Sacramental Milk

27 Feb

This is an essay I submitted to the New York Times for their Sunday “Modern Love” Column.  

It was rejected.

Oh well.  I hope that you enjoy it here, and that maybe it can help some other new mother cope with a traumatic birth experience.

“Sacramental Milk”

I call it my sacramental milk. 

In the Anglican Church in which I was raised, a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, and that is exactly what my breast milk is: the visible, physical manifestation of the spiritual and emotional love I have for my daughter, Ruby.

When I first got pregnant I knew that I would breast feed but never imagined that the simple act of feeding my child would carry so much significance for me.  I have never been much of a hippie (I am a naval officer by trade), I don’t like pain and I am not opposed to modern medicine—my mantra is that God created pharmacists for a reason and I take Zyrtec for my allergies, Midol for cramps and Advil for headaches, but when I found out I was pregnant I felt drawn towards natural childbirth and midwifery. For some reason the idea of motherhood awakened something primal deep within me and I very much wanted a home birth, but the idea made my wonderful husband, Matty, very nervous.  My insurance would not cover the lovely birthing center we toured, but my superb Navy-provided midwife, Sherrie, assured me that I could have my peaceful, drug-free birth at Balboa Naval Hospital.    

As my due date rapidly approached I started visualizing my cervix opening up like a flower to allow my baby to emerge.  Whenever negative thoughts about painful contractions or complications entered my mind I immediately pushed them out and thought instead about how I would help my labor progress naturally.  I was dreadfully afraid of both pitocin and epidurals and vowed that I would not need them to birth my child.  It didn’t look like I would need them anyway.  My pregnancy was very healthy all the way up to my due date, March 14th.

Then I got sick.

My blood pressure was elevated so Sherrie ordered additional tests, which confirmed that I had developed preeclampsia, a life-threatening disorder that occurs only during pregnancy and can lead to seizure, stroke, multiple organ failure and death of the mother and/or baby.  I was admitted to the hospital and hooked up to an IV of magnesium sulphate; a drug used to prevent seizures in women with preeclampsia, and told that I would be bedridden and thus unable to walk around or bounce on my yoga ball to help my labor progress.  In one fell swoop my visions of a natural, drug-free birth vanished.

I soldiered on, cheerfully chatting with Matty, my mother, and my mother-in-law as well as the dozens of nurses, midwives, and doctors who cycled through my room.  I still practiced my visualizations but my labor progressed ever so slowly, despite receiving the dreaded pitocin and an epidural.  I was finally ready to push over 24 hours after I had originally been admitted to the hospital.

So I pushed.

For three hours.

I tried harder to push out my baby than I have ever tried to do anything in my entire life, but I failed.

The drugs made me drowsy and I spiked a 102.6 degree fever, so I drifted in and out of consciousness, but I do remember the attending physician coming into my room and telling me that I was done pushing and would deliver by caesarean instead.  At 11:18 pm on March 15thmy beautiful Ruby Jeanne was born.  I was overjoyed but amidst all of the emotion I felt a not-so-tiny pang of disappointment that I had been a failure.  There was nothing I could do to change what had happened so I shifted my focus to being a good mother for Ruby, which at the moment basically consisted of loving her, cleaning her, and feeding her.  I was in a tremendous amount of pain and because of the drugs I was unable to get out of bed so I could not even change her diaper, and Matty and the moms helped shower Ruby with love, but it was up to me alone to feed our little angel.

We both took to breastfeeding.  I was blessed with very large breasts and was delighted that they were actually good for something beyond the occasional free drink at a bar now that I had been lugging them around for so long.  I very much enjoyed the special bond I felt with Ruby, and that I was the only one who could provide food for her itty bitty belly.  After a difficult birth this was my ode to motherhood, a love letter to my daughter that only I could write.

We were finally discharged from the hospital four days after the birth.  When we went back for our 48 hour visit the pediatrician was aghast at her weight loss and demanded that I start feeding her formula.  I was beside myself but thankfully my mother and mother-in-law deduced that my milk had been delayed due to all of the drugs.  Later on at home we verified that it had finally started flowing and Ruby began to eat voraciously.  She regained her weight without consuming any formula and we were back on track.

