Today is the last day of World Breastfeeding Week and I fully intended to create a link-full Tuesday Tidbits post about this yesterday. However, I was busy helping actual breastfeeding mothers at my monthly LLL meeting and then came home and worked on my handout and project preparations for our second annual MamaFest event this Saturday. I then had a faculty meeting while Mark took Lann to tae kwon do and went grocery shopping with the other kids and by the time I had a few minutes to spare again, it was 11:00 at night and I figured I might as well forgo Tuesday Tidbitting and just watch Teen Wolf instead! 😉 For MamaFest, I’ve been getting together handouts, a trivia game, and pins for prizes for my La Leche League booth, birth art supplies and display items and birth education handouts for the Rolla Birth Network/Talk Birth/birth art booth, and miscarriage/stillbirth handouts for the Rainbow Group loss support table. I’ve toyed with various projects for my birth art booth and finally came up with something that feels perfect—birth or motherhood affirmation/blessing cards!
For ideas for affirmations for them, I’m bringing along several books, including:
World Breastfeeding Week often seems like an occasion during which the media perceives non-breastfeeding mothers as being “discriminated” against somehow, and some women seem to take the occasion personally—like its very existence is a personal criticism. This article about the “I Support You” initiative is good in theory, but I sense in it the suggestion that WBW is specifically trying to make non-breastfeeding mothers “feel bad” and I did not appreciate the loads and loads of comments on the article that reference “La Leche Nazis”—particularly because said “Nazis” apparently visit mothers in the hospital to critique their mothering and I seriously doubt that any of the experiences shared in the comments were actually with LLL Leaders (who I have never been known to go to a hospital room uninvited and try to make mothers breastfeed. That isn’t part of our job at all. The commenters were probably dealing with whichever nurse is assigned to lactation, trained or otherwise).
I plan for my message to say: “To all those mothers who’ve learned the difference between the mother you think you will be and the one you actually are — I Support You.”
A related article that also has some great insights and thoughtful content (but for which, again, I feel breastfeeding advocacy is misconstrued):
Three billion things can go wrong when you breastfeed. But even with a bad latch, tongue tie, thrush, a clogged duct, and a crazy oversupply, I still think that nursing this little boy is the most amazing magic that I’ve ever felt in my life. I am the only thing that is keeping my child alive right now. You’re damn right that’s a superpower. When my breasts are engorged and I’m in pain, or when I swoop in to a room and soothe my screaming baby with my body, I want to shout it from the rafters, just like all of you did. This time, my breasts make milk. That is my superpower. And yet I have seen that breastfeeding moms get tested too: the nasty stares, the mean comments, the endless questioning that makes you doubt yourself: “Are you sure he’s getting enough? He’d sleep longer if he took a bottle. He’ll never be independent if he’s attached to you all the time.” The Mommy Wars have fueled the embers of fear and failure on both ends of the feeding spectrum. The simple act of feeding your child now comes with having to defend your choices.
The underlying message of these articles, however, as well as that of World Breastfeeding Week itself, is really about the value of community support for mothers. The whole “village” and “tribe” concept. When I hear mothers describing attempts to breastfeed, I hear mothers with broken hearts as well as many stories involving broken circles of support:
I am a systems thinker and always hold in mind that breastfeeding, like all aspects of women’s lives, occurs in a context, a context that involves a variety of “circles of support” or lack thereof. Women don’t “fail” at breastfeeding because of personal flaws, society fails breastfeeding women and their babies every day through things like minimal maternity leave, no pumping rooms in workplaces, formula advertising and “gifts” in hospitals, formula company sponsorship of research and materials for doctors, the sexualization of breasts and objectification of women’s bodies, and so on and so forth. According to Milk, Money, and Madness (1995), “…infant formula sales comprise up to 50% of the total profits of Abbott Labs, an enormous pharmaceutical concern.” (p. 164) And the US government is the largest buyer of formula, paying for approximately 50% of all formula sold in the nation…
Giving Birth with Confidence also wrote about the role of the breastfeeding village:
You’ve probably heard “it takes a village” when it comes to parenting and raising children. And it’s true — surrounding yourself with supportive family, friends, and professional and online resources goes a long way in making your parenting experience a better one. But what about a “village” for breastfeeding? Breastfeeding can be (and often is) a wonderful experience. It also can be trying, challenging, and hard work. Creating access to a network of people and resources who support breastfeeding will help you in times of need, provide a sounding board for your thoughts, and celebrate with your triumphs.
