One week ago when Max turned 11 weeks old I texted my friend Del: "we've come to the point where I went downstairs and did in fact help myself. I hope that's still ok".
She responded promptly: "Please please feel completely free to help yourself whenever. Seriously. No need to even ask. I'm just happy it's being used."
The previous day, while I worked a 3-4 hour morning with clients and after being nursed, my ravenous baby boy went on to drink his way through 11 oz (325ml) of breastmilk. All the milk that I had pumped over the previous 24 hours. I was shocked as I had just nursed him before leaving and he greeted me with expectations of another feeding.
By Sunday night I was fried. So I went into our basement and opened the freezer chest. Del had been dropping off milk but I never paid attention to quantities.
But as I opened the chest and started rummaging through plastic bags neatly labeled by date, volume and time of day (!), I was overcome by sadness. There in this freezer lay weeks possibly months' worth of pumping liquid gold. Milk that Del's son couldn't drink and that I would now be helping myself to. Because my son was not getting enough from me.
Rewind to summer 2016. Del and I met shortly after she had Lucien Maximilian and within a few weeks I was expecting Maximilian Stewart. We formed a fast friendship bonding over our shared passion for running and soon my pregnancy and her postpartum recovery.
I started training Del for her first marathon while on the sidelines vicariously living though the ups and downs of her marathon preparation. There were a few tears when she twisted her ankle and couldn't run but overall we were brimming with enthusiasm.
Until Lucien got sick.
Within a few short weeks this healthy 4 month old boy started losing significant weight. He spit up and had diarrhea. We joked that Del had to cut out the croissants, cheese and soy (not easy as a French/ Chinese woman) but before long everybody was very worried and so the saga of hospital stays began.
After weeks of sleeping by Lucien's side at Cornell hospital, the week before the NYC Marathon, Del and I met up for a shake out run. Prospect Park was misty and serene that morning. It felt peaceful and as we found our step she asked me if I thought that with everything going on with the baby, I would recommend running the race. I told her that there were only two options; deferring to the following year because it had been such an exhausting time or pouring all the frustration over no diagnoses, anger, fear, sadness of seeing such a small baby hooked up to various drips, into the marathon and racing for Lucien. I always knew which option she would choose...
"Race for Lucien" had been her mantra all along. Del had been running from and to the hospital not to train but for her own sanity. She ran to get away from it all. She ran from appointments to school to take care of her older children. It felt like for weeks she didn't train but ran everywhere. So it was fitting that on November 6th she lined up in Staten Island to run her first 26.2 miles in honour of her son.
I had few words and mostly tears for the seconds that I saw Del run by me at mile 8. She was beaming and she was fast. I handed her an extra water bottle, gave her a big hug and sent her on her way. I continued to track her. Fast through Brooklyn, remembering the defeating silence on Queensboro bridge, the deafening crowds on First Avenue, saw her slow down briefly in the Bronx where desperation runs high and marathoners run out of gas. Just when I thought she was giving in to the fatigue she entered Central Park with renewed vigor and ended an incredible race with a great time and raising several thousand dollars for mothers around the world (Every Mother Counts).
In the following months, doctors in New York and Philadelphia finally were able to diagnose Lucien's condition and we met and I was able to squeeze this cute boy who had endured infusions and special formula all while his brave mama never gave up hope that he would be able to drink her milk. Pumping around the clock.
And this brings us back to the current summer. It's unlikely that Lucien will ever be able to use the incredible amounts of milk that his mother pumped. To drink it, it would have to be skimmed as he can not digest the milk fat.
Meanwhile I have been struggling for weeks to keep my supply up. I have supplemented and cluster pumped. Cluster fed and pumped after breastfeeding. I have used hot compresses, massage, fenugreek, and brewers yeast. I have oatmeal coming out of my ears and still my baby is hungry. Half of the time when I lay him down for naps I'm unsure if he's had enough from "just" the breast at which he's been for over an hour. So there's no knowing how long he'll sleep.
My biggest issue is that I don't have many letdowns. It has been suggested that I am too obsessed with my postpartum body. But as many runners will attest, the sport that makes me happy often causes a letdown. I get them when I'm out and about and teaching but when I sit down to pump: crickets. And with each bottle my baby gets lazier, too. Thus not nursing efficiently. It has been a vicious cycle which had me sitting in front of the pump crying on more than one occasion. I find myself envying women who's milk leaks when they wake up in the morning. Because mine doesn't.
So I've come full circle. My friend offered me her milk and while I still feel guilty each time I defrost a packet I am also immensely grateful for her help and knowing that my baby is well fed. Last weekend after our text exchange I'm sure we both shed a few tears. For the sacrifices, the trials, and ultimately the triumphs that have created a special bond between us and our two boys.