The doctor sat down.
That was my first sign that something was wrong. Doctors, especially hospital pediatricians, wear sneakers because they’re on their feet all day, standing at bedsides, doing procedures, walking from room to room on rounds.
He pulled up a chair across from me — me, rocking my sweet, sleeping, perfect three-month-old baby boy who just had croup and needed monitoring, right? –and sat down.
They’d done a CT scan because they noticed a bump on his head. “Well, while you’re here, might as well get it looked at!” the attending said brightly, and I agreed.
His voice was quiet, and not rushed. His eyes were sad and kind. “There was an incidental finding on the CT scan. Patrick had a stroke in utero.”
My stomach dropped. I’m pretty sure a guttural “unhhhh” noise came out, completely involuntarily. I clutched him closer, and he kept sleeping.
Finally, it all made sense. I’d breastfed my first son without a hitch. I affectionately called him my little piranha, he ate constantly and grew fantastically and that was that. Patrick was different. He would latch, and nurse, but pop on and off the breast, arch his back terribly, and cry with frustration. He took a full month to get back to his birth weight. By two months old, he was falling off the bottom of the growth chart. We’d faithfully attended nursing groups, seen three different lactation consultants, tried reflux meds, gotten a lip and tongue tie lasered. Still, he stumbled along and nothing changed.
I made the decision right before his diagnosis to start exclusively pumping. I was exhausted of being constantly screamed at, of being told my baby was “too skinny” by strangers at the grocery store, of just feeling like SOMETHING was wrong. I felt oddly relieved to know we had an answer — his oral and facial muscles were affected by the stroke, and just not strong enough to transfer milk from the breast.
I pumped around the clock, every three hours, religiously. Still, my supply was always just a few ounces short each day, and the little bit I’d managed to freeze was dwindling. Fenugreek, water until I peed clear, oatmeal, lactation cookies… nothing helped.
We tried formula. I was looking forward to having a little help, frankly. We tried, actually, 10 different kinds of formula (I counted), and he refused them all with great enthusiasm. I was between a rock and a hard place. My body was failing to produce enough to keep him satiated and growing, but he wouldn’t touch formula. What do you do?
And then there was the so-called mommy guilt. It ate away at me. Formula is perfectly healthy food for babies, but I wanted to be able to give him breastmilk for as long as I’d nursed his brother. I’d always wanted to treat my children exactly alike. I read a study that showed that breastmilk helps increase brain matter volume, particularly in boys, which is exactly what he’d lost in his stroke. And I wanted to make it work even more desperately.
I forget how and when it happened, exactly, but I was venting to a trusted co-worker and friend about my stress and she offered me some of her freezer stash. She has a daughter a few months older than my son, and was an overproducer. I’ll be honest, it felt weird to accept. But I really had no choice. She brought me a cooler full of frozen milk to the office the next day. I unloaded it at home, filled the cooler with homemade cookies and replacement storage bags and returned it with a homemade picture “card.”
Patrick happily guzzled down those bottles. I felt a sense of relief wash over me. He was fed. That was mattered.
Over the next several months, we continued to receive donor milk from my first donor as well as another generous friend with an oversupply. I continued pumping, and used their milk to fill the gaps when I fell behind. By 10 months, he accepted formula, and I weaned off the pump and donor milk.
I’m fully aware that some people may find it weird, even risky, to use donated milk, but to me, it’s just sort of beautiful. It’s the most basic way of a mom reaching out to another in a time of need, and literally giving of herself to benefit another. Mom communities can often fall victim to sniping and tearing one another down, but this? This is support. This is building each other up. I will always have a special place in my heart for the women who helped me feed my baby in one of the scariest periods of my life.
*This post is dedicated to Lauren, and Amanda, and their amazing generosity in a time of need.