionally. It is a connection between mother and baby that unites us to all mammals, to the original mammals. It is unique to the relationship of mother and infant, the milk changing in quantity, consistency and constituents to adapt to the needs of both. It is profoundly intimate, utterly exclusive, and for me, quite suddenly completely over. I had nourished my soul on the breastfeeding of my babies. Losing that relationship with my son opened up an opportunity to experience a level of human generosity that is astounding, even as it is the only part of this illness that has made me weep in bewilderment and loss.
In the week that I spent assessing myself and my options before deciding to undergo chemotherapy, my primary concern was that I would not be able to nurse my son. Even before I put myself in the hospital, I wondered if I might have to stop breastfeeding in order to heal, or if non-allopathic therapies might make my milk unsafe for my baby. One of my midwives had a baby this past spring; I called her and asked if she might be able to pump extra breastmilk for my son.
Midwives must be among the most generous people in the world. They give of their time and their hearts in one of the most important periods of our lives, and they ask very little in return. Brenda, Lindsay and Maureen of Sacopee Valley Birthing Services are amazing; both my babies were born at home with their assistance and care. I could go on and on about them, but I will save it for another post. Suffice it to say that they were the first people I called when I realized I was going to need donor milk.
When I returned from the hospital after three weeks, Lysander would not latch on. He had completely forgotten. I tried supplemental systems several times, and then I tried to pump. The chemotherapy reduced my supply to almost nothing, and my milk was too toxic to drink 25% of the time. I rented a hospital-grade pump and tried to keep up some supply, supplementing others' milk with a few ounces of my own, lugging the pump to the hospital to keep pumping during treatments, but still my milk disappeared. I read books on herbs and bought tinctures. And then I stopped. I returned the pump and acquiesced to the situation.
I am so grateful. My son, having never had a bottle or slept anywhere other than in my armpit, immediately took to this new form of nourishment. He has bonded with my husband as the primary parent, and it is beautiful to watch. He is happy and healthy and he has had the opportunity to connect with people in a different way than before, and he has not been traumatized by my absences.
And the milk fairies! I have experienced an unrivaled display of the depth of human connection, in the way that women have come together to help me continue to provide breastmilk to my son (I have been in treatment since the beginning of September, and he has never been without milk!). I cannot express the depth of my gratitude. Lysander and I have reconnected as my presence has grown more dominant again and my absences briefer, and I am able to be present in a new way because of what I have learned. He and I have both been nourished by the milk of human kindness.