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November 21, 2013

I am dizzy with fatigue these days, slogging.  The baby is plump, but he is plump on my milk.  Slow to catch on to solid foods, he is plump on the last ounces of my energy.  One day last week, I hurried from classes to meetings, desperate to return to my office to pump.  I felt myself growing heavy, pounding.  I was so full of myself that the discomfort became a distraction.  I couldn’t think.   In between meetings, I ducked into my office, grateful that I have a private space where I can pump even though I am always slightly on edge over the undressing of my professional self in this space.  I hooked myself up to my trusty Pump In Style, positioning the bottles against my desk so that I could keep typing on my computer while the pump whirred.


After four kids, after almost seven cumulative years thus far of breastfeeding, after years of pumping whenever I am away from them for more than a few hours, I don’t have anything left to say about the mechanical part of this process.  I just do it.  But at some point last week, I glanced down and noticed, horrified, that the milk in the bottle was dark pink.  I quickly switched off the pump, my heart thumping, and held the bottle up to the light.  It looked like strawberry milk.  What had I eaten for dinner the night before?  Rajma!  Red kidney beans.  Could that be it?  But no, the other bottle of milk looked as it always did.  Then it hit me:  blood.  Even amid my fear, I could appreciate the metaphor: This fourth kid was sucking the very life out of me.

Late for another meeting with students, I didn’t have time to check the internet to determine whether or not I was dying, so off I went, distracted, somehow muddling through it.  Later that afternoon I called Patty, my favorite nurse at The Birth Center in Bryn Mawr, and asked her what was going on.  She assured me that I had probably just broken a blood vessel and that it was nothing to worry about.  In fact, the bloody milk was perfectly safe for the baby though it might taste a bit salty.  If I put it in the fridge, the blood would eventually settle to the bottom and I could skim off the good milk.   I did that twice over the next 24 hours but could never get the milk back to its normal shade.  Finally, I threw it out.  I just couldn’t face it anymore.

IMG_3607One of my colleagues in the Writing Center, who knows the code behind the “Please do not disturb” sign that I put on my office door whenever I am pumping, asked me earlier this week if I was feeling better.  The blood was gone but I had spent a couple of days feeling off.  It wasn’t mastitis–I had that once before–but something wasn’t right, whether or not it was related to the bloody milk.  I said I was.  “It’s important to you, isn’t it?” she asked, gesturing toward the pump parts scattered on my desk.  Then, “Do you think it has something to do with your adoption?”

Over the years I’ve often wondered myself why it has been so imperative for me to nurse my children, to feed them from my own being.  It hasn’t always been easy, and I’ve certainly made sacrifices to do so.  My public answers might mirror some of the obvious ones: It’s good for them; It’s good for me; It’s free; I can.  Always I am grateful to be able to do so.  Never is my own decision a judgment of anyone else’s.  But privately, I wonder: Do I zealously nurse my own children because my birth mother wasn’t able to?

Breastfeeding my first son was hardest.  I endured nine months of intense discomfort before we both finally figured it out.  This was nearly a decade before I knew who my birth mother was, before I heard her story, before I learned that after giving birth to us, she made her way to her family’s farm in North Dakota on a train she never remembers boarding or riding or departing.  It was ten years before I had a face for the loss that I imagined for her in those early days with my first son, in those days when I was desperate to get him to latch, to lock on to me with his tiny mouth.

Ten years and four babies later, I think of her still.  Yes, of all the things that run through my mind now when I am full of milk, desperate for the pump or my baby’s lips, for something to relieve the swelling, it is she who sometimes appears before me, her ghost body climbing onto that train.  Somewhere, in the depths of my own pounding, I think I understand, if only a little, what it must have been like to be so full of child but to have no release for all that pent-up love.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 22, 2013 5:58 am

    Oh Jenny, what an achingly lovely story. I breast fed all my children while my mother stood back in disapproval. I thought it was the best gift a mother could give her new little one, still do. Your life sounds so exhausting right now, wish I could just come and hug some more energy into you, or better, just let you rest in this life-giving and strength-sapping time.

  2. J Fermon permalink
    November 21, 2013 7:26 pm

    My friend, if I could share some of my physical vitality with you, I would. For now, sending you lots of love. This is another powerful piece you’ve shared here – thank you. xx

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