Breastfeeding as a Communal Event

Leah Harms Photography-Tucker-2015-004

photo by Leah Harms Photography

I’m going to admit something here: last week I engaged on the internet with a man that simply couldn’t understand why mother’s “now-a-days” had to breastfeed in public. His claim was that breastfeeding is an intimate experience that should be shared between only the mother and the infant and that us mothers should be happy to keep this act secluded behind closed doors.

I’ve been sitting on some thoughts for a week, letting them roll around in my brain for a while. Then I received photos from a photo session I participated in with my sweet babe and the images cemented some of these thoughts into what I hope will be a coherent post. I hope to address this image as a breastfeeding mother and as a lactation professional.

When you look at this photo you see a mother and a child engaged in an intimate relationship. This is how I always frame breastfeeding for my clients. It’s a relationship between you and your infant. Like all relationships, you will work at it every single time, every single day until that relationship is comfortable and solid. But then you will have to maintain and put extra effort in sometimes to keep it afloat. I do agree that this act is very much an intimate act that we are happy {once we’re well established} to do with our babies behind closed doors.

What you may also see in this photo is that I am out of doors instead of behind them. I’m in a public park actually. In my years of studying breastfeeding and breastfeeding relationships there have been many “facts” about breastfeeding that I have come to question but one observation I have about this relationship resounds with me to the core of my being and it is this: breastfeeding was and is designed to be a communal event. Mothers, new mothers especially, were never meant to be isolated in their homes, secluded in their bedrooms and on their couches to try to figure this out alone. I am certain of this. Evidence of this in other cultures around the world abounds. In these first daunting, precious weeks of fresh motherhood we were meant to be surrounded by other women and other breastfeeding mothers. We were meant to have women there to show us how they feed their babies so we could learn by observation and partnership. We are simply trying to get back to the time before the wisdom of the womanly art of breastfeeding was uprooted and displaced.

Let me tell you what you don’t see in this photo:

-You don’t see my mother but I do. She cooked me meals and brought me food and took care of my home so I could stay in bed for days after this baby’s birth and form this relationship.

-You don’t see my husband as I did in the early mornings when he would bring me a snack and fresh water before heading into work so I could stay in bed longer and just focus on bonding with baby.

-You don’t see the community of women and people who brought us food and fed my family so that I could get this relationship off on the right foot.

-You don’t see my father who visited and gave my older daughter special attention so that, once again, I could work with this baby.

-You don’t see my midwives or my doula who came to me, in MY home, to check on how this relationship was progressing in the first weeks after birth. You don’t see my dear friend who came to visit the day after my birth to talk with me and touch base on how it was to be nursing again after all these years. You don’t see that same friend who was by confidant and comrade through my first go at nursing. We traveled the ups and downs of the learning curve together.

-Coming back to my older child, you don’t see her in this photo but she is there. Oh she is there in so many ways. This is the one that is tugging at my heart strings as I type this. You see, I have zero pictures of my nursing relationship with my older daughter. I nursed her well over a year and I have not a single image of this relationship that we worked at so much for many months. Because I thought it was something that needed to be hidden away. Well, she is there now in that photo. She taught me so much during my first experience being a breastfeeding woman.

-You don’t see the women from my breastfeeding support group that I attended weekly with my first baby. They are all there. Those lovely, honest, real women that shared their triumphs, tips, heartbreaks and help as I was doing all I could to hold on during those first 8 weeks when they told me it would all get better. And it did. Those women saved me and I never even knew some of their names. They let me see them breastfeeding their babies and they let me feed my baby in front of them all without judgement or shame! You don’t see the Lactation Consultant that gently guided and facilitated that support group but she is there. She never asserted herself as the expert. She never had all the answers. She let us be the experts of our babies and our bodies. She let us share our answers with one another so we could learn from the collective womanly wisdom.

-You don’t see my former co-workers that just happened to have babies within months of my first born and the impromptu breastfeeding support group we created on our lunch breaks with our babies. You don’t see our other co-workers that left us use of the lunchroom so we could have privacy together. You don’t see the business owners that were progressive enough to let us bring our babies to work with us so we could maintain our breastfeeding relationships AND maintain our careers.

-You don’t see my friends that observed me breastfeeding with my first child but they are there. Many of them told me it was the first time they had ever actually seen a woman breastfeed her baby. I have carried that with me these years in hopes that it will help them once they come to this life passage.

-You don’t see the women who came to my house for a breastfeeding support group with their babies in my first weeks of my second baby’s life. They brought their babies and we talked about so much life. They helped the chaos all seem normal. You don’t see the online hours we spent reassuring each other that we were doing a good job.

You don’t see all these people in that photo BUT I DO. I had a community of support that helped make this breastfeeding journey successful. And I know that for me this has made all the difference. I see this community lacking in the eyes of so many new mothers. And the sad part is that the community is out there, they just haven’t been given permission yet to go out and find it.  And I want to say that I’m proud to be a part of that community as both a breastfeeding mother and a lactation professional.

Let me repeat: breastfeeding as a human was designed to be a communal event. You are not meant to be alone in this. When I hear statements shaming women for feeding their babies in public I can’t help but think about how much we still have to re-learn about breastfeeding as a society.

I’m convinced that once we bring community back into breastfeeding then we will see a rise in success rates of satisfying and fulfilling breastfeeding relationships. My goal with breastfeeding is to bring the community back into breastfeeding in two ways: firstly, bring the community into the mother’s home to her breastfeeding relationship when new motherhood is still too fresh to be a part of the larger world and secondly, bring the mother’s breastfeeding relationship out into the larger world once she is ready to be a part of the community.  This concept is so simple.

As a lactation counselor, I can be part of that community that meets you where you’re at on your couch or in your bedroom as your relationship is just beginning. I can be a voice that reminds you that you are doing a good job with this very steep learning curve. I can be an empathetic ear to your thoughts and troubles. I can bring my “tool bag”. I can be a resource. I can help you find this community and I can help you give yourself permission to go out and be a part of it.

And as a breastfeeding mother I will be here to welcome you once you’re ready to emerge out of doors, into the world at large with your relationship and be part of this community of women supporting other women.

 I’ll save you some space on this blanket, here in this park and we’ll nurse our littles together and be part of the Bigger Picture together.

*as a Certified Lactation Counselor I can provide prenatal and postpartum breastfeeding support on an individual basis or in combination with my birth doula services. Please contact me if you would like support and community during your breastfeeding and birthing relationships.*