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It Takes a Village (of Milk Donors)

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The first few times Noelle turned her head in to me rooting for breast milk, my heart hurt. My chest tightened and I fought back tears — or, more often, I didn't and I cried openly, lamenting the fact that I couldn’t give her what she most wanted from me. Babies innately seek comfort and nourishment from their mom’s breasts. I couldn’t provide that for her, and it pained me.

In the late summer of 2011, when our older child Quinn was an infant, I noticed a lump in my breast while nursing. At 32 years old, I was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. Quinn had been a champion breast-feeder, but after my diagnosis, I weaned him nearly overnight to start high-dose chemotherapy.

When he was 10 months old, I had a bilateral mastectomy, followed by radiation a few months later. Our focus was on saving my life, not on any hypothetical future children and what amputating my breasts might mean for them.

After several years of various chemo drugs, my husband and I didn’t think another child was in the cards for us. Quinn had stopped asking for a sibling years earlier. We were just thankful my health seemed to be stable.

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We were terrified to learn I was pregnant in the spring of 2017. Could my body do this? What if the cancer came back? When every doctor we spoke with gave us the go-ahead and every test came back signaling we could expect a healthy baby girl, we started to get cautiously excited. The three of us were thrilled to welcome her to our family on her due date. Here was a miracle baby shining her light into all our broken and cracked places.

But how would I feed her?

I researched formulas, spoke with a friend who studies breast milk in mammals, talked with other breast cancer survivor moms about what they’d done for their little ones after cancer, and asked my doctor what my best options were. Obviously, keeping your baby fed is best, but I wondered if I could do more. Could I give her some of the nutritional and immunity boosts we’d been able to give Quinn, even if it didn’t come from me?

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I networked like a mom on a mission. First, the labor and delivery nurses at my hospital promised to have donor milk on hand when Noelle arrived. They have it available for NICU babies, and were willing to share with our family for as long as we were in the hospital (which was only two days, but it was a start). Then, my friend who’d had her boys after breast cancer connected me to a couple of her milk donors who didn’t hesitate to donate to us, too. One sent hundreds of ounces of frozen breast milk that got us through most of the first month. A pediatrician friend connected me to a few of her colleagues who were breastfeeding and wanted to help us out, so I’d meet them in front of a Starbucks or the local swim school to get the milk (and it helped my peace of mind to see these moms with their babies, too). A college friend sent some milk from her deep freezer, some women in a small Facebook group I belong to mailed their surplus, and one of my husband’s colleagues sent a box full. We got breast milk shipments from Texas, Illinois, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Ohio, and elsewhere.

My friend Tina, whose son is just a few months older than Noelle, dropped by with freshly expressed milk a number of times. Our friendship deepened. I couldn’t thank her enough for giving my daughter what I no longer could.

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Even when the women donating were friends (or friends of friends), I was always careful to ask about their health history and medication use. Most women offered more: some said that they didn’t drink wine or coffee, or consume any dairy, which can be problematic for some babies’ tummies. I joked that they were more careful about their diets than I am. A couple were also donors to their local milk banks, which require robust screening.

In the end, we were able to feed Noelle breast milk exclusively for the first six weeks of her life, and then supplement at least a bottle a day. She is almost six months old. I don’t know if it’s the various antibodies from a dozen different women, but she has never been sick.

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The story we hear is so often about women sabotaging women. So-called catfights make for good headlines in the tabloids. But this community, this gathering of a village of moms to care for, nourish, and feed my daughter, has inspired me and made me prouder than ever to be a woman. When Noelle roots for food now, I feel comforted knowing what a strong network has supported her so that she can be as strong and healthy as possible.

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