How donating breast milk helped me heal and nourished babies in need

Before I could even fit into a training bra, I’d feel my chest for lumps.

I was always fearful that I’d find a lump and get the same disease that killed mom when she was 40. For years after Mom died of breast cancer, I worried and saw boobs as nothing more than a breeding ground for death.

But then I became a mom.

When I began to nurse and pump for my daughter, and later for my son, I began to see breasts not as symbols of death but as sources of life. The body part that housed the disease that took my mom away from me became the body part that made my babies’ milk and drew me closer to them. It was, at least in the earlier part of their infancy, their lifeline.

When I started to donate breast milk earlier this year, I extended this lifeline to other infants.

I wrote about this experience, and the emotions that came with it, in an essay published this week in the Dallas Morning News. You can read it here.

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Donating breast milk to babies in need

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Since the beginning of the year I’ve donated almost 1,300 ounces of breast milk to the Mothers’ Milk Bank of Austin.

The Austin milk bank, which is the largest one in the country, distributes donated milk to premature and ill babies around the greater Austin area and other cities throughout the country.

Most of the babies who receive it have suffered from premature birth, failure to thrive, formula intolerance, malabsorption issues, or other ailments. Research shows that more than half of moms who deliver a premature baby are unable to produce enough breastmilk for their babies. And breastmilk is just what many of these babies need; it provides ideal nutrition for them and significantly reduces their risk of contracting necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), a condition that can damages and, in some cases destroys, the intestinal tract.

IMG_2362At the Milk Bank, every ounce that’s donated is thawed, analyzed for its nutritional value, cultured, poured into bottles, and pasteurized. An independent laboratory obtains microbiological cultures from the milk before and after it’s pasteurized to ensure that it doesn’t contain heat-resistant pathogens during pasteurization and that there’s no chance of bacteria growing in it.

It’s a fascinating process that I sometimes think of when I’m feeding Tucker, who’s 13 months old. I’m still nursing him but stopped pumping earlier this month. Pumping, as my mom friends know, truly is a labor of love. I’m grateful I had the support I needed to pump multiple times a day at work — and a strong milk supply.

I don’t know the story of where my milk has ended up or who it has helped. But I hope the babies who received it are at least a little better off because of it.

Trying to find work-life harmony

It’s one of those weeks where I’m feeling the weight of being a working mom, between dealing with Tucker’s 4:30 a.m. wake-ups, Madelyn’s difficult and drawn-out tantrums, a busy work and conference schedule, and two hours of commuting each day.

But then I look at photos like this one, and I’m reminded of how deep my love runs for my kids and my work, and why I chose this path, with all its opportunities and obstacles. 

Working moms of young kids, I know how hard it can be. And I know that so many of us are uber efficient, hard-working, expert multitaskers and all-around rockstars. Every day, we hustle and hope for some work-life harmony.

Admitting that it’s tough doesn’t make us weak or incompetent. It makes us real, relatable. Our shared stories remind us that we’re not alone.

Working mamas, I wish you lots of baby/toddler snuggles to balance out the tantrums, coffee to ease the fatigue, and the inner strength you need to find peace amid chaos. 

If this is a hard week for you, may it fall gently.

Navigating the unpredictability of parenthood

Screen Shot 2018-07-22 at 2.39.29 PMTroy and I were supposed to go to a wedding in Fort Lauderdale this weekend — our first weekend getaway sans kids in over a year. But our childcare plans fell through, so I cancelled my flight to stay home with the kids. I encouraged Troy to still go, since the wedding is for one of his best friends.

It ended up being a good thing that we aren’t both out of town. Last night, Madelyn came down with a stomach bug that carried over into today. I got about two hours of sleep last night, between comforting Madelyn, bathing her after she threw up, changing two sets of sheets, and bathing myself.

A few minutes after I put Madelyn down for her midday nap today, Tucker woke up crying after an all-too-short nap. I had been planning to do laundry and dishes and make the bed while they both slept, but instead I rocked Tucker until he fell back asleep. I let him sleep on me, and for once told myself that the chores could wait.

As I think about how the weekend has panned out, I keep thinking about something that my Gramz, who helped raise me, used to say: “Your life is not your own when you have kids.” I never understood it and would always tell her she sounded like a Debbie Downer.

But now as a mom, I know there’s a whole lot of truth to that statement, and that for my grandma, it was rooted not in negativity but in a selfless reality. Her kids, my kids, come first. And sometimes, a lot of times, other stuff gets put on hold. Plans get cancelled, weddings get missed, the laundry and dishes pile up.

Parenthood is an exercise in letting go of the tendency to plan everything out, in learning when to say no, in realizing you can’t please everyone all the time. When you have little kids, plans are always written in pencil. Or washable crayon, depending on the day. The trick is knowing when to get out the erasers and being ok with some smudges.

 

Tips for pumping at work: What you’ll need & how to get in the right frame of mind

The thought of pumping at work can seem daunting, especially if you’ve never done it before. But there are steps you can take to make it easier on yourself. (Having a job with some flexibility, a supportive boss, and a designated place to pump also helps.)

I’m currently pumping three times a day for my 6-month-old son Tucker. I pumped and breastfed for 13 months after my daughter Madelyn was born, but worked from home at the time. Pumping outside of the home, I’ve found, requires a different level of preparation and planning,

Here are some related tips to help you feel better prepared…

What you’ll need:

A space. Before going on maternity leave, let your employer know that you will need a place to pump upon your return. Having this conversation ahead of time will give you greater peace of mind going into maternity leave and will save you the hassle of trying to figure out it at the last minute.

Employers covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act are required to provide break time for women to pump for up to one year after their child’s birth. They’re also required to provide “a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public,” according to Section 7 of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Sometimes, employers have rooms but not enough space to accommodate mothers at the times when they need to pump. If this is the case, see if there’s another room that you might be able to use. It might not have all the amenities that the designated pumping room does (i.e. a mini fridge, sink, couch, etc.) but at least you’ll be able to use it on your own time. All moms deserve a predictable, private, and comfortable place to pump.

A pump (and ideally two). Friends often ask me which breast pump they should get. I’ve only used Medela’s Pump In Style, and I highly recommend it. I’m a big fan of Medela’s products and have found their pumps to be reliable and durable.

I got this pump for free through my insurance company. Most Marketplace plans are required to provide breastfeeding equipment for pregnant and nursing women. I recommend calling your insurance company and ordering one a month or two before your due date because the pump can take a few weeks to arrive. If it’s not your first pregnancy and you already have a breast pump, order a second one. I did this when pregnant with my second baby and am so glad I did. Having two pumps means you don’t have to lug your pump to and from work every day.

Pumping on the go isn’t ideal, but some days it’s the best option.

I leave one pump in my car, along with a special car adapter. On days when I’m running late or have meetings during my typical pump times, I pump during my commute. I usually just drape a jacket over myself, and I keep my nursing cover in my car as an added alternative. Pumping while driving isn’t ideal, but it does save time and helps ensure that you don’t miss a pumping session.

I also rely heavily on my hand-held Medela pump, which I use in the early mornings. It’s super efficient and a great option for when you need to pump quickly/on the go and don’t feel like setting up your electric pump. It’s also a great option if you’re running an event or a day of meetings and don’t think you’ll have easy access to your electric pump. It’s always comforting to know you have a backup.

Two pairs of pump parts. Know where the nearest Target is in case you forget your pump parts or need new ones. I find it really helpful to have two pairs of pump parts. I use one pair during my morning pumping session and the second set during my midday pump. After the midday pump, I clean both sets of parts using these Medela wipes. Twenty four wipes come in a pack, so I only end up needing to buy one package (about $7) per month. I find it much easier to use the wipes as opposed to lugging my pump parts to the bathroom to clean them. Check the space where you’re pumping; it may have a sink, in which case you won’t need wipes.

Extra membranes. Pump parts are pretty durable, but membranes – those little white pieces that attach to the valves – are known to rip from time to time. I always keep extra ones on hand at work, just in case.

Pumping bras. When I pumped for my first child, I wore a special pumping bra that I would put on and take off every time I pumped. With my second child, I knew I needed something more practical. I bought a few Rumina bras, which act as regular bras and pumping bras, and I love them. They’re comfortable (no underwires) and they do a good job of holding the pump parts in place. I always use them with empty bottles; if you use bottles from a previous pump and they have milk in them, they’ll sag a bit in the bra and the suction won’t be as strong.

A cooler pack with four bottles. I’m often spotted roaming the halls with my Medela cooler, which I use to transport and store my milk bottles. It’s not the most attractive thing to be carrying around, but it’s relatively discreet and serves its intended purpose.

Extra milk storage bags. I keep a small stack of milk storage bags in the office where I pump in the off chance that a.) I pump a lot of milk and run out of space in the bottles that I pump into each day or b.) I have to stay at work late and need to fit in one additional pumping session. These scenarios are rare, but I’m the type of person who likes knowing I have a backup.

A pillow. During a recent pumping session, I had to call my car insurance company. The woman on the other line asked, “Do you have your windshield wipers on?” It was a funny, and somewhat off-putting, question. (Truth be told, the pump does sound like windshield wipers!)  “Nope, I’m pumping milk for my baby,” I told her. I could tell the woman was embarrassed for asking. “Oh my god, I’m so sorry,” she said. “More power to ya.”

In general, I try not to make work calls while pumping so that I don’t have to run into awkward encounters like this. If you need to make a call while pumping and you’re worried about the noise, put a pillow over the pump to muffle the sound. Companies that manufacture breast pumps are working to create quieter pumps, and some already have. If the noise of the pump is an issue for you, look into some of the newer, quieter ones.

A sign. Some women have to pump in rooms that don’t have locks, or that multiple people have access to. If that’s the case (and even if it’s not), put a sign outside the pumping room door. I have a simple handwritten sign that says “Room in use,” and I put it on the door every time I pump. I’ve seen some pretty creative signs online and from friends, so switch it up with a more direct message if you want or think it’s necessary. If your room doesn’t have a lock, see if it’s possible to get one.

Snacks & lots of water. As soon as you start pumping, you’ll likely feel thirsty. Drink throughout the day and have extra snacks on hand to eat in between meals. Research has shown that pumping and breastfeeding consume about 25% of your body’s energy and burns several hundred calories per day (about 20 calories per ounce of breast milk), depending on how much milk you’re producing. It’s no wonder I’m always hungry!

You need rest, too, to keep up your supply. But let’s be honest; sleep is pretty hard to come by with little one(s) at home. My son has been waking up multiple times a night to eat, meaning I get very little sleep these days and am always tired. Since I can’t control how much sleep I’m getting, I can at least try to control what I eat.

An extra shirt. At some point while you’re pumping, you’re bound to spill milk on yourself. Keep an extra cami or shirt at work for the day when this will inevitably happen. Doing so has saved me in the past.

What my countertop looks like every night! #BottlePrep

A sterilizer. Every night, I transfer my pumped milk into bottles for my son’s next-day feedings. I always pack one extra bottle, in the off chance that one of his bottles gets knocked over at daycare or I’m stuck at work late and can’t make it to daycare in time for his 5:30 p.m. feeding. (I’m fortunate to have a good enough supply to be able to pack an extra bottle each day, but realize it’s not a possibility for everyone).

After I get my son’s bottles ready, I sterilize my pump parts and the pumping bottles using this Munckin sterilizer. (These sterilizing bags are another good option if you’re on the go.) Afterward, I put the clean parts in a Ziploc bag and the bottles in my cooler bag so that I don’t have to worry about doing it in the morning. This can get time-consuming, so ask for help. Your partner (or friend or family member) may not be able to make milk, but they can certainly help you fill and clean milk bottles!

How to get in the right frame of mind:

Mentally plan out your pumping sessions for the day and do your best to protect those times. I’m transparent about the fact that I pump. It’s not something I talk about all the time, but I have no shame in letting colleagues know what I’m doing. I always work while I pump, but if your supply is low, and/or you find yourself getting anxious, try to relax by looking at photos of your little one.

Make sure you’ve been clear with your childcare provider about how you want your baby to be fed. Before returning to work, I gave my son’s daycare teachers specific instructions on when to feed him and how much. I like to be able to breastfeed my son at the end of the workday, so I spread out his feedings accordingly. Some moms prefer to have their baby fed at the end of the day so that it’s one less thing they have to worry about when they get home. It’s all a matter of preference. What works for you early on may not work a few months later, so allow yourself to be flexible.

My mini checklist, which I try to look at every time I leave the house in the mornings.

Put a checklist by the door so that you won’t forget anything (pump parts, bottles, cooler bag, etc.) I taped a checklist on the door when I first returned to work and found it super helpful, especially on days when I was frazzled and therefore forgetful. I don’t really need to look at it anymore, but I still like knowing it’s there.

Write yourself little pick-me-up notes. Before my first day back at work, I wrote myself an empowering note to help me get through my first week back.

Splurge on motivational mom cards and empowering mugs, which can help you feel loved and energized. (Paper Source is one of my favorite places for this type of stuff.)

Be gentle with yourself. Some days, you will feel like a total rockstar. Other days, you may feel defeated, alone, and even more exhausted than usual. It’s hard for anyone to fully grasp the challenges of being a working/pumping mom unless you’ve been through that experience yourself. Find a friend or confidante who you can turn to on days when you need to vent, cry, or laugh about the crazy/beautiful/messy aspects of life as a working mom.

I have multiple photos of my kiddos on my desk. Seeing them throughout the day helps keep me grounded, especially on days when work/life “balance” seems totally out of whack.

Reassess along the way. Yes, “breast is best” when it comes to feeding your baby, but it’s not the best option if breastfeeding and/or pumping are completely stressing you out, or if you’re struggling to find the time to pump. If pumping three times a day at work is too difficult, consider pumping at other times – maybe once in the early morning, once at work, and once at night, provided it doesn’t interfere too much with your supply. Seek encouragement from other moms who have been in your position and make a decision about what’s ultimately best for you and your baby.

Celebrate yourself. Strike a power pose while pumping and remind yourself that you’re awesome for making it all work — and for keeping your baby well-nourished and loved. When it comes to breastfeeding and pumping, food is love.

You’ve got this, mamma!

(To all the moms reading this: What tips do you have? Share them in the comments section!)

Related: Tips for pumping and preserving breast milk while traveling

21 years later, still missing mom

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It’s hard to believe that Mom’s been gone for 21 years. The anniversary of her death is my least favorite day of the year, but it’s gotten a lot easier with time, and especially since becoming a mom. Being a mom makes me feel closer to my own mom, partly because I can now empathize with her in ways that I couldn’t as a child. I wish my kids could grow up to know her. Fortunately for them and for me, I have so many memories and stories and photos to share with them. Mom’s memory, even after all this time, is still very much alive.

Celebrating small wins as a working mom

 

I’ve loved watching Madelyn and Tucker get to know one another over these past few months. They’re both growing up in their own little ways. Tucker rolled over for the first time yesterday, and Madelyn — who turns 2 next week — has started talking more and is learning how to climb, run, jump, and do somersaults.

As the old adage goes, the days are long and the years are short when you have little kids. Most days start at 5 a.m. and last late into the night with little, if any, time for relaxation. The nights are marked by feedings and baby coughs and coos.

I know at some point I’ll find more time for R&R and will probably be nostalgic for these days. For now, I’m celebrating small wins, personal growth, and silly somersaults.

Making it work as a working parent

Picking Madelyn and Tucker up from daycare is my favorite time of day. The hours that follow are often chaotic, as we rush to get them home, fed, and ready for bed while tending to tantrums and tears. But the actual end-of-day reunion is always a moment for the memory books.

When I walk into Madelyn’s classroom, she stops what she’s doing, runs up to me and gives me a huge hug while smiling and saying “mommy, mommy”! Tucker has also begun smiling when he sees me, and his little eyes grow wide.

Being a working mom can be an emotional seesaw, with your kids across from you. You lift them up when they’re down and they do the same for you. Some moments, you all have your feet on the ground and there’s a semblance of balance. The ups and downs are unpredictable, but the hugs and smiles and wide eyes are a consistent reminder that at the end of the day you are loved — and so are they.

Here’s to a calmer 2018

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Looking back, 2017 was one of the most memorable years of my life. Madelyn turned 1, Tucker was born, Troy and I got new jobs, and we moved cross-country from St. Pete, Florida to Austin, Texas, which now feels like home. As 2018 approaches, I’m looking forward to embracing the stability that stems from all the big life changes this past year has brought. Here’s to a year of continued growth and bountiful love.