“Well, everyone can master a grief but he that has it.
Everyone knows how to overcome an injury
except the one who actually has one.”
I met Elaina over a clogged milk duct in her left breast. At the pelvic floor physical therapy clinic where I work, we often treat women who are nursing their babies when a painful, swollen lump emerges on the breast. Underneath the breasts of humans are mammary glands on the front chest wall which usher milk out through the nipple via a duct system (note the awesome illustration above). When one of these ducts gets clogged for any reason, the breast will become engorged, red, and painful and the infant will not be able to suckle as much milk from that particular breast.
The treatment for the predicament of a clogged milk duct is to massage from the outside perimeter of the breast towards the nipple. Simply put, this is akin to dismantling a damn in a river and opens a conduit for less restriction along the pathway of milk into the baby’s mouth. If you’ve never milked a cow or breastfed a child, you may not know that the milk that emerges comes out of separate pores in the nipple and resembles a shower spray in several different directions. When a milk duct is clogged, the milk may only squirt out in one specific direction, or not at all.
I sat in front of Elaina and began the treatment by working the skin along the outside of her left breast. For the first fifteen minutes, absolutely nothing happened, except that Elaina’s pain appeared to be worsening. Despite this, Elaina smiled and chatted. She told me all about how she has spent much of her life making money as a food server. Some people call them waitresses, but people in the business refer to themselves as ‘servers’.
At last, some milk came out of the left breast as I massaged the area. It came out in low pressure, just two errant streams that spurted a few inches into the air. Elaina explained to me that her milk had just ‘let down’ in both breasts. This is a reflex in the body which occurs after a few minutes of the baby sucking on the nipple that facilitates a surge of milk into the breasts. This ‘let down’ occurrence is a relaxation response of the body; some women feel it and delight in the sensation, while other women don’t notice it at all. Elaina said that she felt a warm tingling during the ‘let down’ and she pointed to her right breast so I could see what happened. A small droplet of milk had formed on her nonpainful nipple, a signal that she was ready to feed her baby.
Our physical therapy session continued, as Elaina told me that one of her favorite work experiences had been in 5-star restaurants, as opposed to less elegant eateries. I asked her why. “I think I love it because there is so much preparation and behind the scenes action that goes into 5-star dining. The napkins are perfectly pressed, as well as the uniforms of the staff. Courses are plated as if the white plate is a blank canvas with the chef as the artist. Each of the plates for the diners must be placed down upon the table simultaneously. But most of all, I love working in high-end restaurants because the communication between the workers is subtle. We communicate silently, with a nod or simple eye contact, and this is key to keep the flow going between the servers.” I had never known this about 5-star restaurants and was enthralled by Elaina’s words.
It was at this point that the hard and clogged duct finally loosened and milk began squirting all over the room. The milk covered the seafoam green sweater I was wearing in a sweet-smelling shower and the excess dribbled down Elaina’s belly. This was a very satisfying moment for both of us. Together, we mopped up the milk with towels and Elaina reported that she had substantially less pain. The clog had been opened.
It wasn’t until later that evening when I was driving home that I smelled that mother’s milk again. I lifted the sleeve of my seafoam sweater to my nose and inhaled deeply. I drove several miles in the dark and breathed in that heavenly scent. It was then that a clog within my own chest broke wide open, though it was not from a mammary gland. No, my heart began to hurt with great ferocity, as though its delicate lining, known as the pericardium, was detaching itself from the four-chambered organ which pumps blood throughout the body.
I had lost a dog just a few weeks earlier. The dog that died was the first I had ever owned as an adult. His name was Ruben and he had been my steadfast protector for over twelve years. Ruben was a stunning, 19-pound little guardian of my body and spirit. When I was forced to bring him to the vet to have him put down, I was bereft. But nobody knew that. I didn’t even really know how sad I was. I went through each day telling myself and everyone around me that I was fine. I was perfectly fine. People die, dogs die, and I had seen enough of that to be able to accept this reality of the world that I knew.
