This is about confluence–where different streams of my life all flowed together in one special day–today. To start with, it is my birthday. And, twenty-five years ago today, my first child, Morgan, was born and I had my first experience of nursing a baby. Giving birth on my birthday was pretty special, and a big enough confluence in itself, one which was only considered at about 7 pm the evening before, after returning home from seeing the movie, “A Fish Called Wanda” and realizing I was in labor.
But there is more. Today is also part of World Breastfeeding Week which is celebrated during the first week of August. As a nutritionist concerned with the feeding of the species and maternal and child health issues, I do like to honor the week and spend time advocating and educating about breastfeeding in my work. I like that my birthday and nursing day coincide with this annual event. 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 I am continuing to address it as I have done in my previous writings.
Also today, Pete and I are in Seneca Falls, New York for Empire Farm Days, the largest agricultural trade show in the Northeast. This show has also taken place during these same dog days of summer for the past eighty years. It is a nice birthday gift to be in the midst of these many farmers whose business it is to grow and raise amazing foodstuff for the masses and for me to have a chance to more fully appreciate their concerns. Food off the farm has a very abstract quality, quite remote from its actual origins. But, being at this show, one can see that farming matters such as soil health, pest management, plant hardiness, marketing and the raising of animals are quite real.
As today unfolded, it was no surprise to find my alma mater, Cornell University, with a large presence here. Both Cornell and Seneca Falls sit 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 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.
The Cornell exhibit was displaying a video called Birth on the Farm. Starting with birds, it shows bluebird babies hatching from their eggs, barn swallows being fed by their parents, and then it moves on to mammals. 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 find their way to the nipple or utter and begin to feed.
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. Human babies, like their mammalian cohort, will find their way to the breast as well, when placed on their mama’s tummies. I just finished a research project on breastfeeding, scratching 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 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 put those questions aside in order to make sure I had time to head over to the nearby Women’s Rights National Park and Museum and Women’s Hall of Fame. This was the icing on my birthday cake. The exhibits are awe-inspiring and provide a really deep appreciation of how arduous the fight for women’s rights has been. Immersed in this incredible history, I picked up my previous thoughts again and mused over the sometimes expressed contention that breastfeeding further chains women to their domestic duties and inhibits their participation in the workplace and in the larger society where they may wish or need to be. Walking in the footsteps of these courageous women 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, Norway, the country with the highest breastfeeding rates in the world, also leads in regard to the number of women in parliamentary positions. And 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. A nice end to a very special day. As we sat at the restaurant overlooking the water where the Cayuga-Seneca Canal flows into Seneca Lake, I thought about how my day all flowed together–birthday, college, nutritional work, food and farming, women’s rights, birth, and breastfeeding. 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? I hope someday.
Please, let me know what you think and do send greetings! Happy Birthday, Morgan. Love, Mom.
In health, Elyn
My Plate Haiku
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied, but one to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them to such a course. by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, et. al.