The Milkman Cometh

When Little Miss Sweetness made her dramatic arrival two years ago, she had a gastric issue which required immediate surgery. She would end up hospitalized for the first month of her life as she recovered. She also had a heart defect, which would require a separate surgery a few months later. (All these issues are now behind her, and she’s a thriving two year old.)

For the first two and a half weeks of her life, LMS got all her nutrition intravenously. Only slowly did the hospital staff allow her to transition to breast milk; even then, it had to be delivered by NG tube, so she wouldn’t have to work hard sucking – and so the amounts could be strictly measured.

However, from Day One, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer’s milk supply was as abundant as it’d been with any of our other kids. So, as she sat by LMS’s side in the NICU, day after day, and week after week, she pumped. And pumped. And pumped. For one stretch, she was regularly producing 50 to 60 ounces per day.

One of my jobs was to walk the filled-and-labeled 2.7oz milk bottles down the hall to the hospital milk room, where they would be frozen. My other job was to scoop up another handful of empty bottles, and bring them back to MYF.

Little Miss Sweetness barely dented that supply of frozen milk by the time she was discharged. When the hospital milk room packed all those little bottles into Styrofoam coolers for us to take home, we were astounded at the sheer volume. The five coolers took up virtually the entire rear-most cargo portion of our minivan! I think I muttered something about being glad we had so many chest freezers back at the farm. We were going to need them.

And the milk didn’t stop coming. The doctors didn’t want LMS to nurse directly, or even exert herself sucking from a bottle, until she’d had the heart surgery and made a full recovery from it. So, with the NG tube in until at least November, MYF had to keep pumping. I made bulk purchases of larger milk freezer bags on Amazon, which were soon filled and added to our stockpile. I started wondering if we might also need another chest freezer.

LMS eventually had her heart surgery, made a strong recovery, and got the green light to begin nursing directly. She picked it up right away, much to our relief. And just in time: the pump had gotten so much use, MYF had literally worn it out and the thing was now falling apart.

What to do with all that milk in the freezer(s)? We had one 9 cubic foot chest freezer packed to the gills with nothing but milk, with the overflow stuffed into other freezers wherever I could find space.

We didn’t want to get rid of all of it; there was no guarantee that MYF’s milk supply would remain high enough for long enough. The “strategic reserve” gave peace of mind that we’d never have to buy formula. Still, barring a true catastrophe, it was far more than we would ever need. We wanted to donate at least some of it to a family that could get some good use out of it.

But how could we find that family?

MYF began making calls. The nearest milk bank was a long ways away, and wouldn’t take our milk anyway (understandably, because MYF hadn’t undergone a health screening, etc). The local crisis pregnancy center, which supplies formula for mothers who need it, didn’t know any mothers who wanted frozen breast milk. The local adoption agency didn’t know any adoptive mothers who wanted it. None of our friends had recently adopted a baby. No one knew anyone who’d recently adopted a baby.

So, the milk sat. And sat. And sat. We were now sure we would never need any of it for Little Miss Sweetness (who was rapidly becoming Big Miss Sweetness), but it was still not clear what we should do with it.

Finally, this spring, through word of mouth, we learned of mother-to-mother milk sharing networks. One of the largest is called “Eats on Feets,” and seems to operate primarily on Facebook. Mothers needing milk can post requests, as can families with milk to donate. People then connect through private messages, and arrange to get the milk from donor to recipient. In addition to the national Facebook page, there are numerous state-specific and region-specific chapter pages. This makes it easier to find local donors and recipients, so milk need not be shipped.

I browsed the Michigan listings, looking for families-in-need-of-milk that weren’t too far from us. Some of the requests were very simple, just giving a name and location. Others gave a fair amount of detail about the travails the family had been going through, and the lengths to which they were willing to drive for milk. It’s impossible to read these without being moved, and without wanting to help. I felt guilty that I hadn’t done more, sooner, to find this organization.

I sent several private messages, through Facebook, to mothers who’d posted requests for milk. (At this point, I wasn’t sure I was comfortable putting up a post announcing that we had milk. Perhaps it’s because I’m male, and virtually 100% of all posts were by mothers. I don’t know.) Some never responded at all, most likely because FB segregates messages from “non-friends” into what’s essentially a spam folder. If you don’t check it, you don’t see those messages. Others did respond, but either (1) decided we were too far away, (2) had just gotten a freezer full of milk from someone else, or (3) didn’t feel comfortable using milk as old as ours.

I waited for the just-got-a-freezer-full people to contact me back, but that didn’t happen. So, the milk sat.

Finally, shortly before the Fourth of July, I decided it was time to make a post of my own on the Eats on Feets board. Within hours, I had three separate mothers contact me. I filled them in as to the age of the milk, and none was troubled by it. We arranged public meeting places at times that would work for us and for them, at gas stations just off the freeway.

What a joy it was to pack the milk back into those Styrofoam coolers the hospital had sent us home with! I packed and delivered roughly one-third of the milk one evening to one of the fathers, and Mrs. Yeoman Farmer made the other two trips. The last of these was to deliver to a mother who’d invested in an enormous amount of freezer space, so she took every remaining ounce I could find in every one of our freezers. This is what the back of our minivan looked like, just before MYF pulled out:

It’s wonderful having our freezer space back. And it’s even more wonderful knowing that we’ve been able to supply three families with something so valuable, it can’t be purchased in any store.

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