And, so did Brain, Child magazine:
For breastfeeding advocates, then, your best shot at influencing other mothers to breastfeed is when you’re nursing yourself—and talking it up to your pals, especially if you’re central in your network, which gives you what social scientists call high “transitivity.” And, it stands to reason, that even if you’re not a breastfeeding advocate—even if you don’t even know what colostrum is—you can still be affected by the changing norms. Once your friends breastfeed in front of you, chances are excellent that witnessing a two-year-old lift up her mother’s shirt to nurse at a park just isn’t worthy of a second thought, much less a flinch. Like in the obesity study where friends of friends were shown to convey habits, you’ve become “tolerant.”
Reading these articles made me think of the classic article by Teresa Pitman, originally in Mothering magazine (I think). I think this article is responsible for the introduction of the word “tribe” into the natural mothering lexicon as it is currently used (but, maybe it was The Continuum Concept, which is what Pitman references in her article. I know for me, it was Pitman’s article that first introduced me to the notion of a “tribe” and the fact that I needed one!). I was excited to hear her speak on the subject in person at the La Leche League International conference in Chicago in 2007.
I realized that we had formed our own, very small tribe. Spending our days together satisfied our need for adult companionship without separation from our babies, and working together made all the chores — even cleaning disgusting stuff out of the bottom of the fridge — more fun.
Eventually our husbands both found work in other communities, and our daily time together came to an end. But I had seen how important this kind of relationship is for me, and I deliberately tried to recreate it with other friends.
Not long after Vicki and her family moved, I was at a church picnic when I saw Lorna for the first time. She and her family had just arrived in our community. Something about the way she held her baby was familiar to me, and I went up and introduced myself.
She, too, was looking for a tribe, as she had recently moved away from her family. Soon my new friend Lorna and I got together every Thursday to bake bread (and sometimes other foods) for our families for the week. She had a bigger house and roomier kitchen, so we generally went there. We split the cost of the ingredients, and as our children played together (by then, I had three children and Lorna had six), we kneaded and shaped the dough. While the bread was rising, we talked and tended to other tasks. I often brought a basket of things that needed mending, so we could work together while we were waiting.
We were there when she miscarried her seventh baby, and she tended to my older children while I was giving birth to my fourth. I still think of Thursday as baking day, even though Lorna now lives hundreds of miles away.
My children are almost grown, but I still work with parents. The theme of loneliness is as strong and prevalent as it was when I sat crying on my bed with my new baby, wondering how I’d cope with no one to talk to. Certainly the desire to overcome isolation is one of the reasons why women return to work; it’s a need easily understood by those of us who opt to stay home with our children.
We truly are social animals; we need to be with other people to feel good, whole, and happy. It’s worth the effort to create tribes, however small and imperfect they may be.
I was also reminded of my own past thoughts about surviving postpartum:
“In western society, the baby gets attention while the mother is given lectures. Pregnancy is considered an illness; once the ‘illness’ is over, interest in her wanes. Mothers in ‘civilized’ countries often have no or very little help with a new baby. Women tend to be home alone to fend for themselves and the children. They are typically isolated socially & expected to complete their usual chores…while being the sole person to care for the infant…” –Milk, Money, & Madness
And, I thought about the role that a tribe—or lack of one—plays in “lactation failure,” that may be falsely attributed to biology OR to evil “La Leche Nazis” assaulting unsuspecting women in hospital rooms with steaming piles of dogma doo.
I’ve remained firmly convinced for, like, ever, that it is culture that fails mothers and babies and not women’s bodies that fail. And, I truly wonder if it is ever possible (except for in cases of insufficient glandular tissue, metabolic disorders, breast surgery/removal, and clear physical malformations) to really tease apart whether a mother is actually experiencing lactation failure or sociocultural failure. I remain fairly convinced that in many cases it is impossible to know—but, that a mother (or physician) may certainly experience it as “lactation failure” and thus add that data point to the 1%. I have long maintained that a lot of people forget that breastfeeding occurs in a context and that context doesn’t necessarily support breastfeeding. However, I do also know from years of experience that motherbaby physiology can lead to problems too and we often overlook that in assertions about breastfeeding.