It wasn’t until I smelled the milk of Elaina on my sleeves that I realized how sorely I missed Ruben. The grief came heavily once I opened the door to its ghastly presence and it startled. I thought I had already surmounted this loss. But just as William Shakespeare said, “Everyone can master a grief but he that has it.” I wasn’t mastering this well. It was high time that I admitted it.
I shucked off the seafoam green sweater when I got home that evening, folded it and placed it on the top of my dresser. I got on my couch in pajamas and did the worst thing that anyone with depression and grief possibly can: I logged on to Social Media. I scrolled through images of my friends and family rejoicing in their lives, when suddenly, an ad for a pet adoption agency crossed my digital path. There was a picture of a small, spotted, black and white dog, a chihuahua mix. My pericardium was still pulling away from my heart with sadness, and yet there was something about this dog pictured before me. I filled out an online application for this spotted dog, knowing full well that she had probably already been adopted. Furthermore, anyone who has attempted pet adoption knows that this is typically a VERY long process. It is understandable that the people who run such organizations want the animals to be placed in good hands. But pet adoption agencies require such intense scrutiny of the humans and stop short only just before the endorsement from a Cardinal of the Catholic Church to adopt a dog. I am neither a Catholic, nor one who believed on that evening that anything would ever come out of this adoption application.
I didn’t want to wash that seafoam green sweater after it was covered in breast milk. But I realized that the smell of the milk had worn off the next morning. I put the sweater in an LG washing machine and watched as water covered it in swirls. I climbed up the stairs from the basement to hear my phone vibrating on the kitchen table. It was an unknown New York number. The woman who spoke into the phone ran a foster-adoption group for dogs. She was calling me merely twelve hours after I submitted the application for the spotted dog! She asked me a series of questions to judge my moral character and thankfully did not require a representative of the Catholic Church to deem me a good person. I met the little dog Maggie and brought her home less than a week later.
I recognized how much Elaina had endured with her clogged milk duct. She was trying to nurse her very first baby when this problem had come home to roost. She felt like she had failed her little son and that she could not give him the nourishment he deserved. Elaina had asked her friends about how to cope with her pain, she had searched online for solutions. But it was just as Shakespeare keenly observed: “Everyone knows how to overcome an injury except the one who actually has one.” It was Elaina alone who had to struggle with her clogged milk duct. And she was doing it so bravely.
Elaina is now considering a new vocation of becoming a lactation consultant. This will allow her to help other mothers who are having difficulties with breastfeeding. There are a lot of such mothers out there and I can think of no better person than Elaina to assist them along the way. Because she has known this injury. She understands this disappointment and pain. And because of Elaina and the smell of her mother’s milk on my sleeves, I was able to answer a call to new life.
This is the power of mother’s milk. Nursing a baby is very similar to serving food in a 5-star restaurant. There is a silent exchange between the suckling of the baby on the breast; this signals the brain to encourage the ‘let down’ of the breast milk, thereby providing full nourishment to the infant. It is the quietude between the mother and child which creates the best meals, a subtle swap of energy where words are unnecessary. My time with Elaina allowed me to quietly witness the wonder of breastfeeding. I relish in the idea of Elaina becoming a new kind of server.
As a lactation consultant, Elaina will provide authentic and luxuriant meals for her babies and countless others as she shows the world how to breastfeed with panache. I am certain that Elaina is already a very attentive and clever server; but now, she will become a server par excellence. Those beautiful mammary glands depicted in the illustration at the beginning of this story are flowery communicators of information. Much like servers in a 5-star restaurant, they rely on a glance, a nod, the gentle stimulation of the baby’s lips on the nipple to bring forth food. Only in this case, the uniforms of the servers will not be perfectly pressed. Instead, Elaina’s uniform will be drenched in milk. The other mothers will learn from her, they will allow their bodies to unwind without words. Their grieving and worries will be shed, and they will sit down to a stupendous dining experience at last.