The Gift of Milk

Yesterday was my husband’s birthday. I always have a hard time thinking of the right gift for him; I can’t get inside his well-researched desires for tech solutions and gardening books. My sister, who lives a plane ride away, can be tough too. Because I’m rarely in her kitchen or closet, I’m never quite sure just what she needs. And besides the challenge of finding the right thing, gift-giving can be complicated in general. Are you giving what you want the recipient to want – or what she actually does want? Are you giving with a secret-even-to-yourself expectation of getting something in return? Do you worry your recipient anticipates something expensive that you can ill afford? It can be emotionally fraught territory.

But some gifts are blessedly simple. What could be nicer than knowing just what is needed, and being perfectly able to provide it? Donating breast milk to a milk bank was one of the most satisfying experiences of gift-giving I’ve ever had.

When my daughter was three months old, I began working full time. I was a faithful pumper, taping a do not enter sign to my door every 3 – 4 hours and eventually developing a system of pumping while typing, making phone calls, and even – with a select few colleagues – participating in meetings. The only problem was that while I was at work pumping away, my tiny daughter was at home with my beleaguered husband launching a full-scale hunger strike. Even then her will was remarkable. The bottle was simply unacceptable; she’d rather starve.

After weeks of trying, my husband gave up feeding her and simply bounced and consoled her until I made it home during my lunch break to nurse our ravenous child. Then I’d race back to work. Then I’d race home again as soon as I could, and she would try desperately to latch on as I fumbled to open my nursing bra. Solids couldn’t have come a moment too soon.

In the meantime, I kept pumping to keep up my supply, and our freezer was rapidly filling up with little plastic bottles of breast milk. Unwilling to throw away liquid gold, I considered taking some to my in-laws, who had a deep freezer in the basement. When I talked to my mother-in-law, she mentioned a milk bank housed at their local hospital. I was intrigued. I called the nurse who ran the program, had my doctor attest to my health, and set up a time to drop off my precious collection.

The nurse met me at the door, wheeling a big cooler. When I opened my own cooler full of plastic milk storage containers, she looked inside, looked up at me, and grinned.

Your breast milk is beautiful!

It is?

She explained that it was rich and yellow, full of colostrum. It was perfect for the sick infants and children who would benefit from it.

I think I blushed.

I felt like I had a superpower. Nursing our babies is kind of magic. After years of nursing my now-weaned children, I still marvel at the basic premise: growing a baby simply on the nourishment that our own bodies provide! It’s something that happens on a physical level, so unlike anything else we experience normally in life. My body fed my children’s bodies. And now it was going to feed other children’s bodies, too. How extraordinary.

Mother’s milk is a gift – a simple one with extraordinary power. Many babies who receive breast milk from milk banks struggle with prematurity, severe allergies, immune deficiencies, or failure to thrive. The nurse explained to me that some of the milk went to children with certain forms of cancer who can benefit from the boost to their immune systems. She also explained that because breast milk is the ideal, most digestible form of nourishment for all infants, it is of great help for any seriously ill baby.

Some gifts sneak up on you. Now my kiddo is a healthy almost-six year old; I don’t think she misses those extra bottles one bit.

For more information on donating breast milk, you can visit the Human Milk Banking Association of North America.

For more on the small and simple gifts of life with children, visit my blog, Homemade Time.


About Meagan Howell

Meagan Howell is a freelance writer and social worker who loves art, books, yoga, friends, music, being outside, and helping to build communities of all sorts. Meagan lives in Maryland with her husband and two children and writes about motherhood at Homemade Time.

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