I began the amazing journey of helping mothers breastfeed five summers ago, the day after my mother’s birthday.
But the journey began 26 years before that, the year my sister was born.
My father had moved to California. We didn’t know when (or if ) he was coming back. And there was a new baby in the house. At five years old, I took it upon myself to care for my mother so she could care for my sister.
I brought her diapers, burp cloths, held my sister while she took a shower, rubbed my mother’s feet at the end of her long days. I liked to watch her nurse my sister. It was the most beautiful thing. While she nursed, I’d bring my mother a snack, a cup of tea. My family life was turbulent, but it seemed like we all took a breath and inhaled a sweet stillness in the moments when my sister nursed.
But the journey really began seven-and-a-half years ago, when my first son was born. After a joyous homebirth, my son couldn’t figure out how to latch on to the breast.
My idyllic image of breastfeeding was torn in half. I wanted so deeply to nurse my child. Since I was a child, breastfeeding equaled serenity, security, the ultimate love.
For the days that my son had trouble latching, I felt like I had entered a dark abyss. It was different than failure. My identity was at stake. I felt that if I couldn’t nurse my baby, I couldn’t really be a mother.
My birthing team — my two midwives and doulas — were my rock. There were daily phone calls, visits to my home, instructions on how to express my milk, how to feed the baby until the latching got worked out.
It wasn’t just the instruction that saved me, but the constant, daily (and often more than once a day) support they gave me. They believed that breastfeeding was not only normal, but truly that important. I felt that they would have done anything to help me get it right.
But the journey began most of all nine months after that when I attended my first La Leche League meeting. (Yes, it took me 9 months to get to my first meeting!). I had been successfully nursing my baby for months by then, but to be in a room with a group of moms nursing their babies — laughing, crying, sighing — it was so moving to me. Just by being there nursing our babies in concert (yes, the babies often got hungry one after the other, in glorious succession), telling our stories, airing out grievances — all of it helped us make it another month, then another, and another.
The journey began most officially in June of 2009, when I became accredited as a La Leche League leader and took my first helping call soon after. I remember it well. My heart was beating fast as I picked up the phone. Would I be able to help her?
She was a new mom. She wasn’t sure if her baby was getting enough milk. First we talked about her baby, a little girl. We talked about her baby’s cute, tiny toes, how her head smelled. Soon we were talking about how often she was nursing, how many wet and poopy diapers the baby had, etc. A few days later, I called to see how she was. She’d been to the doctor and the baby had gained weight, so all was well (though of course there were still a million questions after this).
Now, at any given time there are usually 3-4 moms on my mind. Moms I’ve spoken to on the phone, moms I’ve met at meetings, moms I’ve seen in my private practice as an IBCLC.
Some of these moms’ problems will be solved in another phone call or two. Others are more complex, and can’t be solved in a few days like mine were, or that first mom I helped as a La Leche League leader. These are usually the moms I see as an IBCLC. These are the moms who are having trouble making enough milk, or whose babies are having trouble getting it. These are the mothers who are experiencing toe-curling pain. These are the mothers who might give up.
Usually I know what’s causing these problems. Sometimes the solutions are quick, others take more time. Sometimes it’s a matter of a mother accepting what she needs to do to make it work. Sometimes she needs to accept that breastfeeding her child isn’t going to look like what she imagined it to be. Sometimes the mother is doing everything she can and taking all my suggestions, but things still aren’t working, or progress is happening so slowly it’s hard to see.
I think about these moms while I’m
washing dishes, building a sand castle with my son, driving to the grocery store. Should I call her to see how she is? Should I give her some space? Have I given her all the information I can? Have I missed something? Did she hear me? Am I thinking outside the box enough, too much? Have I met her where she’s at? Is there another way?
At first, the hardest cases kept me up all hours of the night, just like a newborn baby. But I have learned not to let these moms keep me up. Most of the time. The hardest and saddest cases do still wake me though.
I still feel so close to the core of breastfeeding. I have been fortunate enough to have successfully nursed two children (one still going strong), but I know — though very rare — it doesn’t work out for all mothers. When I work with a mother whose baby never latches (there have been just a few), I ache for her. I remember. I remember what my childhood image of breastfeeding was, and how I felt when I watched it shatter.
I feel honored and privileged to be part of these women’s lives, at this momentous time. I understand that for these mothers more is at stake than just feeding their babies healthfully. Their identity as a mother — as a woman — is at stake. Their body image is at stake. Their childhood fears and dreams are at stake. Breastfeeding goes right for the gut, the psyche.
There are mothers on my mind, always mothers on my mind. I want them to know they can do it. I want them to know somebody is out there caring just when they think no one does. I want them to know they are not crazy for wanting breastfeeding to work out this badly. I want them to know there are a multitude of ways to make breastfeeding work. I want them to be patient and give it time. I want them to learn to ignore all the naysayers out there, all the people who tell them it would just be easier to give up. I want them to learn to trust their bodies, their babies, themselves. I want them to know and learn all these things, and so much more.
Not a day goes by that I don’t have an email or text to answer, a mother to visit, a meeting to plan. I do my best to help the mothers. I hope I do enough. I am humbled and inspired by the work I do. I am constantly learning more. I am thrilled to work alongside other breastfeeding helpers who are changing the world, one mom and baby at a time.