The night after I buried my newborn daughter, my milk came in. I had hoped that I would be spared dealing with mother’s milk. I was shocked and surprised that I was shocked, relieved that I did not have a severely ill child to take care of and that the pregnancy was over. Grief thick as molasses settled in with the aching physical soreness after labor, hormones that woke me up at night looking for the baby to feed, the longing to hold my child, the memory of holding a cooling baby in the bewilderment after labor. Hadn’t I been through enough? Why milk, when Mary Rose was not here to drink it? It felt as if God were mocking me. My midwife, Anni, said that the whole body was weeping. I cried and cried, struggling to get around since my sciatic pain was still severe, wondering if I would survive being postpartum at all.
It was Sunday night and my mother tried to bind my breasts while my husband slept and I cried from pain. The next morning the pain was excruciating. I wept and called my midwife who would come to help. My breasts looked like missiles about to launch. The pain was so intense that every movement hurt. Afterbirth pains continued. I remember sitting down a lot and weeping. After all that work, the months of pregnancy and labor, what did I have to show for my efforts?
When Anni came with essential oil of peppermint and a carrier oil, No More Milk tea and a bag from Rite Aide with advil, ice packs and bandages, I felt her love in her blue eyes and ready hands telling me that I would be okay. I was writing a dark poem, moping in bed, frustrated that my back pain hadn’t gone away immediately. She showed me how to massage the essential oil of peppermint in a carrier oil onto my breasts. I started to also massage out some of the milk for some relief. She often talked about the gift “these babies” are to those who encounter them unafraid, but I just wanted my milk to go away.
It took a few weeks for my milk to dry up completely. It took some time to piece together a “how to” list to stop the milk. This is what worked for me:
1. Sudafed has been shown to dry up milk. I took a lot of Sudafed for about a week and then started taking less for a second week.
2. Sage tea and No More Milk tea, both found in a health store or online at vitacost.com or luckyvitamins.com. I alternated the teas and drank them all day. I think that the sage tea worked better, but they both helped.
3. Cabbage leaves cold from the refrigerator did not seem to work. I read one study that said cabbage leaves had not been shown to decrease milk supply but acted as an ice pack and relieved some pain and pressure. I continued to look online until I found another source that said that to activate the enzymes in the cabbage leaves you had to crush the veins by going over each leaf with a rolling pin. I covered my breasts in crushed cabbage leaves and then placed ice packs on them. When the leaves wilted I did it again.
4. Essential oil of peppermint diluted in a carrier oil applied directly to breasts has been shown to slow milk supply. I did this two to three times a day.
5. Hot baths to let the milk drip out. I sat in a bath and let my milk drip into the tub each night, sometimes massaging some milk out. It offered some relief.
I started doing all of the things above, including using ice packs on my breasts, for at least two weeks and then started taking steps out. I stopped the Sudafed first, then the cabbage leaves, then the essential peppermint oil. I stuck with the teas for several weeks until my breasts no longer filled up with milk. I know that binding breasts has worked for women for centuries, but it was too painful and I decided to skip that suggestion.
After my first pregnancy I pumped milk for ten months for my son until I became so ill that I had an autoimmune disorder. I did not get sick from pumping. It was a combination of not sleeping with a baby waking up every three or four hours, coxsackie virus, and the exhaustion of pumping day and night while taking care of a baby and a terminally ill aunt that put me over the edge.
Many mothers who carry children with fatal illnesses to term pump and donate their milk to a breast milk bank helping others who have too little milk or no milk at all. After my experience with my son, I could not get back on the pump unless I had a child able to drink my milk. I felt selfish, but I did not want another baby getting Mary Rose’s milk. Perhaps this path of stopping my milk would have been easier if I had pumped and slowly weaned myself from pumping until the milk lessened, but I couldn’t do it.
In speaking to my bereavement doula, Leslie, she said that in her experience mothers who are in shock and don’t expect their babies to die often pump as a part of their process to work through their shock. She thought that I had been mourning Mary Rose during those five long months after her “diagnosis” and I didn’t need to pump.
One week after my daughter’s funeral I went to a pow wow with my doula, Leslie, and artist friend, Sindy. We sat on the grass under a tree listening to drumming, feeling that ever constant heartbeat of the Earth moving forward, even when we want life to stop. The dancers came out in their colorful native clothes, moving and singing, celebrating their culture and way of life. A woman carrying a tiny newborn walked in front of us and sat down right in front of me. It was a big park. Really? I thought. My breasts ached, my body bled and I sat there trying not to cry, held up by the sisterhood of my sweet companions. I didn’t stay long because I was exhausted, but I walked around limping and bought a wooden frog for my son knowing that the choice I would make was to continue on my path for as long as God kept me here.
It is my hope that each woman faced with milk after a miscarriage or infant death does what feels best. That first intuitive feeling in the heart center is right. Pump if that feels right and bless others with your mother’s milk. And if, like me, you just can’t do it, you just can’t attach your breasts to a machine and package up your child’s precious nourishment, don’t. Either way, you will survive this time that feels endless and maddening. Those post-partum months were worse than I expected, especially because I couldn’t sleep through the night. I would wake up after a couple of hours of sleep and toss and turn for hours. Where is my baby? I kept thinking. My eyes would dart around looking for the girl I wanted to hold and nourish.
Where is my baby? I like to think that she is right next me, cheering me on. You can do it, she says to me. And so can you.
I hope that you are accompanied by a few holy sisters who surround you and hold you in your tears as the Earth beats on.