There’s More Breastmilk than Food in my Freezer

I have a problem. When I open my freezer door, things fall out. Sometimes it’s the frozen corn in a bag, sometimes it’s minced pork. But they aren’t the problem. They’re falling all over because my freezer is filled with over 200 oz of frozen breastmilk. 

Those little bags of liquid gold will never mean the same thing to everyone, but here’s what it means to me:

They fed my children. There are plenty of reasons women breastfeed or don’t. I did it because I could and it’s free. We aren’t well off and the Singaporean in me likes value-for-money. There isn’t better value than free, so I am thankful that I could nurse both my children. 

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I was raised on formula. My parents say I loved milk powder so much that when I did something good, my reward was a scoop of Promil milk powder straight from the can. It’s true, I can remember the delicious taste even now. I am completely aware of the sacrifices my parents had to make as a young couple to give brother and I the best formula they could find and afford, and the bags of breastmilk are reminders that there are many alternatives to what is “best” for each family and child.

Pearly's son drinking breastmilk from a bottle - where he drank some and the family threw away the leftovers.

They remind me of a complicated time. There is nothing wrong with feeding a baby formula. I believe that happy mothers raise happy children and they are more likely to have a happy family life. I worked very hard to nurse my children because needing to afford formula would have made life even harder. I am not a better or worse mother because I breastfed my babies.

Mothers who breastfeed have to do so day and night. They are never more than 15 minutes away from their babies for the first six months, and often, the whole of the first year. Many of them pump in addition to nursing to prepare for when they have to go back to work. And when they become working mothers, they pump in lactation rooms, at their desks, in toilets, in airplanes, airports, while driving, in meetings, anywhere

Pearly and her daughter, when the latter was still a toddler.

Mothers who formula feed have to wash, prep, feed and sterilize a million bottle parts every single day. They often have to experiment with tens of bottles before finding one that the child likes. This was such a noticeable problem that I started a traveling bottle set, where 20 different types of bottles I had collected in Singapore, Japan and the US, including hard-to-find ones like Mimijumi, are passed from family to family so they can find the one that suits their family.

The bags of breastmilk remind me that parents face many problems that I can help solve so others after us don’t have to go through the same struggles.

I donated breastmilk. I was not a super producer by any means. I worked very hard at it instead, reading about and consuming supplements, ensuring I drank lots of water and ate well, pumped regularly (before it became obvious my children would never drink from a bottle). But when a friend had her baby in her second trimester and she couldn’t nurse, I offered her the stockpile of breastmilk I had in my refrigerator. At first, it felt strange, passing her bodily fluids. I was not afraid of depleting it since I was actively nursing my second child, but what helped me get over the strangeness of donating breastmilk was a thank you message that said her baby was happily drinking the milk and thriving from it. What a way to help another family!

The very first batch of breastmilk Pearly donated.

I am mom. My job is to care for our child, but what about my career? Before becoming a mom, I was multimedia content lead at a marketing firm. I had worked my way across the globe to design my life so I had relationships with scientists at Intel, venture capitalists in Silicon Valley, and every dean of an undergraduate business program in America. I had spent years writing a book on cholera in Haiti, known among United Nations scientists, and worked on another book with Janet Napolitano, formed US Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. My babies didn’t care about any of that. They wanted boobies and they wanted it now, day or night. 

Each bag of liquid gold is a reminder of a time I sat hooked up to a very noisy and annoying machine, hoping to get the pumping over and done with. I pumped on top of nursing in anticipation that my children would drink breastmilk from bottles when I went back to work. As life would have it, I did not go back to work in an office till both of them were two years old. My boob was an open buffet during that time and the little 2.5oz and 5oz bags sat frozen in ice age untouched. 

Pearly with her son, when he was still a newborn.

They remind me I am a mother. Nothing really changed when I became a mother. There was no earth shattering gong, no bolt of lightning. Nothing except now there was a small person in the house who constantly needed me and I couldn’t use the bathroom when I wanted to. Breastfeeding made me feel like my body was no longer mine.

I know of mothers who celebrate breastfeeding, who say the time they spent nursing their babies were absolutely magical. I was not one of them. I appreciated the free happy meals I could provide, but I hated being called a “cow” and was honestly emotionally confused by how one minute my breasts were to be kept covered and private, several painful pushes later they were to be available on-demand. Not only that, I was supposed to find magic in offering my nipple into the mouth of what looked like a baby alligator.

If anything, those bags remind me that I am a mother. And while being a mother means being loving and kind, a teacher, doctor, chef, medic, coach and more all-in-one, it also means I am allowed to be human. I will call bulls**t where appropriate because like most mothers, I have five years of sleep to catch up on and my parents just told me the bad news – only happens when they move out, which could be when they’re 18, 30 or never.

By now, those bags of milk are over a year old. Lactation consultants say its nutrients have broken down and there’s little value to drinking them. Yet, I continue to keep them in my refrigerator, next to my bubble tea ice cream. I have thought of throwing them out, but couldn’t bring myself to. I’ve used them to make milk baths for the family and turned them into lotions and balms, but really, they are still in my freezer because they remind me that the last five years that flew by really happened and that I tried my best, even when I was a hangry, screamy tiger mom. 

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