Breast Friends Forever
When two dads decide to raise their baby on mother’s milk, they find that it takes a village — albeit a lactating one — to feed their son.
A little over a year ago, when my husband and I were getting our lives and home ready for the arrival of our new baby, we interviewed a slew of night-nurse candidates. One of the women struck me as refreshingly, if not exceedingly, candid. When asked if she had ever worked for a gay couple before, she said no but she was excited about the prospect.
“Why?” I pressed. Well, she had heard that gay couples can be either very nasty or very nice, but that we seemed nice. Plus, she liked our apartment, and there was no mother, which meant none of the Sturm und Drang that often comes with breastfeeding.
“Phew,” she thought.
Cielo arrived five weeks early. Born in South Florida via our miraculous surrogate, he was tiny but healthy. The hospital had a policy that all premies do a stint in their NICU before graduating out and into the real world. Our surrogate had lost a considerable amount of blood during delivery and had to remain in the hospital for a few days as well. In that brief period of overlap, our surrogate pumped and hand-delivered to the NICU the perfect prescription: Food and beverage.
He was hooked and, as new parents trying to do the best for our boy, we were hooked, too. Our plan going into delivery had been to eschew breast milk and hop to formula as soon as possible. Our caregiving constellation does not include an Ursa Major, so we wouldn’t act as if it did. Once we broke the seal, we wondered how we could secure more.
For a month or so, our surrogate pumped, froze and shipped milk to us in New York care of Cielo (and FedEx). The coordinates of the process were always in flux as FedEx does not really have consistent policies as to where, how and when you can ship frozen bodily fluids. They don’t even have dry ice on premises. (Attention female founders, there is a business opportunity here — lots of gold in them thar hills.) We muddled through the chaos of it all, partly because it’s what we wanted for our little guy, still too small to wear his newborn clothes, and partly because we enjoyed the ongoing justification to remain in contact with our surrogate. While boundaries were crystal clear, saying goodbye to this chapter was harder than we imagined.
"Brandon and I soon found ourselves crisscrossing the city — insulated Trader Joe’s bags tucked under our arms — to collect milk. We were milkmen in reverse."
That was until FedEx diverted a critical delivery of breast milk to a locked storage unit in another borough until Monday. It was like having your car towed while on vacation abroad, only in this instance, our child needed to suck that car five times a day to survive. While we raced to beat the clock, we decided that this special delivery partnership would probably have to come to an end. Our surrogate was also ready to move on as her milk production was waning.
Brandon and I agreed that formula was absolutely suitable for Cielo; after all, we were both formula-fed. Still, we weren’t 100 percent ready to press the powder. We did a ton of research and decided that we would try to maintain breast milk feedings until our son hit the critical 6-month mark. But how? Our surrogate was no longer an option. We had been advised that while breast milk banks are safe and legitimate, the legally required pasteurization that takes place basically renders breast milk as beneficial as store-bought formula. Also, the breast milk is not just banked, it is batched — more of a mutual fund than individual savings accounts.
We were added to a handful of local, invitation-only moms groups on Facebook. Somewhat like a marketplace, these groups were chock-full of offers for everything from obsolete maternity clothes to discarded toys to soon-to-expire gift cards for baby stuff. In a few of the groups, we posted a magnetic photo of our son with a little write-up under the headline, "Got Milk?"
To our delight, the responses, and the milk, poured in. Moms across Manhattan and Brooklyn who had extra supply were diligently dating and freezing their bags, collecting liquid platinum in their limited freezer spaces. The reasons behind the surpluses weren't always the same, but every mom we spoke with would have been devastated to pump-and-dump so much milk.
Brandon and I soon found ourselves crisscrossing the city — insulated Trader Joe’s bags tucked under our arms — to collect milk. We were milkmen in reverse.
There was the woman whose husband’s job demanded that they quickly relocate from Hell’s Kitchen to the Bay Area. Major score.
And then there was the Orthodox couple whose baby had an allergy to his mother’s milk. Still, she pumped and saved. They invited me in for a Shabbat blessing and handed off their stash. The baby’s father walked me down the hallway to their elevator to tell me that I was performing a mitzvah (a Torah-specific good deed). In taking the milk off of their hands, we were alleviating his wife’s anxiety about how to dispose of something so miraculous but fruitless.
And I will never forget the woman in SoHo who explained that her infant daughter was gifted and had moved to solids earlier than any of her peers. That meant she was left with extra milk. Making conversation as I packed up my pints, I asked, “What does your daughter like to eat now?”
Mom replied, “Well, I only ate three things while nursing: pineapple, hummus and octopus, and so that’s all my daughter craves these days." Would Cielo adopt this sophisticated palette, we wondered? Would he become a picky eater or would he be up for anything and everything?
All in all, we were blessed with milk from a dozen or so women — some strangers, some friends and even one family member. Our pediatrician had advised that no doctor’s office can verify the safety of any informally donated milk, but she did remark that cross-nursing is a well-documented and age-old, beneficial practice.
Cielo is now a half-year past his breast-milk buffet, and he is thriving. Would we have seen the same outcome had he been on formula the entire time? There's no way to know. What we do know is that the three of us are intrinsically bound to this heart-warming sorority of communal concern, generosity and humanity.
As the elderly mother of one of the women who donated multiple batches said to me at a Penn Station pick-up: “Don’t forget, Cielo still has to meet my grandson. After all, they have dined from the same kitchen!”
Ariel Foxman, the former editor in chief of InStyle, is a brand consultant and contributing editor at Vanity Fair. Follow him and his son on Instagram @arielfoxman.