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The Gift of Milk

July 15, 2010

We settle into the glider, his head tucked into my arm. He makes his little excited noises in anticipation. He opens his mouth, faces me. Sometimes he reaches for my shirt. Sometimes his little fist goes into his mouth and I have to pull it away. He kicks his legs, eager and impatient. Where is it? Where is it? He roots around. “Hold on, little guy, it’s coming.” Finally, nipple in mouth, his whole body relaxes.

I watch his jaw move in big motions as he sucks greedily. His eyes are closed for the moment, now he looks up at me. I smile my whole heart into those eyes. We rock back and forth, back and forth. I close my eyes. I thank him for giving me this moment of quiet, this time to stop, sit down, and do nothing else but be exactly where I am. No phone calls. No rushing around. No dishes or meals to prepare. No appointments. No trying to figure things out. Right now I am mama, feeding my baby. Nothing else exists.

We rock back and forth, back and forth. He squirms. I put him over my shoulder, pat his back, get the burp out. Back on the breast. His hungry gulps change to lighter sucks, become the occasional quick shallow fish-like sucks. I gently pull my breast out of his mouth. Is he asleep? No, he adamantly slurps my nipple back in and resumes nursing. Now it’s all about comfort.

My mind drifts. I think about the two days we spent in Children’s Hospital when he was 10 days old and spiked a fever. We slept together in a giant crib and I nursed him all night, careful not to disturb his tiny arm with the IV. The nurse put a splint around his arm and taped the IV tubing to him to prevent it from falling out. My little wounded Leo lion with his bandaged paw. I fell in love with him all over again those two days while we waited for the cultures to grow (negative).

His body is so limp, his head falls back into the crook of my arm. The milk he hadn’t swallowed yet drips down the corner of his mouth onto his chin. For a moment he purses his lips as though to say something profound. And then it’s total surrender to the peace that is sleep. Oh, my serene boy with the full lips and skin smooth as lamb’s ear. His face is so beautiful I don’t think I can take it.

Carefully, oh so carefully, I transfer him to my shoulder and we rock some more. I count the beats in my head and when I feel certain that he’s totally asleep I get up and lay him in the crib on his tummy. His legs stay tucked under him and his butt sticks up in the air just like a duck dipping under water. I cover him with the blanket, and with a sigh he relaxes his body.

I waited until nearly the last minute to wean my four-and-a-half-month old. I did it all at once, cold turkey, for selfish reasons. I wanted the pleasure and connection of nursing for as long as possible before starting the chemo. It’s been almost a week and Leo seems to accept the new arrangement. He no longer fusses when I hold him, dive-bombing toward my breast. Now he opens his mouth for the silicon nipple. I tell him how sorry I am. I tell him that I wish it were different, that I am so deeply sorry that I can’t nurse him longer. I cry for both of us. I take some solace in thinking that he knew this was the deal when he chose me as his mother, when he chose this time to be born.

My heart no longer breaks every time I feed him a bottle. But when I least expect it, when I see a mother nursing her baby or when I think of how I nursed Toby until he was two without a care in the world or when my breasts leak in the shower, the grief wells up inside me all over again. I’m learning how to do it: how to prepare bottles in time to meet Leo’s urgent cries for milk; how to go out with enough milk just in case he gets hungry; how to love and calm and soothe him without the breast.

In our freezer we have dozens of bags of beautiful milk. There’s maybe 200 ounces at the moment, and none of it is mine. When I learned of the cancer and the need for surgery, friends put out a call for milk. A local home birth midwife became Leo’s milk angel and has sourced hundreds of ounces of milk from healthy mothers who just happened to have extra. A mother in Connecticut, whose own baby refuses the bottle, has agreed to continue pumping just for Leo. We’ve never spoken, and I only recently learned her name, and still she’s offered to give us this extraordinary gift. The community of mothers is truly amazing.

Although I can no longer nurse my baby, I am so deeply grateful that he will get this perfect nourishment from so many big-hearted and generous mamas. I always believed that milk is love. Now I know that it’s also blessing.

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One comment

  1. dear shira,
    as we’ve been working with the midwives here on getting little Noah Moses latched on correctly, i eagerly lapped up this blog entry… and can completely understand your feelings… wanting your child to breast feed, as it’s the best newborn food. you are so fortunate to have such wonderful friends & support network, with a milk angel and all that milk…
    sending lots of love,
    Joel & Lucie & Noah



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