Earlier this week, I met a baby who, at five days old, had lost two pounds.
And I nursed him.
His mother had an unexpected caesarean section and her milk production was delayed, which isn’t particularly uncommon following surgical birth. But her baby proceeded to lose two pounds. Though she nursed and they were making every effort, she and her husband watched their little boy shrink. So her midwife put out the call: this baby needs milk. And my own doula and friend sent me word: a baby needs milk. She also said, “mama would also be open to cross-nursing.” A few phone calls to arrange a time, and I went. With my one tiny bottle of stashed milk and my own two breasts, I went to meet some total strangers.
I wondered what it would be like to nurse someone else’s child. The first time I nursed my own child it felt a little strange, such a new and singular experience: would it feel odd when the child was not my own, when I’d only met the family moments earlier? I wondered if I would feel a sense of betrayal to my own little nursling, at home with her sister and father, to be sharing my breast with another child, to be giving another child the milk originally destined for her. I wondered if the mother, who had undergone a difficult birth and was now struggling to breastfeed, would feel resentment or rejection at having me, a total stranger, nurse her child. I am certain that I would have felt so.
There are no Emily Post instructions on the correct etiquette for visiting someone’s home for the first time with the intention of breastfeeding their newborn. I went, met Father and Mother, introduced myself, congratulated them on their baby, gave them the one bottle of expressed milk I had, then asked, “Do you want me to nurse him?”
“Sure,” Mother said, “that would be great.” So we sat together, she and I. She handed me her tiny treasure and I bared a breast.
People talk about unconditional love. The Church talks about it a lot. Parents talk about it, too. There’s even a particular strain of parenting theory named for it. When we talk about loving unconditionally we generally mean that our love is not contingent on the actions of the person who is loved. But it can mean something else, and should. It means that whoever you are, I will love you. My love for you is not contingent on my relationship with you. It simply doesn’t matter.
One of my many acts of mothering love for my children is nursing them. Through that simple act they are comforted, reassured, nurtured and nourished. They know love. To nurse another’s child is also an act of love, but differently so. In taking that little boy in my arms and nursing him, I told him he was loved. I told him that he was loved unconditionally not only by his parents – who love him for the mere fact of his existence – but by me as well, also for the mere fact of his existence. And that loving would extend as far as it needed to, even to feeding him from my own body.
Nursing him didn’t feel strange. It was simple: here was a hungry child who needed milk and I provided it. I was struck by how entirely commonplace it felt in that moment. Afterward, as I reflected on my encounter with this family, I felt sure that this is, without question, what we are meant to do. Later, when I was home again with my own nursling, I looked at her as she glowed and grinned up at me and felt nearly proud of her. Unbeknownst to her, she had shared something of hers which was precious and dear. I don’t know how the mother felt about watching me nurse her new and only child. It seemed too intrusive to ask. I imagine it was at least a little strange for her, to watch her son share an intimate moment with another woman, some other child’s mother. Because nursing is wonderfully, beautifully intimate. But so is love. And it’s meant to be shared. Like breastmilk.
There is something particularly delightful about nursing a newborn. Their lives are so consumed by consumption that newborns are very avid feeders, focussed and determined. This little boy, fists clenched against his cheeks, eyes closed in rapt attention to the task, mouth wide, proceeded to give a perfect example of precisely how a baby should nurse. Surely, he and his mother are destined for a happy and successful nursing relationship. Gulping and pausing, pausing and gulping, he drank until he was full and could not be cajoled into taking more. Entirely milk-drunk, he subsided into his mother’s arms, smiling in his sleep. Sated.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Thank you,” I replied.