This is about confluence–where different streams of my life seem to flow together. One stream is that I began to nurse my young exactly 25 years ago today, on the day that my first child was born–on my birthday. That is one of the stories of my life–giving birth to my son on my birthday. That was pretty cool and only imagined at about 7 pm the evening before, after returning home from seeing the movie, “A Fish Called Wanda”.
Another stream is that it is World Breastfeeding Week. As a nutritionist concerned with the feeding of the species and maternal and child health issues, I think a lot about breastfeeding and spend time advocating and educating about it in my work. I like to honor the annually appointed World Breastfeeding Week that occurs during the first week in August– as does my birthday. This year, I am using some of the well-produced materials from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health’s It’s Only Natural campaign as part of my activities at the Health Center and am continuing to address it in my writings.
Today, my birthday and World Breastfeeding Week found my husband Pete and I in Seneca Falls, New York for Empire Farm Days, the largest, agricultural trade show in the Northeast– which for eighty summers has also taken place on this date. Given the role that food plays in both my personal and professional life, it was a gift to be in the midst of the farmers whose business it is to grow and raise the amazing stuff and to be mindful of their concerns. Food off the farm has a very abstract quality, quite remote from its actual origins. But, being at this event, one can see that farming matters such as soil health, pest management, plant hardiness, marketing and the raising of animals are quite real.
It was no surprise for me to find that my alma mater, Cornell University, had a large presence at Empire Farm Days. Both reside upon the shores of Cayuga Lake, and Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences plays a large role in the state’s agricultural initiatives. My nutrition studies took place inches from what is referred to as the Ag School. I walked miles through its vast acreage, bought college-made ice cream at its Dairy Barn, spent hours studying in its Mann Library, barely survived its microbiology course– and, it was where I met Pete. That, of course, contributed to the having of my above mentioned young.
But, then there was this stream too. At the Cornell exhibit, a video was playing called Birth on the Farm. It opened by showing bluebird babies hatching from their eggs, and barn swallows being fed by their parents, but then it moved quickly on to mammals. One after another I watched a sheep, a horse, a dog, and a cow give birth, each baby emerging with amniotic sac intact. Once licked clean by their mama–with a little help from the farmer–these newborns quickly found their way to the nipple or utter and began to feed. Human babies, like their mammalian cohort, will find their way to the breast as well, when placed on their mama’s tummies.
Witnessing the wildly innate behavior of the mother/infant nursing dyad in the animal world heightened my wonder about how that behavior has become so disrupted among humans. I just finished a big research project on breastfeeding. My research served to scratch my perpetual itch to understand the modern-day hindrances to feed our infants in the biologically prescribed way that has sustained humanity for millennia. How has something that a still unseeing and non-hearing puppy can figure out within minutes of birth become something that is culturally perceived as more difficult than rocket science and as contentious as climate change? How has the concept of species-specific milk become so foreign?
I do know a lot of the answers to these questions, and I do appreciate that there are various circumstances where alternative methods of feeding are necessary or that choice is to be respected. Even at the farming event, I met a thirteen-day-old baby goat, the runt of its litter, that required supported bottle feeding by its human mama–but, still, it was receiving goat’s milk. Nonetheless, clinical outcomes and scientific research have led all of the leading health organizations to strongly recommend that human babies in both the non-industrialized and industrialized world exclusively receive human milk for the first six months of life for maximum immunological protection and neurological development. However, after about seven decades of the promotion of artificial milk substitutes (formula), there is still a collective refrain that formula is as good as breast milk–and that breastfeeding is oft not worth the bother.
The truth is that there are significant health and economic costs associated with not breastfeeding. There are societal and environmental costs as well. It is just that the consequences are not as directly obvious as not wearing a helmet while riding a motorcycle; or as prevalent and publicized as the risks of cigarette smoking. Also, many of the challenges ascribed to breastfeeding, and some of the difficulties that individual women encounter, are really attributable to the lack of proper breastfeeding policies and supports on many levels.
Still, in the flow of the day’s happenings, I excitedly headed over by myself to the Women’s Rights National Park and Museum and Women’s Hall of Fame. This was the icing on my cake. The exhibits were awe-inspiring and gave me a really deep appreciation of how arduous the fight for women’s rights was–and is still. Immersed in this incredible history, I mused over the sometimes expressed contention that breastfeeding further chains women to their domestic duties and inhibits their participation in the workplace and in society where they may wish or need to be. Walking in the footsteps of these courageous women, I was bolstered by my feeling that this argument misses the point. It is not breastfeeding, but instead, the lack of mandated maternity leaves, workplace supports and other inequalities in this country that are prohibitive. The exhibits themselves provided some proof.
For example, I learned that Norway, the country with the highest breastfeeding rates in the world, also leads in regard to the number of women in parliamentary positions and that this year, Ina May Gaskin is being inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame. Ina May is the modern “mother of authentic midwifery”. Though midwives had assisted with childbirth since ancient times, their role had been essentially obliterated with the professionalization of male-dominated obstetrics in the early twentieth century. Her efforts sparked a revolutionary movement which not only opened the way for the re-emergence and popularization of midwifery-guided and women-empowered birth but also contributed to the re-establishment of some breastfeeding practice in this country. Interestingly, Ina May perfected her motherly arts at a commune community called The Farm, and her grandmother was an avid admirer of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the suffragettes.
At the end of the afternoon, Pete rejoined me and we went for dinner. As we sat at the restaurant overlooking the water where the Cayuga-Seneca Canal comes into Seneca Lake, I thought about how the streams of my day all flowed together– birthday, college, nutritional work, food and farming, women’s rights, birth, and breastfeeding. These are all pretty big themes in my life. Considering this confluence, I contemplated its meaning. Could it be, that if when enough babies are born welcomed and sustained by the mother’s touch, natural nipple, and warm nutritionally complete milk; when women’s capacity to nurture and nourish is deeply valued and protected; and, when our farmers are supported to grow healthy food and to protect the land–that the world may be a safer, healthier and softer place?
Please, let me know what you think and do send greetings!
In health, Elyn
My Plate Haiku
Thanks to our farmer
Blueberries kissed by the sun
So much to enjoy!