What Milk Sharing Taught Me About Community
Words: Makeda Thomas
Donating her breastmilk to a community member in need reconnected this woman to her values as a mother.
#MilkSharing. Each day, for the past three weeks now, I send 10-15 oz. of breastmilk to another little baby. Born two weeks before my chuff-chuff Love, the baby has a poor latch, which means reduced milk production, which leads to a tiny, underweight baby. It broke my heart. With my daughter practically bathing in milk each nursing session, I offered to share. And the mother happily accepted. Now...this is my first time sharing this way, and it feels right and good and natural and warm and gentle and loving....It takes a level of commitment to get it done while breastfeeding my own baby (on demand), school, and extra-curricula [sic] schedule for my son, planning birthday parties, being an artist, having a life, etc., etc., etc…... But both my daughter and I have made a special friend from this experience and I just want to give thanks for Life. Yeah. Bless. Selah. Asé. All that. #iArt #iMother
I remember that I’d hesitated, briefly, before writing and sharing this post on Facebook. Perhaps, I thought, it was too intimate.
But then I blinked and posted, for knowing that milk sharing is normal can compel one to act as such.
On each day that I donated my breastmilk, I rose and set the breast pump up on my nightstand—new bag strapped to it, ready to go. When my daughter rose, I nursed her on one breast while using the electronic pump on the other. With the day's first flow being fast, and with some acrobatics if my daughter moved a lot, I could usually fill a 6 oz. bag in three minutes, seal it up, and turn the pump off. Then I would dedicate the remaining time to nursing my daughter with my full attention.
When I was done, I would put the bag of milk in the freezer. Depending on how busy the day was, I repeated the process another 1-2 times. Each evening, after a quick call during which we'd catch up on each other's day, the mother (and most times with her whole family—her husband and three children—in tow) would come over to collect the frozen breast milk.
I have the privilege of a healthy relationship with breastfeeding. I name it as privilege because I am conscious of how breastfeeding (and mothering) choices can be directly related to economics, law and politics, societal norms (“Is breastfeeding in public accepted?”), and personal health reasons.
I decided to be a donor because I wanted to help both baby and mother.
I've had the privilege of excellent prenatal care, newborns who latch on properly from birth, more than adequate milk production, exclusive and extended breastfeeding practice (anytime, anywhere), and a strong social circle that supports breastfeeding. (If even, by shock and force: Oh, what? Yes, I'm going to nurse my baby in the middle of this nice restaurant. Eat your food. Baby is handling theirs.)
I've had the privilege of having two beautiful home births with midwives and doulas covered by insurance. The privilege of milk sharing, for me, comes as part of a legacy and practice of mothering that is empowering.
I decided to be a donor because I wanted to help both baby and mother. I was over-producing milk and had enough to share. The mother was someone in my community whom I knew needed help. (Community network in action!) The milk would be most useful as our children are a couple weeks apart and so were at the same stage of development. But the best gift from this experience with mother-to-mother milk sharing? It fostered a kinship between our families that deepened my connection to and compassion for those in my community. A small revolution...
Brazil is widely acknowledged as having one of the oldest, most extensive and best-organized milk banking and sharing systems in the world. In 2015, 166,848 Brazilian women donated breast milk to more than as many babies, according to International Milk Genomics Consortium. This system works precisely because it does not rely on mothers selling their milk but donating through the milk bank system. It’s the gold standard of the world, with Africa, Europe and Latin America watching and learning.
According to the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, there are 18 banks in the U.S. and Canada. Donated breast milk can go for $3.75 to $5 an ounce to cover collection, processing and distribution costs. The average baby takes 2 or 3 ounces of formula each day for every pound of body weight. So for my sweet, darling daughter, who is now a solid—and I mean solid—20 lbs, that’s 40-60 oz. at an average of $200 in breast milk each day. These costs are rarely covered by insurance—private or public—which is mad. Just mad.
La Leche League adopted a policy in 2015 regarding the donation of human milk and it follows the World Health Organization, which accords that donor milk is the best option following one's own expressed milk. So, in lieu of a personal community network from which to source breastmilk, which is my first recommendation, there are also community breast milk sharing networks like Eats on Feets or the more established Human Milk Banking Association of North America. The Four Pillars of Safe Breast Milk Sharing by Shell Walker and Maria Armstrong is also a good place to start.
Milk sharing has been a way to enact the cultural, social, and political values I hold as a mother. Milk sharing reminded me that in order to build community, and all its benefits, we must be open to share our mothering journeys with others as I did in the social media post. If the mother to whom I’d donated hadn’t been open and shared her story with me, I would not have had the opportunity to share and have an intimate and mutually-rewarding experience with her family. Milk sharing empowers families. It builds communities and reminds us of our connectedness. Milk sharing has made me a better mother. And I am ever thankful.
Described as belonging to that new breed of contemporary artists, "the postmodern African Diasporan dancer-scholar whose work goes beyond stereotype and the market appetite for clichés regarding the black dancing body," Makeda Thomas has created several works through cross-disciplinary collaboration with artists around the world. Her choreography, films and site-specific work has been presented internationally. Thomas is the founding director of the Trinidad-based Dance & Performance Institute.