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An Interview: Breastfeeding101 – A portrayal of the pleasures & pains of breastfeeding

This is Emma

South African, age 43
Location At work, Claremont, Cape Town, South Africa
Expressing breastmilk
Photographed September 2018

Emma donated 532litres of her own breast milk to South African breast milk bank Milk Matters over seven years.

Once I got my milk supply going, I became the mother cow. I probably started expressing milk around seven weeks after giving birth. Of course I always made sure that my boys got first chance breastfeed, but the majority of my additional expressed milk was for those premature babies. It all started when I went to Milk Matters and saw the abandoned babies there, weighing under a kilo. In other countries, babies that weigh up to two kilograms are given donated milk, but here in South Africa there isn’t enough, so it’s saved for babies who weigh under a kilo. I’d get tired and think ah, do I really want to give up another 25 minutes, up to five times a day? But their tummies are so small and some are abandoned; they are too sick to feed, or their moms have passed away. I just wanted to help; it was important. There are so many good things about breast milk that you can’t duplicate with formula.

I had happy times and difficult times expressing milk. I had to travel all over: Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Malawi and even further, the UK. Before I left home, I’d express and build up stock for my own baby. Sometimes he couldn’t come with me – you know, with the outbreaks of polio and ebola and stuff. Then while away, I had to keep my milk supply going or otherwise I’d have burst! I would express four to five times a day. To save time, I used two separate pumps at the same time: I’d express from both breasts in 25 minutes. Did you know that there was nowhere at O.R Tambo airport or Cape Town International other than the toilets to express milk? Sometimes I’d make a point and sit on the floor at check-in as they all have plug points. I didn’t want to be one of those women [makes sounds of pump expressing]; the point is there should be a place.

While travelling, there was the mission of trying to find hotels where I could put my milk in the freezer. I would have to go through health and safety [protocols] and avoid contamination and mark it carefully. Even when I did a psychology postdoc at Stellenbosch University, I would put milk in the refrigerator during the day and a few times people would steal it for their tea and coffee. After I labelled it “Please do not drink – Breast Milk”, it never got touched again. It is also important to keep [containers] sterile, especially when travelling. I would have to sit with a kettle and a microwave in the middle of rural Madagascar, sanitizing equipment.

When travelling through borders, I used to have to explain what the breast milk was – and then I’d be asked, “Where is the baby?” If the baby was with me, I wouldn’t need to carry the milk! Now, I actually grab my boob as the universal sign for breast milk. In a good number of countries, I have had to sip it, just so they can see it really is what I say it is.

I think three quarters of the luggage I took on my travels was to deal with my breast milk expressing and storing. I had a whole system in place to keep it frozen. I’d wrap my clothes around my ice bricks and ice packs to keep it frozen, then get it to Milk Matters as soon as possible.

Eventually I stopped when I had to go away to Dar es Salaam for ten days. I’d actually wondered whether I should take the job or not, but then I thought, “Emma, you have given years to this. It is okay. Other moms need to come to the party.” I can’t carry the world.

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