Feeding Charlie’s Memory

Sarah wearing the heart pendant, with a “pearl” made of dried Charlie’s milk

Sarah Warner, Columbus, Ohio

Content Warning: Sarah’s story describes her experience with infant loss and the stillbirth of her son Charlie. Sarah shares how she kept Charlie’s memory alive through milk donation.

I have one son, and I never nursed him. My son Charlie was born in 2016, and I fully intended to exclusively breastfeed him. My mother is a La Leche League Leader, so breastfeeding support was always around when I was a child, as was breastfeeding. I support breastfeeding, and my house is a safe breastfeeding zone – if anyone tries to make a mother uncomfortable for breastfeeding her baby in my house, the one doing the criticizing will be asked to leave! But also, it has always been my plan to exclusively breastfeed any children I end up having. And since I have not yet had the chance to breastfeed, it’s still in my future plans, and so I stay in touch with the LLL community locally and on Facebook, in anticipation of the day I can more fully participate.

I said that I never nursed my son. While I haven’t breastfed, or even breastfed, I actually have lactated and done so intentionally and thus I might be considered a part of the breastfeeding community, if tangentially. But you see, my son Charlie was stillborn.

After pregnancy, especially if the pregnancy goes close to full term, your body automatically starts producing milk for that child, regardless of the outcome. So when Charlie was born – at full term – and had died, my body didn’t know there wasn’t anybody to nurse.

For people who have healthy babies and decide not to breastfeed, their milk still will come in, and they can make some choices about how to reduce the milk or convince their body to produce less. For those who decide to breastfeed, this isn’t an issue – the milk is getting used, and their body uses the baby’s feeding as a cue for production levels.

In my case, I had a really tough situation. I had 100% planned on breastfeeding my baby, and my baby died. Now my milk was starting to come in, and I was becoming uncomfortable if I didn’t do something one way or the other. What do I do? I agonized about it. Many people at this point aren’t aware they have a choice, and suffer through the discomfort while reducing their supply, while also dealing with the grief that can flare up when their body tries to nourish a baby who isn’t there.

The choice I was aware of was milk donation. I’m not sure how I initially became aware of it, but I suspect it’s something I absorbed from living with an LLL Leader my whole life. So in the week that we were planning Charlie’s funeral, reeling from the shock of his death and recovering from birth, I also was agonizing and sleepless when my milk started coming in. I got the name of a milk bank in Columbus from a Leader at the LLL Group I’d been attending in preparation and anticipation. I sat on that information for a day or two, still not sure if I wanted to pursue it.

Sarah and her family

The issue I was wrestling with was this: if I decide to pump, the milk is something that was intended for Charlie that he doesn’t get to have, and it’s a constant reminder. If I don’t, what do I do? Reduce supply, be uncomfortable while I do, and then not use this glorious ability of mothering that my body wants to do? For me, all of pregnancy (except for the throwing up part, which was awful) was a purely glorious vision of what a woman’s body can do. To me, an integral part of pregnancy is the mothering that the body can do post-birth (i.e., produce milk).

Eventually, one sleepless early morning, I called the milk bank (I used Ohio Milk Bank, run by Ohio Health in Columbus, but there are others). I talked to a wonderful nurse and explained my situation (I’m by far not the only one in those shoes to have called). She listened to me, to my hesitation, and was very helpful in being receptive and not pushy, answering my questions, and walking me through the process, including getting an insurance-funded pump, having a blood test, and filling out paperwork. She even walked me through the first steps I could do over the phone and sent me the rest that same day.

It was such a relief to make a decision. I decided to start hand-expressing in the meantime, so that the milk would keep coming but would not make me uncomfortable. I was able to get the pump pretty quickly, and the materials like milk bags and a shipping box were provided for me. Once I was approved, the milk bank retroactively accepted any milk I’d already saved within certain dates, if I’d saved it safely and stored it properly. I was so set on exclusively breastfeeding that, even now, two years later, I’m still kind of shocked I own a pump. I’m really glad I got it and that I could do this, but it was so far outside of my mental picture.

I got the pump just before the 4th of July holiday, which ended up being complicated since the standard flange wasn’t the right size for me, and I got really sore. Reaching out to a lactation consultant is tough on a holiday weekend, but I got in touch with my best friend, who had been a pumping, working mother, and she helped me figure things out. Unfortunately, the flange size I needed was tough to find and not in most stores, but I was able to order it and get it a few days later. While still sore, I could tell it was an improvement, and it eventually ended up working fine.

At first, pumping was emotionally tough, too, because the milk was supposed to be Charlie’s. I’ve had lots of people who hear about this tell me that I was helping other babies. That was definitely important, but to me personally, emotionally, the most important part was that this was an experience I’d planned to share with my child, and holding on to any aspect of similarity to my original plans was helpful to me. So for me, lactating—even if not quite in the form I’d intended—was a piece of my plan I didn’t lose, as opposed to all the pieces of our expectations that were completely dashed. And having some things that are similar is really, really helpful. So much of the loss, to me, was redefinition of purpose. I was supposed to change diapers, and nurse, and wake up at odd hours, but I wasn’t supposed to not do those things. So finding ways to sort of still do them was healing, as was figuring out who I was now, post-loss, and what my new purpose was (memory keeping, and also focusing on healing and self-care both emotional and physical. I still work on these things).

I pumped and donated for about three months, which meant I “weaned” about 3 1/2 months after Charlie was born. I started out pumping three times a day, eventually tapered to two, and then once a day. I eventually decided to stop, once it was more of a chore than a purpose. I think my total was about 200 ounces. The amount was not the point, but I still kept track. Since I wasn’t pumping as often as a baby would have nursed, my production was not as high as it would have been, but per session was still about normal. I found the whole process of lactation to be exciting, to see what my body knew how to do!

Towards the end of the time I was pumping, I’d found a mother’s group that accepted me and my story with open arms, and I’m still in close contact with several good friends from that group. One of the members of this group is a jewelry maker, and she makes resin “stones” with inclusions, for memory keepsakes. For many, this might be breastmilk from feeding each child, or a lock of hair, or some such. I’ve seen some people include flakes of the birthstone of a particular child, who is now outgrowing breastfeeding, and for those with a loss, I’ve even heard of including the baby’s ashes.

She suggested her services to me, making it clear that she had some funds set aside to essentially “sponsor” me as an angel mom. So I took the last ounce and a half I pumped, and picked out a design – and she made me a lovely necklace, with a heart pendant, on which is a resin “pearl” made of dried Charlie’s milk. I’m wearing it as I type this, actually. It’s one of my favorite pieces of jewelry ever, and means so much to me.

I’m really glad other babies got to benefit from Charlie’s milk, but for me, for my heart, this was all for Charlie, and I’m so glad that our relationship could continue in this way – even if not quite how I’d pictured.

In the fall of 2018, La Leche League USA posted some neat new graphics on their Facebook page: little medal/ribbon pictures, with a description of the achievement, so you could post the relevant one to your Facebook wall. Things like “Breastfed for 6 months!”, etc. This is neat, and allows parents to publicly acknowledge their milestones, should they so choose.

For some reason I decided to scroll through all of them, just to see what they included. Guess what? Me! I cried as I found these. Thank you, LLL USA, for recognizing the situation I’m in and the relationship I built with my baby through lactation, non-traditional though it may be.

Editor’s Note: Sarah has written more of her story on her blog, which includes an extensive list of resources for those experiencing infant loss: clothespress.blogspot.com/.

For more information about milk donation, go to lllusa.org/milkdonation/.

Please send your story ideas to Amy at [email protected].

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