Alaska News

'A stronger love': Anchorage teenager gives breast milk to the baby she gave up for adoption

In November, an Anchorage teenager gave birth to a baby girl she knew she couldn't raise.

Adoption, she decided, was the best choice.

That part of Kaleena Pysher's story is not unfamiliar.

But the 19-year-old did something that sets her apart: For the last two months, Pysher has fought through pain in her body and heart to pump breast milk for the baby she gave to an adoptive family.

She says she did it for the same reason she chose adoption: "I want her to have the best."

Pysher was 18 when she became pregnant.

The news, delivered by a doctor at a routine appointment, was so startling it took two additional pregnancy tests at home before she believed it.


Suddenly, "she had to make some very adult decisions," said her stepmother, Kirsten Ballard.

She was living with her father and stepmother in West Anchorage, in a bedroom with Kesha and Dr. Who posters on the wall. High school graduation was months away.

Her plan had been to study at UAA to become a dental hygienist. She'd gotten a scholarship.

Pysher knew she would give the baby up for adoption.

She didn't want to rely on her parents to raise the baby, or to go on welfare. At 19, she felt she lacked the life experience to raise a child.

"Your whole life has to be put on hold because your whole life is dedicated to that life," she said.

She had seen the struggle of teenage motherhood firsthand. Her sister had given birth at age 14.

Now it fell to Pysher to find a couple she could trust with her child.

An adoption agency told her she needed to wait until she was seven months along to start interviewing prospective parents. A few months didn't seem like enough time to make a decision like that.

She heard that a family friend, a woman who used to babysit her, wanted to adopt with her partner. She lived Outside.

"I would trust her with my life," Pysher said. "I would trust her with my baby. She will get quality love, parental guidance and a good education. She wouldn't be able to get that with me."

They arranged an open adoption that would allow Pysher to play a role in the baby's life.

Pregnancy was, for the most part, a pleasure. She sang to the baby in the car and read to her growing belly at night. With wonder, she felt the baby kick.

"I bonded with her," she said.

A visiting nurse from the Southcentral Foundation's Nutaqsiivik Nurse-Family Partnership program talked to her about breastfeeding and the antibodies and brain growth it could offer her daughter.

Pysher decided to do it.

The adoptive parents bought her a breast pump and offered to pay for her to ship frozen milk from Alaska.


Nine days before her due date at the end of November, Pysher gave birth to a healthy baby.

"As soon as she came out, they plopped her on my chest," Pysher said. "She was crying. I was just so happy."

For the first 48 hours, Pysher held her. She chose the baby's middle name, Brooke.

When the adoptive parents arrived in Alaska, Pysher placed the newborn into their arms.

She didn't hold her again.

"I wanted my daughter to bond with them," she said. "They are going to be raising her."

She was also trying to protect herself from heartache.

"So it wouldn't be life-shattering when they left the state," she said.


The baby's appetite was ferocious. Pysher started pumping breast milk every two hours, sealing it in plastic bags.

After two weeks, the couple flew home with the baby.

Pysher did not take the opportunity to start going out and doing 19-year-old things.

She stayed attached to her breast pump and her supply was enormous. At one point she was pumping six ounces of milk from each breast every two hours.

The rhythmic kachook-kachook sound of the pump became the backdrop of her life. She filled bleary midnight hours watching TV shows on Netflix.

All the while, Pysher was in pain.

Her nipples cracked, bled and scabbed over. She thought of nutrients and antibodies, of baby brain growth.

"I just sucked it up and kept going," she said.

She kept shipping the milk in boxes marked "Fresh Seafood -- Keep Refrigerated" to ensure it would stay frozen. One shipment was 80 pounds. The adoptive parents had to buy another chest freezer.

At the same time, she was feeling the baby's absence.

"I was not wanting to grieve for that loss," she said. "I basically swept all of my feelings under the rug."

When she's feeling low, Pysher reminds herself of the reasons she made the choice.


"I know in my heart and my mind this is the best thing," she said.

She sees a therapist once a week. It helps.

After the six weeks ended, Pysher's supply was still strong.

She amassed so much milk, sharing space in her parents' freezer with the summer's catch of salmon, she decided to donate the excess to a milk bank in Colorado, which will in turn screen it and then feed it to premature babies in a neonatal intensive care unit.

No such formal breast milk bank exists in Alaska but one is in the works.

Now, Pysher is down to pumping twice a day. Letting go of the role has been difficult.


"As long as I'm still giving them breast milk, they still need me for something. (The baby) still needs me," she said. "But now that I'm tapering off, I feel like they're not going to need me anymore."

Her deepest fear is that once the relinquishment papers are signed, the adoptive parents will drop contact with her. They reassure her that's not true.

There will be visits for birthdays. Video chats on the phone. They'll send her pictures. She'll send Christmas gifts.

It's all a lot for 19. But Pysher says she wouldn't trade the experience for anything.

"Now," she said, "I know there's a stronger love."

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.