Why I Breastfed a Stranger's Baby

I didn't have formula, and I told her that. But I had something else. And so I offered the only thing I could, the only thing I had: My own milk.
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I was at the New York passport office in the West Village with my 7-month-old baby boy, picking up my brand new American passport after having become a citizen through naturalization. While in the waiting area, I heard a infant baby's cry coming from the hall -- you know, that heartbreaking wail that brand new babies have, that cry that makes you want to do anything and everything to help them, because they are so tiny, so new, so fragile. I watched my 7-month-old, feeling for the parents of the baby whose cries echoed from the hallway -- until the cries got lost in the chatter and other noises of the space.

After I received my passport, I headed to the restroom. As I entered, I found a shaken mother with her tiny, crying baby in the bathroom. The baby was on the changing table wailing and rooting, the mom sitting on a chair holding her hand on the baby, crying helplessly. People walked in and out, staring but not stopping. I rushed up to the mom, placed my hand on her shoulder and asked what was wrong. She looked up to me and told me the baby wouldn't stop crying and she didn't know what to do. She said that the baby, who was only seven days old, was hungry -- but would only spend a few seconds on her breast, and then let go and continue to cry. She had been supplementing with formula, but said she had ran out. She thought she wasn't producing enough milk, and that the baby wasn't getting full from her breast. She said she didn't want to leave the restroom because everyone was staring at her and judging her, and that she didn't know what to do. Teary-eyed, she asked if I had formula -- but I didn't, because my son had always been breastfed.

As I listened, watching her and the baby cry, I remembered it all so well -- the chaos of those very first days and weeks with a newborn baby, how incredibly scary every moment of it was, how utterly petrified I was of messing it up, doing things wrong. The exhaustion, hormones, fear, confusion, incredible love and need to protect, all mixing up into a big storm of feelings and emotions that I didn't know how to handle and control. This mother was in the middle of that storm, right in its eye, and not only was she going through all those emotions and feelings, but she was also in a passport office. Out in public. In front of other people who stared and looked, passed by, maybe judged -- and my heart broke for her, because I could only imagine how scared she was, how tired, exhausted, and lost.

I didn't have formula, and I told her that. But I had something else. And so I offered the only thing I could, the only thing I had: My own milk. I hesitated for a few seconds, because I was scared to offend her -- but it just seemed like the only thing to do. So I asked: How would she feel if I tried to nurse her baby, just enough to calm her down, to take off the biggest edge of her hunger, and then we could think about the next step together.

She took me up on my offer in seconds, with no hesitation, no weirdness. I handed my son to her, and picked up this tiny baby from the changing table. As I offered my breast to her, she rooted and rubbed against it for a moment, and then latched and started nursing. I looked up to her mother, worried that she would feel offended by her baby nursing from another woman's breast -- but all I saw was relief as she saw her baby calming down. The baby wasn't crying anymore, and neither was the mother. She held my baby as I nursed hers, and though I had feared that it would be weird, odd, or crossing a line of some sort -- it didn't feel like that at all. It felt like exactly the right thing to do.

I nursed the baby for a few minutes, and she dozed off. The mother told me her husband was waiting outside but had to head to the airport. The whole family was supposed to travel back to their home country, Egypt, on that day, but the mother and baby would have to stay behind for a few extra days because some of the paperwork was taking longer. I was worried about how the father would feel about a total stranger having just breastfed their infant baby -- but he greeted me with a warm smile, took my hands in his and thanked me with sincere gratitude for helping his wife and their daughter. He asked what my son's name was, and told me that according to the Muslim faith, our children were now milk siblings, brother and sister.

The father headed to the airport and I walked out with the mother, our babies in tow, to find formula. Then we sat on a bench and started talking about pregnancy, labor and motherhood. She told me how she felt guilty for not being able to breastfeed, and I tried to reassure her that given the stress she is under, it was no wonder nursing wasn't a breeze to her. I encouraged her to be gentle to herself and to not stress about nursing right now, but just concentrate on getting herself and the baby back home safely. Once life got back to normal and she had family by her side, she could always focus more on nursing again. We talked about how our own expectations and those of others can sometimes feel so hard, even impossible, to meet, and how we fear criticism and judgment from others -- but probably are our own worst critics. We talked about where we come from -- Finland, Egypt, United States -- and she told me about the challenges her society is facing, and how she wanted to give her daughter a better and safer life with more choices and opportunities. Before we parted ways, we exchanged numbers and have continued to keep in touch. Social media makes it easier to keep in contact with newfound friends -- and siblings -- across the world.

I've thought about our encounter and what I did since it happened. I've pondered over whether what I did was right, whether there was something odd or weird about it and whether I shouldn't have even offered -- but the more I think about it, the more strongly I feel that I would do it all again, exactly the same way. What happened between us was about helping a fellow mother, a fellow human being. It was about extending a hand when someone needed it; about seeing another mother as I would see myself, vulnerable and scared, tired and lost, exhausted and helpless. It was about choosing to see similarities before seeing differences -- about doing what I thought to be the best, and only way, to help the mother and her baby in a chaotic, confusing and scary situation. There are endless articles and blogs about the mommy wars, about mothers pitted against each other over a million different things -- but I believe there is more that unites us than there are things that divide us. At one point or another, we are all lost and scared -- we all fear failing our babies, not being good enough mothers, not making the right choices. We fear judgment and criticism, and at times feel utterly alone and lost -- but we don't have to be alone, we don't have to figure it all out on our own.

When we parted ways, my new Egyptian friend told me it was fate that brought us together. She said that our children would always be connected, and that she would never forget what I did for her. I will never forget our encounter either. Breastfeeding can do wonders, but even more powerful is our ability to help and support each other and lend a hand -- or a breast -- to a fellow mother, a fellow human, in need, even when they are total strangers to us. Maybe by learning to see our similarities before seeing our differences, we can all feel less alone in motherhood. Around the world, across borders and religions, despite ethnicity and race, mothers strive to achieve the same thing: a safe, healthy and happy life for their babies. If that isn't something we can unite over, I don't know what is. So when you meet a fellow mother, even if she is a stranger, ask her how she is. If she needs help, extend your hand. It doesn't always take grand gestures to change this world into a better place. Sometimes, all that is needed is just a little bit of kindness.

Editor's note: On the sharing of breast milk, the CDC notes: "HIV and other serious infectious diseases can be transmitted through breast milk. However, the risk of infection from a single bottle of breast milk, even if the mother is HIV positive, is extremely small. For women who do not have HIV or other serious infectious diseases, there is little risk to the child who receives her breast milk."