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A Thank You to My Breast Milk Donor, Who Has Given Me More Than She’ll Ever Know

Baby holding bottle
Image source: Rachel Garlinghouse

Dear M,

I think about you a lot, you know; as I sit and feed my baby. And sometimes, I find myself wanting to reach out and hug you; to thank you for all that you’ve done for us; to tell you just how much your selfless act of goodwill has meant to me.

It was shortly after I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that my husband and I chose to adopt. Truthfully, I wasn’t sad about missing out on pregnancy. Nothing about weight gain, stretch marks, sonograms, or food cravings appealed to me. And while it may be hard for some to believe, I didn’t have the innate desire to carry life in my womb or to look at my baby and see my hazel eyes looking back at me.

What I was eager for was to love a child that needed to be loved; and to raise good humans in a world that often makes it hard to do so.

And so, I was fully accepting of adoption for what it was: embracing a child who came from another mother and father to continue life as part of our family, forever. I was most of all relieved that my body, which had already been through years of medical hell, would begin to heal and stabilize.

After our first baby came home, I distinctly remember rocking her in the quiet of her nursery, her eyelids growing heavy. Her chocolate-colored cheek was pressed against my upper breast. Suddenly, I felt overwhelmed by unanticipated sadness, and I realized the one piece that was missing in our tremendous love story was nursing.

Her need to suckle was met by a plastic pacifier. Her hunger cries were satisfied as soon as I placed the bottle nipple in her mouth, formula flowing. Despite being her mom, I wasn’t able to meet these basic needs with my body.

I was raised in a home surrounded my nursing mothers and babies. It wasn’t uncommon to see at least two women, shirts hiked up, nursing while they gossiped and traded recipes and hilarious parenting stories. My aunts, older cousins, and mom’s friends — all of them breastfed their children. Nursing was the norm. So when my own babies came to me, I shouldn’t have been shocked by my desire to give them what I understood to be natural.

I wanted the good parts of breastfeeding: the skin-to-skin contact, the nutrients, the milk-drunk baby.
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I know that for many women, breastfeeding isn’t some marvelous, “magical” thing. I know that nursing can come with cracked and sore nipples, low milk supply, mastitis, leaking breasts, and a whole lot of sleeplessness. Though I haven’t experienced these things myself, I wanted the good parts of breastfeeding: the skin-to-skin contact, the nutrients, the milk-drunk baby.

And so, I began researching adoptive nursing, sometimes referred to as induced lactation. It was going to take tremendous work. First, my baby was already used to bottles and pacifiers, and teaching her to nurse would be a challenge. Second, inducing lactation requires a stringent and demanding routine, including pumping eight times a day and taking medications. Third, I quickly discovered that many medical professionals at the time didn’t know anything about inducing lactation; some even met my questions with a disgusted snarl.

With each new baby who came into my heart and home, I considered adoptive breastfeeding. My motherly instinct and upbringing encouraged me, while the reality of my situation pulled me back. I felt stuck in a tug-of-war between what I desired and what was.

When our fourth baby was born last year, I felt the familiar ache. My baby rooted and I had nothing to offer her but plastic and milk made from powder and water. This sweet little girl, who had gone from the security and familiarity of her first mother’s womb to me, her new mommy, depended on me to offer her what she needed.

That’s when I met you; and everything changed.

I was online one day when a friend posted that one of her best friends had an excess of breast milk and wanted to donate. I immediately messaged you, explaining our situation. We messaged back and forth while getting to know one another, and you kindly met up with me, donating dozens of bags of frozen breast milk.

I’ve realized it’s more important to invite a circle of mothers into your child’s life than for one woman to be a child’s everything.
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Each time we met, it was like an exchange of both food and love. My daughter, now a 7-month-old little girl, is thriving. She chugs breast milk like a champ. She’s in the 85th percentile for weight and is developmentally on target. I believe her good health stems not only from how well her first mother cared for her and how quickly we bonded with her, but from your tremendous gift of “mama milk.”

When we met up last month and you held my daughter for the first time, it was magical. The way you gazed into each other’s eyes; my daughter’s chubby brown hand resting on your arm. I was overwhelmed with relief and gratitude. For all the times I felt the tugs of lost chances and failures, this single moment made up for it.

I may not have been able to give my baby the gift of breast milk, but you selflessly did. Given all that I have been through to become a mother, I’ve realized it’s more important to invite a circle of mothers into your child’s life than for one woman to be a child’s everything. Thank you for being in my child’s circle.

Your generosity, effort, and heart for adoption have not only blessed my baby girl with a strong, healthy body, they also helped heal a little piece of my heart.

Love,

Rachel

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