When my demanding work schedule started to interfere with my desire to exclusively breastfeed my daughter, I immediately felt discouraged. I was pumping as much as possible but I was away from my daughter for approximately 14 hours at a time, and I never could express enough milk to keep her satisfied.
I was sure that returning to work was the beginning of the end of our breastfeeding relationship, especially since my experience nursing my first baby had been so difficult. I had struggled so much with my supply, I felt forced to follow up with formula every time I breastfed her. Eventually, she became more reliant on the bottle and my milk dried up, and it was all downhill from there.
Once my pumping output started to dwindle the second time around, I was sure I was headed down the same road. I felt like I was failing again, my body unable to provide food for my daughter. It seemed so simple for the other moms I worked with, who were expressing 6 ounces every time they sat down with the pump.
Unable to express enough milk for my daughter and feeling frustrated, I starting looking into finding a breast milk donor.
Because nearly 5% of women can't produce breast milk on their own, predominantly for physiological reasons, breast milk donation is a thriving (albeit controversial) industry, with women using websites like MilkShare and Only the Breast to connect with moms who act as donors. While some health professionals criticize the practice, arguing that it's unhygienic or even dangerous for moms to feed their babies unscreened donated breast milk, it's been estimated that more than 55,000 women use the websites to either donate or receive milk nonetheless.
I ran with what you might call a "crunchy" crowd, so I had known for quite some time that donor milk was an option. While my partner and I had used formula for a bit, it ended up making my daughter gassy, so I felt using donor milk made the most sense for her.
I started to feel anxious every time my daughter had a bottle. Was I making the wrong choice? Was I putting her at risk?
Honestly, I didn’t think twice about it. Maybe I was naive or too trusting, but I went with my gut and tracked down a mom using a Facebook group connected to Human Milk 4 Human Babies, a peer-to-peer online milk-sharing community. We met in person. I asked her a few questions, met her little one, and gave her a box of empty storage bags so she wouldn’t have to spend her own money to buy any. In exchange, she gave me nearly 100 ounces of expressed breast milk. I never felt nervous or worried that my baby would get sick.
And then the criticism started rolling in. Someone at work overheard me chatting about it with another breastfeeding mom and made it very clear how disgusting she thought it was. "Don't you realize that's a stranger's bodily fluids?," she asked.
I ignored her. I didn’t really care what she thought, but when my family started pressuring me to stop feeding my daughter with donated milk, it was hard not to let it get in my head. My mother-in-law preferred I give my baby formula, and my mom confessed that she was uncomfortable with it as well. My own husband wondered why I couldn’t compromise, mixing whatever milk I was able to pump with formula.
Their questions started to concern me. I started to feel anxious every time my daughter had a bottle. Was I making the wrong choice? Was I putting her at risk?
When I ran out of breast milk from my donor, I didn’t call her back. I felt completely comfortable accepting milk from her at first, but since I seemed to be the only person in my life OK with donor milk, I started to wonder if I should listen to the people around me.
Later that week, I shared my decision to stop getting donor milk with a work friend, the same one who had been supportive of my choice to use it in the first place. She offered to step in and fill my freezer with her own breast milk. She had an oversupply and her daughter hated taking a bottle while they were apart, so she had so much milk and nothing to do with it.
It felt like the perfect compromise. I could reassure my friends and family with concerns, explaining how well I knew the mom who was giving me milk. I sat with her every day at lunch, so I knew her diet was amazingly healthy. I had been to her home, so I knew it was clean. My worries vanished and I resumed feeding my baby donor milk while I was at work, mixing it with the small amounts I could pump while I was away.
I can't help but wonder: if my friend hadn't spoke up, would I have been done using donor milk for good? Or would I have learned to look past the criticism and do what I felt was best for my child?
I would like to believe I would have stood up for my choice, but I'm honestly not so sure. It's hard enough being a mom and making an unpopular parenting choice in the face of criticism, well, that only makes things more difficult. But even though I know this is far from the last time my parenting choices will come under fire, I feel confident that in this instance, I made the right choice for my daughter and her diet.