“Breast milk is not free”

A few months ago before I gave birth, I was in a session with my therapist discussing my hopes for a feeding plan for my baby. We were listing out the pros and cons of breastfeeding and formula feeding, and as a pro for breastfeeding, I said, “well, one big pro is that breast milk is free, so I don’t have to pay for it!” She gave me this look that said part shock, part horror, and part comic and responded, “Oh, breast milk is NOT free!!”

And while on my pumping journey, I have heard her voice so wisely repeat this in my head, over and over and over. The literal dozens of hours I have spent with my nipples connected to a breast pump, the time I have spent doing hand expression, breast compressions and jiggling (to get the milk ducts active), breast warming and massaging; milk duct clog expelling, breast milk measuring, spilling (yes, there were a couple small yet painful spills.. every drop counts); researching ways to increase my milk supply, trying different and useless supplements, my nipples being sore and pointy to the point I cannot even wear my regular bras or my sports bras; power pumping, all the exacerbation of pain in my fingers, hands, wrists, and elbows as a result of all the above — I have reflected on all of this almost every single time I have connected myself to my breast pump. BREAST MILK IS ABSOLUTELY NOT FREE. I was stupid and naive to have ever made such an ignorant statement. Pumping has tested my mental health in ways that is close to the roller coaster I went through with IVF — In-vitro fertilization!! Who would have ever thought this??

In those moments, I feel deeply resentful of all the women who told me that they “just got lucky” because breastfeeding just worked out for them right away — they had babies who latched right away (well, mine did: that was a very FALSE sense of security), babies who sucked hard enough to get all their milk out so there was no milk transfer problem as in my case, babies who rapidly gained weight during nursing. When they connected their pump, they always pumped enough to get a feeding or more for their baby, or all their pumps had a consistent or predictable output. I wanted to say to all of them, “I hate all of you, but that’s because I’m envious as fuck.”

I also think about the total lack of understanding that men have when it comes to the pain and toil that pumping milk around the clock takes, or the potential harm that a clogged milk duct can take on a woman’s body. Example: the other day when I was dealing with a milk clog, I spent a good three hours shuffling between two pumping sessions and a manic attempt to get the clog out. In that time, Chris went out for a haircut, but before that, he was obsessed with AirPods he lost. When he got back, the first thing he asked me was, “Any luck finding my AirPods?” I told him that I spent that entire time either pumping or trying to get my clog out. “That’s it?” he responded, in terms of what I had accomplished during that time.

Seriously? Was he more concerned about his lost AirPods than the fact that a milk clog could result in 1) less milk for the baby to eat, 2) a total reduction in my overall milk supply if the clog persisted for too long, 3) my potentially getting mastitis, resulting in extreme flu-like symptoms, needing antibiotics, and in the absolute worst cases, potentially even going to the ER? And let’s also not fail to mention that… I was in pain! And when I said this to him, he responded, “Someone’s being a snowflake today.”

I told my friend this, who has two children, breastfed both, and dealt with many painful and stubborn clogged ducts. She got exasperated listening to this and said her husband was the same. “Men just don’t understand the crap women go through to feed their kids!” she said in response. “(Husband’s name) always bugs me about the times I pump and asks why I always have to pump at those times… like it’s a HOBBY!”

This is why I have mom friends and a pumping support group. If I didn’t, I probably would have given up on pumping after the first month. Because while formula may be expensive, breast milk is the most expensive food that exists. Women sacrifice their bodies and their mental health just to nourish their children. And there’s really no greater gift or sacrifice than that.

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