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Mourning the last bag of breast milk, long after my kids outgrew breast-feeding

On my own, I wasn’t going to be able to dump the last-existing bag of my breast milk next to our banana peels, old newspapers and egg shells. (iStock)
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The bag was a family joke. It was amusing to watch the expressions on people’s faces when they found out it existed. My kids picked up on the joke a few years ago. One of my daughter’s party tricks was to pull the bag out of the freezer and parade it around when we had dinner guests. “Look what my mom saved!” she’d say, while guests tried to arrange their faces to convey amusement or curiosity and not outright disgust.

It was unconventional enough that I nursed my kids well past their second birthdays. Did I really need to save an eight-ounce bag of breast milk that expired when President Barack Obama was in his first term?

The answer was yes, I did need that bag of breast milk. That’s why I stuck it in a cooler and ferried it across Chicago — twice — when we moved. Before each crosstown relocation, my husband would hold it up and ask, “Is this coming?” I would pry the bag from his hand and bury it in the cooler beneath the chicken sausages and bags of frozen berries. I didn’t over-analyze why I was dragging this bag of liquid gold — the apt nickname for milk obtained with a mechanical pump that made me feel more like a barnyard animal than a mother — across town when no one was ever going to drink it. I just knew I wasn’t leaving without it. By the time I moved it a second time, the baby for whom the milk was expressed was old enough to order cheeseburgers and big enough to strain my back when I tried to pick him up.

No one pressed me for an explanation, though one time a co-worker learned about the bag and sent me a link to a shop that sells a locket in which you can preserve drops of your breast milk. She included a note: Now you can get rid of that bag in your freezer. I wasn’t sure I wanted to wear drops of my breast milk around my neck in perpetuity, but who was I to turn my nose up? I was living in a glass house with my 8-year-old stash of breast milk.

When the bag was four years old, I told my husband that he should smuggle it of the freezer in the dark of night without telling me. Then, on some future day when I discovered the milk was long gone, he could say something sage and vaguely woo-woo, like “It’s in a better place.”

But he flatly refused. “No way.” He wasn’t about to come between me and that bag. “You’ll let go when you’re ready,” he said.

The reality was that, on my own, I wasn’t going to be able to dump the last-existing bag of my breast milk next to our banana peels, old newspapers and egg shells. I could no more abandon the bag into a heap of our daily detritus than I could ask my kids to spend the night in the recycling bin.

From the beginning of my motherhood, breast-feeding took on an outsize meaning. My birth experiences had been rough and left me feeling like my body had failed. That was the word I used: “fail.” My body failed to dilate. My labor failed to progress. I failed to give birth vaginally the first time. Eighteen months later, my VBAC failed. In my postpartum haze, depression set in, and I seized on this narrative of failure, which left me feeling unfit for motherhood and betrayed by my deficient body.

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In my darkest moments, I questioned whether I was really and truly a mother if my body couldn’t perform the basic functions required to give birth. It was months before I could articulate these fears and let other people show me the errors in my thinking. Of course, motherhood belongs to women — even if they didn’t give birth at all.

But by the time I arrived at that truth, my relationship with breast-feeding had solidified. Breast-feeding had been my chance to prove to myself that my body was up for the tasks of motherhood. It was an amends and a consolation that I accepted with humility every time one of my children latched on to my breast.

The bag of milk in my freezer represented the evolution from fury at my body for failing at birth to gratitude that it produced enough milk to turn my scrawny babies into chubby infants.

As I grew older alongside those babies who began to read chapter books, throw baseballs and tell knock-knock jokes, the bag accumulated even more meaning. It became a tangible, if frozen, artifact of a time that has slipped away. And I’m sentimental so I treasure artifacts — they ease my sadness about the passage of time. That’s why my children’s onesies and outgrown Halloween costumes are folded in storage bins in the basement and dozens of their art projects live in oversize boxes in the garage. I even bronzed a pair of shoes that was too beat up to give away, yet too precious to discard.

The milk, though, was different. It was perishable. It, like my children, was once a part of my body. It was a more potent link to the time when I served a vital, daily — sometimes hourly — function that is hard to recapture when I’m heating up chicken strips or stirring shells and cheese. It was a connection to a former version of myself and my children that I didn’t have to fully mourn as long as I had those eight ounces sealed in a bag.

None of this was clear until the afternoon I received a text from our babysitter informing me that our freezer had stopped working, and everything had melted. “The breast milk didn’t make it. I’m so sorry,” she wrote. Apparently, over the years, the bag had gained a puncture or two, so by the time our broken freezer was discovered, everything in the bottom layer was coated in defrosted breast milk.

When I got home from work, I opened the freezer drawer. It gleamed, shiny and white, from its recent scrubbing. All of its contents had been stuffed into a garbage bag and taken outside. I was spared the sight of the empty breast milk bag lying among sodden boxes of melted Popsicles and ice cream sandwiches.

I felt a dull throb in my chest, the distant thrum of grief. I felt foolish standing in front of the empty freezer scrunching up my nose, trying not to cry. It was just a bag of milk. People — mothers especially — have to let go of much more precious things than expired breast milk all the time. Mothers at our southern border in search of asylum and refuge have to let go of their actual children, who are taken away and locked in cages. Mothers around the globe have to relinquish their homes, their rights, their freedom and, in some cases, their bodies. Those losses are worth keening over. I was safe in my home. In the very next room, my healthy children squabbled over who would practice piano first. My loss was existential, and thus, easy to diminish. I should get a grip. No point in crying over spilled milk.

Eight ounces doesn’t sound like a lot, but at one time it was a full meal for my babies. Eight ounces was the weight of my feelings about my body and its ability to perform the somatic functions of motherhood. It was the weight of consolation for unplanned C-sections and the scar below my abdomen. It was the weight of the early intimacy between my body and my children’s.

The day I stood in front of the empty freezer eight ounces was the weight of my grief about letting go of my young motherhood and the babies who would never nurse again. Once the bag was gone, I experienced the full weight of my sadness that time passes, babies grow up and mothers grow old.

And that weighed a lot more than eight ounces.

Christie Tate is a lawyer and writer who lives in Chicago with her husband and two children. She’s on Twitter @ChristieOTate.

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