I loved being home with Ruby and dreaded returning to work after my maternity leave.  Everything about her fascinated me—her smiles, her sighs, her teeny tiny toes and her perfect rosebud mouth.  I never wanted to be away from her, but going back to work also meant that I wouldn’t be there to feed her.  I had to start pumping.

I bought the best pump money can buy, and about two weeks before returning to work I hooked myself up to it and started pumping.

I looked like a dairy cow.

felt like a dairy cow as I watched my milk drip down into the little plastic beakers, drop by drop by drop. 

I had no earthly idea just how much milk Ruby was consuming throughout the day, and was dismayed when, after a solid week of pumping, my mom thought that I might have enough milk stored in the freezer for my first day back.

Just one day?

My first day back to work I was shown to the storage closet that the half-dozen nursing mothers use for a lactation room.  It is a little windowless room with a hodgepodge of random items and a table and some chairs shoved into a corner for us to use.  The walls are bare and dingy with the one bright spot being a framed picture of the San Francisco skyline that our executive secretary took while she was on vacation.    Every three hours I unlocked the door, hung up the little sign and pumped.  I was able to produce a bit more than enough to feed my baby, but the pump was always there, in the back of my mind.  Other new mothers and I would huddle together comparing output.  This is a horrible, horrible thing to admit, but I would feel a twinge of either superiority or inferiority, depending on how my milk output compared to those of my friends.

I had settled into a nice pumping rhythm when I took Ruby on a 9 day tour across the country to show her off to family and left my pump behind.  I still fed her on demand like always, but when I returned to the daily grind I was shocked and dismayed to discover that my milk production had decreased and Ruby’s intake had sky-rocketed.

My first day back I settled into the storage closet and stared, horrified, as my milk refused to flow.  It just dripped out, ever so slowly, taunting me.


It was like every insecurity I felt as a new mother dripped out with my milk.  Like the time I left her sleeping on my bed and returned a few minutes later to discover that she had rolled off onto the floor.


The Tylenol I gave Ruby “for her ears” on a cross-country flight, secretly praying that it would put her to sleep for those long hours on the airplane.


The cloth diapers that I had briefly considered and then rejected because Luvs are just so much more convenient.


I had tried so very hard to deliver her naturally only to be cut open and have her ripped from my body.


And my one greatest insecurity, the one that almost dare not speak its name; the fact that when I look at my daughter, so sweet, soinnocent, so beautiful that it almost takes my breath away, I know deep down that I am utterly unworthy and inadequate for the task of raising her.  I was able to keep those feelings at bay, just underneath the surface, until I could no longer even nourish my child.

In that storage closet I had to come to terms with the inescapable reality that I cannot protect her from everything and that I will not always be able to fulfil all of her needs.  But at least I could try, at least for now.

I researched ways to increase milk production and set about on a quest to fill my freezer to the brim with little bags of my liquid gold.  I bought expensive vitamins and a bra contraption printed with cheerful cherries for hands-free convenience and started pumping.  A lot.  And you know what?  My milk started to flow again, before I had to give Ruby a single drop of formula.

I just took Ruby to her four month check-up and she is thriving.  Long and lean she is in the 97th percentile for height and I am hoping that she takes after my sister, her beloved Auntie Elise, who is a statuesque 5’10” compared to my middling  5’ 5.5”.  Even as an infant she already displays a beautiful love of life and a curiosity about the world around her, and I am so looking forward to watching her blossom and grow.  Ruby’s incredible, energetic personality and chubby cheeks give testament to the power of copious amounts of love and sacramental milk.


3 Responses to “Sacramental Milk”

  1. Monica Neri March 2, 2012 at 2:48 pm #

    I feel even more inspired to Brest feed 🙂 thank you

  2. hannie6 March 18, 2012 at 5:00 pm #

    I LOVE breastfeeding!! I’m on my fourth baby, and since she’s our last, I’m afraid I might nurse her until she’s 5.. 🙂


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    […] of the benefits of natural childbirth during my pregnancy with Ruby.  Her birth (I wrote about it here) turned out very differently from how I had envisioned and I had a rough recovery.  When I became […]

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