I grew up with the idea that high schools in the fifties used to make their students carry around an egg for a week, to teach them what having a baby is like. I don’t know if this is true or a result of having watched too many sitcoms, but I’ve been thinking of it a lot now that my day involves navigating trains and side walks and elevators, with my ever-present breast milk cooler always draped over my pretty leather commuter bag. Somehow, the cooler has become the most important thing I own and what I am most afraid of leaving behind. I carry it carefully, making sure that the four precious bottles of milk do not spill, because it’s a resource that nothing but time can replace.
In the breastfeeding community, breast milk is often called liquid gold. It’s touted as the most important thing that you can do for your baby — and its importance is well documented. Studies confirm that breast fed babies are calmer, healthier, and show more focus at an earlier age. When the baby had a small eye irritation, her doctor told me to squirt her in the eye because of breast milk’s antibiotic properties. There’s research to suggest that it contributes to the prevention of allergies, childhood cancer, diabetes, high cholesterol and IBS. It’s convenient, as long as mother and child are together, and costs a heck of a lot less than formula. Truly, it’s a wonder food. It’s probably only surprising that Gwyneth Paltrow hasn’t featured it yet on Goop.
Nursing is good for the mother, too; our breasts were designed to lactate. The more we do, the lower our chances of breast and ovarian cancer. The hospitals now tout this and promise you that breastfeeding will make you skinnier and help you live longer. It’s best if you nurse at least four babies, if you can. Never mind the cosmetic damage to your breasts and the initial discomfort — I, for one, learned that nipple trauma is not only a thing, but a thing that you’d rather not have happen to you — it is something that every preggo is heavily pressured to do. When I was in the hospital, a lactation consultant showed up minutes after we were moved into our recovery room. Over the two days that I was there, countless nurses touched my breasts to show me how it was done.
What isn’t immediately obvious, when you’re a pregnant woman, is how focused your life will be on your breasts when you come out on the other side. You know that it’s not something that your partner can do, but until you’re nursing ten times a day, it doesn’t really strike home exactly what that means for your life. You have to eat a certain way — my breakfast now regularly includes flax seed and brewer’s yeast — and you have to arrange your life around the filling and emptying of your breasts. I think it’s likely a rare woman that doesn’t feel the challenge of milking her own body. My cooler sometimes feels like a shackle. I watch my husband leave the house for hours without a concern, while I won’t have that kind of freedom until I’m no longer the cow. It might be another year.
And yet. And yet, I know that I will carry on with this routine for months to come. I have a friend who signed up for private cord blood banking, which costs a small fortune. When she told me about it, she said that she had to do it, because she loved her child so much.
What if? What if it could save her life some day? I feel the same way about my moo-cow duty — although it sometimes seems tragically unfair that this is a burden that I cannot share, I know that I will do it until it becomes clear that every advantage of breast milk has been soaked up by my kid. It, like pregnancy, is a labor of love — another labor of love that my child won’t even be able to recall.
I will just have to remember for her.