The idea of the “I Support You” campaign, with its “unbiased” subtext, also caused me to take another look at some past thoughts about “bias” and breastfeeding:
While I very much appreciate this observation and reminder, we also absolutely need to remember that biased means to exhibit “unfair prejudice”–it simply IS NOT “biased” to support breastfeeding as the biological norm and most appropriate food for babies. I was very concerned to read the comments on the post from other educators talking about their own “biases” toward physiologic birth or breastfeeding and how carefully they guard against exhibiting any such bias in their classes. Hold on! Remember that the burden of proof rests on those who promote an intervention—birth educators and breastfeeding educators should not be in a position of having to “prove” or “justify” the biological norm of unmedicated births or breastfed babies. I hate to see birth instructors being cautioned to avoid being “biased” in teaching about breastfeeding or birth, because in avoiding the appearance of bias they’d be lying to mothers. You can’t “balance” two things that are NOT equal and it is irresponsible to try out of a misplaced intention not to appeared biased. So, while I appreciate some of this educator’s points, I do think she’s off the mark in her fear/guilt and her acceptance of the word “bias.” The very fact that making a statement that someone has a bias toward breastfeeding can be accepted as a reasonable critique is indicative of how very deeply the problem goes and how systemic of an issue it is. If I say that drinking plenty of water is a good idea and is healthier for your body than drinking other liquids, no one ever accuses me of having a “bias towards water.” Breastfeeding should be no different. But, as we all know, breastfeeding occurs in a social, cultural, political, and economic context, one that all too often does not value, support, or understand the process…
And, along these same lines, I saw a great quote from one of my midwife Facebook friends:
“Being an advocate for breastfeeding as the biological norm, healthiest and safest mode of feeding for most mothers and children is just that. It is meant to inform, enthuse, support, save lives, normalize the act. It is not meant as a slight or condemnation of non-breastfeeding mothers. Individually women breastfeed or not for a whole host of reasons. That is reality. That fact is respected and in no way is judgmental. Acknowledging the individual diversity does not change what breastfeeding is and why we need to continue to advocate for it around the world.” Desirre Andrews, CPM, RM
Speaking of my smart Facebook friends, I enjoyed reading a personal post from an IBCLC friend about why she didn’t celebrate WBW this month:
I think I’ve closed the “breastfeeding mother” chapter of my life, content instead to serve other breastfeeding mothers the best I know how. This is a big shift for me, since I’ve never approached breastfeeding support other than from the perspective of a mother who is also “walking the walk.” Am I “over” breastfeeding? The truth is, today, I’m ambivalent about it. My celebration of World Breastfeeding Week will always be welcome—I will never not be a supporter or an advocate, but a decade is a long time to do something, to do anything. A decade is a long time to be a breastfeeding mother; to not be one anymore, without ceremony or the closure that a more formal ending might offer, leaves me a bit unsettled.
Reading this made me reflect on my own breastfeeding journey and the toddler point at which I am with my own (likely) final nursling. I’ve wondered a lot if and when this chapter of my life will close in terms of working with other breastfeeding mothers. It is still very much my current reality, so it is hard to assess. What I do know is that when I go to LLL conferences and I see women who have been Leaders for 30 years, I think…that is my future. And, I leave with the distinct impression that I’m a lifer. However, a couple of years ago I might have said the same about birth work and now when I see pictures from my pregnancies, read some of my own writing, or look at some of the childbirth education supplies I’ve amassed over the years it all feels very far away now.
But, returning to the idea of support and tribes and breastfeeding women and I Support You to mothers of all kinds in their mothering journeys (which I DO absolutely believe in!), I also thought again of this:
This month as I sat in the circle at our mother-to-mother breastfeeding support group meeting, I looked around at all the beautiful mothers in that room. I reflected on each of their journeys and how much each one has been through in her life, to come to this time and this place, and tears filled my eyes. They are all so amazing. And, my simple, fervent prayer for them in that moment was that they could know that. Know that on a deep, incontrovertible level. I tried to tell them then, in that moment. How much they mean to me, how incredible they are, how I see them. How I hope they will celebrate their own capacities and marvel at their own skills. How I see their countless, beautiful, unrecognized, invisible motherful actions. How when I see them struggling in the door with toddlers and diaper bags and organic produce that they’re sharing with each other, I see heroines. They may look and feel “mundane” from the outside, but from where I’m sitting, they shine with a power and potency that takes my breath away. Moderating toddler disputes over swordplay, wiping noses, changing diapers, soothing tears, murmuring words, moving baby from breast to shoulder to floor and back to breast without even seeming consciously aware of how gorgeously they are both parenting and personing in that very moment, speaking their truths, offering what they have to give, reaching out to one another, and nursing, nursing, nursing. Giving their bodies over to their babies again and again in a tender, invisible majesty. In this room is a symphony of sustenance. An embodied maternal dance of being.
Last year’s World Breastfeeding Week Post Round Up | Talk Birth.