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Would You Want to Be a Wet Nurse? (Would You Hire Someone Else To?)

Tara Sgroi

It turns out midwives aren’t the only trendy new hires for well-to-do urban moms; as The Stir’s Ericka Sóuter discovered, upon exploring the subject after seeing an episode of Pregnant In Heels in which a wealthy expectant mom requests a wet nurse, this is not an uncommon request in certain demographics. In fact, LA’s Certified Household Staffing agency, along with equipping the rich with personal chefs and chauffeurs, boasts a wet nurse registry a thousand (lactating) women strong (they charge a weekly rate of $1,000). For those who prefer to cut out the middle man, Milk Share – a listserv known for connecting moms seeking, and donating, breast milk – has started to turn up Wet Nurse offers. [For those not completely clear on the distinction between breast milk donation (something many readers felt squeamish about when I wrote about feeding another woman’s milk to my own son, two years ago) and what we're talking about here, a Wet Nurse is someone who actually feeds her milk to another woman’s baby via the breast, instead of pumping for the other parents to bottle-feed their child.]

While Sóuter’s response to the wet nurse resurgence is, in a word (her word), “Yuck,” -- she thinks the above distinction is a significant one -- mine was “Only $1,000 a week?” I mean, breastfeeding is hard work! I’d think you could charge more. Other than that, though, this thing doesn’t strike me as particularly strange; while breastfeeding can be quite challenging for some moms, others have an easy time of it, and produce plenty (plus more) of milk. Hence the demand and supply for milk share services, respectively, whether through friends, milk banks or resources like Milk Share. Many women also really love to breastfeed; they find deep joy and satisfaction in the act itself. Hence the supply of wet nurses; like women who generously serve as surrogate moms because they Love-with-a-capital-L being pregnant (I am the product of a surrogate arrangement, actually, and one of my good friends loved pregnancy so much that she’s seriously considering becoming a surrogate herself... and it'll probably fund a down payment on her young family's first house), these women have a passion for breastfeeding, and thus something to give moms who can’t, or won’t, but who want their babies to get breast milk during their early months nonetheless.

I loved being pregnant, but I wouldn’t want to be a surrogate. (Nine months and no baby? No thanks.) Yet, if I was great at breastfeeding, I don’t think it’d feel like a huge leap to nurse another woman’s baby... what with maternal instinct and all. Not that I’d pursue employment as a wet nurse, but it’s far from the most bizarre idea I’ve encountered. And although I wouldn’t hire someone to live with me for the exclusive purpose of nursing my baby, it’s the hiring-and-living-with-me part that weirds me out, rather than the actual nursing. I mean, if I had a close friend who could also nurse my baby in a pinch… Hey, why not? I’ve known mom-friends who’ve both had children around the same time and ‘traded’ in this way, out of convenience and caring. I’ve also known two-mom families in which both moms had babies within a year or so of each other, and thus overlapped in their breastfeeding; their kids could nurse from either parent, which was a logistical blessing, as well as a nice bonding mechanism for everyone involved. None of my ‘normal enough’ scenarios involve a stranger nursing my baby, and I guess it’s the bonding factor that stops me short (something Sóuter paused over, too), but in cases like this one, where an abandoned baby was saved by a woman who was willing to nurse her before medical authorities arrived, I don’t think “Yuck” at all.

What do you think? Does the idea of a wet nurse make you uncomfortable? (Beyond inherently not-okay historic examples, namely slavery). What about the idea of a woman breastfeeding a baby who isn’t her own? Does this gross you out, or do you, like me, think it’s pretty natural in a variety of circumstances?

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