The below piece was written for Huffington Post Parents in honor of World Breastfeeding Week, August 1-7.
I don’t know you, yet day after day we shared an intimate experience. Divided by only a thin beige hospital curtain on a rod, as new mothers we were united by a desire to protect, nurture, and care for our children.
There we were, just days into our role, and amazingly our hearts already understood how to feel the depths of emotion that accompany this title. Prior to having a child, that range of concern and pride was unchartered territory for me. Now my heart was swelling with a redefined love guided not by a class or book, rather by the same instinct that could cause my breasts to produce milk. The emotions providing fuel for the soul and the milk nourishment for a baby that was inside of me just days ago, but now lay hooked up to monitors and tubes in a temperature controlled isolette down the hallway.
Newly inducted into the club of motherhood, we were quite certainly paying our dues, you and I. We spent our afternoons together in a lactation room attached to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) in a hospital in Northern Virginia. Inside this room industrial grade pumps were neatly organized into stations. Each station contained a chair, small side table and curtains hung on a rod that could be pulled to create privacy. The room was sparse with an air of efficiency.
Outside of this space, the cold January air swirled around the nation’s capital and the Washington DC area was alive with excitement. A presidential election year had just kicked off and results were being reported from an important land far away called Iowa.
I don’t know what your opinions were on the politics or events that were unfolding that month. In that moment and that stage, nothing on the outside world mattered. At this critical juncture it was just me, my baby…and you and the machines that were hooked up to us both that set the rhythm of my days.
Frankly, at that time I resented you and your presence. You represented a place I did not want to be and an experience I did not want to be having. I did not want to be sharing this sacred time with you or these machines. Just a few weeks after having a baby, my expectation was to be snuggling with a newborn in the warmth of my home.
That vision seemed like only a far away wish at this point. Instead my reality was that my child had been rushed into emergency surgery to repair his twisted intestines when he was just 3 days old. In the short time prior to his surgery, I held him, snuggled him and watched him take to breastfeeding in a way that was immediate and natural to us both. Skin to skin, mother to child, I felt my uterus contract and my thoughts relax as this precious child and I met eyes and I gently stroked his head.
During pregnancy I took a nursing class but maintained that while I hoped to breastfeed, I would take the route that presented itself. I had been warned that with pregnancy, delivery, and nursing it was best to keep yourself flexible. And I had rationally abided by that advice and kept my emotions in check when several hours into a non-progressing labor it was recommended that that baby come out via C-section. Dutifully I accepted the change in plans and laughed that this was what parenthood was all about. But even with all of the effort to go with the flow, I could have never been prepared to be in the place where we were right now.
Now as I sat hooked up to the suckling machine I was angry! Breastfeeding my baby felt like a distant memory, or rather a gift that had been ripped away as soon as I began to open it and discover its beauty.
Memories of breastfeeding my son illuminated a physical bond and continued the connection I had shared with him over the last nine months in pregnancy. While it was a new sensation that had only been mine for a few days, it was now something I yearned for and craved in a way that was only pronounced by the fact that I could not yet safely hold my child post-operation. In fact, I didn’t know then if he would ever be able to drink the milk I was collecting. At this time, his stomach was still being pumped and he was being fed via tube through a central line. I was told that when I was granted access to my child, I would have to wash my hands at a minimum of 3 minutes before I could hold him. This seemed like such a harsh reality when just days earlier he had been inside of me, connected to me and kicking when I drank orange juice or ate a big breakfast.
I felt so sad being physically detached from the very child that had spent the past forty weeks growing inside of me and for whom I had already made countless sacrifices. What I didn’t recognize at the time is that the act of pumping milk for my child was one of my first acts of parenthood. Not only was it important, it felt like one small thing I could do to control what was otherwise a chaotic situation. I irrationally believed that with each pumping session I was somehow helping my child to heal. So I stayed dedicated to my schedule and logged many hours in this room, so did you.
Spending my afternoons with you and the hum of our pumping machines was definitely not the plan. I’m guessing this isn’t exactly what you had in mind either. Now that I’ve spent many months nursing three children and have no remaining sense of modesty, I wish I would have pulled the beige curtain aside, offered you a smile and learned more about what exactly your plan was. We could have been like the women in the book “The Red Tent” and sat together and nursed, sharing stories of our children’s birth and concerns over their conditions. We could have laughed together and cried together. But instead my rookie status combined with a modesty of both immaturity and profession led me to follow the tone set by the starkness and cold feeling of the room. I stayed within my station, hooked to my machine.
So I never even saw your face, but I saw the way your toes curled up to brace yourself as the machine kicked into action. And although your feet were beautifully dark with natural nails and mine were dry, cracked and light with nails painted pink, our toes curled in the same way for the same reason; an initial pinch worthy of a cringe followed by a releasing sensation and what I now know to call ‘let down’.
As the pump took my child’s milk, I saw the hem of your long gown with its ornate patterns sweep under the plain beige curtain. And between my own quiet tears of worry and disappointment, I heard the music you played in your station. It seemed to be set to a tune that would initiate relaxation, but was in a language I didn’t understand.
And in the most intimate of statements, I will offer that while I never even heard your voice, I know the scent of your milk.
Yet within the NICU I never recognized you. But then again, that was the unspoken rule of our unit wasn’t it? Do not observe the parents or babies around you or offer anything other than a slight compassionate smile to one another.
While I never spoke to you or even met your eyes, I think of you often. Your presence is now a concrete part of a significant and sacred memory. It is one of those unique times that I have a hard time knowing how to preserve or shape in my mind, let alone describe with words. It was a scary time and a special time, a warm time and an intense time for me, as it most certainly was for you.
Now and then you were in my thoughts. During those days I would think of you at home after we had left our babies in the safe hands of nurses overnight. In my bed, hooked up to the suckling pump again, between the rhythmic patterns of sound, I’d wonder if you had a partner like mine who stayed up to disinfect the bottles and tubes every two hours. I hoped that you did.
Although I had never heard you speak, I thought of you as I phoned my son’s nurses and received updates. Often the various medical explanations and tools would make me feel as if I was learning a new language and I wondered if you felt reassured by their words. I hoped that you did.
And mostly I thought about your son or daughter. I didn’t know if you had birthed one child or more. I was unaware of the circumstances that brought you to those pumps in the NICU lactation room but I presumed that your little one could use some prayers of strength and healing, just as you could just some prayers for peace. And so I hoped these things for you and your child.
And ten years later I think of you and your child still. I hope your child is just as much of a pest as mine and that he or she loves school and running bare foot in the grass. Mine just lost his last baby tooth and I’m taking him to an orthodontist soon…can you believe it? I wonder how many hours you’ve logged on sports sidelines in the last decade and if you’re just as nervous about tween hood as I am!
These are all simple and wonderful concerns to fill the space in the worry chamber of my heart which is now well seasoned a decade into motherhood. I hope these same relatively minor worries are what fills your heart because I know that at one time the weight you felt was more intense.
Most importantly, I hope that you child or children were discharged from the NICU after a relatively short stay as mine was. And I hope that the machine connected to your breast was replaced with a child in your arms. Because whether by bottle or by breast, from a mother’s milk or from a carefully prepared formula, to nourish our babies is one of the first acts of love that a parent gives to a child.
To the woman in the NICU lactation room, my fellow mother; I’ll never meet you, but I know you because I know that you too understand just what a privilege the gift of parenthood is. And I hope that you’re enjoying it as much as I am.