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In praise of breast milk

Attached to my left hip and resting snuggly in his carrier, Taber spent the afternoon with me exploring downtown Philadelphia. At one point, we took refuge from the winter chill in a Catholic church. The golden tones of stained glass portraits added to the sweetness of carrying my little one throughout the day. We rested there. He nursed. I prayed for everyone to know such peace.

Attached to my left hip and resting snuggly in his carrier, