Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Breast milk Cannibal
by Lea Barton

I finished pumping and got a standard, small bottle of breast milk. I unscrewed the pump attachment from the bottle and stared at the contents. I examined the milk for half a minute, noting how it had a greenish tint. It smelled faintly of grass. I'd eaten a huge salad at lunch that day, an hour or so before, and I wondered if that had somehow altered the composition of the breast milk. With only five minutes left on my work break, I glanced again at the milk, the clock, and then took a tentative sip. It was warm and surprisingly creamy. Very sweet, but not in a sugary way. It reminded me of childhood summer days spent eating clover blossoms with friends, sucking on the sweet ends of the tiny sections of flower.

I took a swallow, then another, and quickly finished my first bottle of breast milk since I was three or four months old, in 1970.

When I scheduled this business trip, to grade World History Advanced Placement exams for a week in Lincoln, Nebraska, I wasn't certain I would still be breastfeeding. Reilly would be fourteen-months-old when I left. My goal, ironically, was fourteen months; combined with the ten months I breastfed my older son, Ben, I would reach the magical 24 month mark, which a recent study claimed would reduce my risk of various cancers by 487%, or something like that.

A month before the trip I began to seriously doubt whether I should go. I wasn't too worried about being gone for a week; my husband Erik would be with the boys full-time and I knew they would be in capable and loving hands (though I dreaded the assumed mess I'd come home to). Instead, I was consumed by the fear that Reilly would wean. I wanted more nursing. I wanted to continue this relationship but I was jeopardizing it for no other reason than my own desire to spend one week with 200 historians who shared an interest in something I love, while grading high school essays eight hours a day.

I knew I would pump while I was gone, and thought briefly about pumping and storing the milk and bringing the liquid gold home. Then I read reports about Elizabeth McGarry of Oceanside, N.Y., the mother of a four-month-old who, in August 2002, was forced by security at JFK airport to drink three bottles of breast milk because "there could be explosives in the breast milk." I'd heard other anecdotal stories about expressed breast milk supplies being searched, mothers being searched and delayed, and the tasting/drinking issue. Wanting to avoid that scenario, I decided to pump and dump. I would keep up my supply but avoid an ugly scene at the airport.

I hated the thought of dumping the milk down a drain or in a toilet, though. I had breast reduction surgery ten years ago. Being able to breastfeed was a huge deal; countless lactation consultant hours, hundreds of cups of Mother's Milk tea and Fenugreek capsules, feeding on demand into toddlerhood, supplemental nursing systems -- I did everything to get a solid supply going, and every drop of breast milk was precious. Adding my breast milk to the wastewater system of Lincoln, Nebraska was not appealing.

And so there I found myself, in my dorm room at the university where we were housed, pumping four times a day, drinking my own body fluids. I figured if it was healthy for the baby, and I was going to the trouble to pump, why not fortify myself with my own nutrients? It was the ultimate recycling project.

I would like to say that I miraculously developed a heightened immune system, that my skin became soft and supple, my hair shone and I ran a marathon, but twelve ounces a day of breast milk really only accomplished two things for me. First, my elimination system became, well, newborn-ish. Any constipation I might have suffered was alleviated by my body's reversion to treating the milk the way a newborn's system would. In other words, within an hour of drinking my milk I needed a bathroom... fast. And second, because I used my breaks and most of lunchtime for pumping and didn't have time to eat, it staved off hunger pains.

Once I drank that first glass, the rest was easy. I found myself downing it with great joy, even anticipation, depending on my mood and my hunger level. I had previously read stories on discussion boards about breastfeeding women who used their leftover breast milk in soups, or snuck it into a smoothie, and I'd always thought that was just plain gross. Then again, I used to say "If they're old enough to ask to breastfeed, they're too old to do it." Reilly now pulls my shirt up and says "na na", and I think it's adorable. My attitudes, like breast milk, change composition based on circumstance.

I've learned that I'm not the only adult drinking breast milk. In China recently, media reports revealed that a local restaurant was serving dishes made with human breast milk. They paid six peasant women for their breast milk, and used it in fish dishes. The restaurant planned a banquet with 108 items containing breast milk. The banquet ended when local residents protested that milk needed for babies was being used this way.

Cancer patients are often fed human breast milk to help build their immune systems after chemotherapy. Human milk banks provide the pasteurized milk. Somewhere moms are pumping and storing milk for other adults to drink. In my case, I was donor and recipient, quality assurance and consumer opinion wrapped into one package.

When I arrived home after pumping a total of 30 times and drinking about 90 ounces of breast milk, Reilly was slow to warm. Erik had fed him a steady diet of breast milk-only bottles and cups from the freezer stash. I'd hoped this would keep him interested in the taste. After about twelve hours, he nursed again at the breast, and now, six months later, he loves his "na na" again.

I am ambivalent about being a breast milk cannibal. I don't feel an urge to take a nip now and then here at home; in this context, that's his milk, not mine. I do occasionally miss the feeling that I could meet three needs at once while I was gone: my need for professional camaraderie, the need to maintain my supply and a link to my toddler, and the need to honor my liquid gold. Sometimes I even miss the taste of my milk, the feeling that I was reaping the fruits of my labor. More than anything I am amazed at the remarkable elasticity of my body, my nursing relationship with Reilly, and my attitudes and taboos.
Lea Barton is a freelance writer and sometimes professor who lives in New England.  Her writing has been published in print and on the web since 1986.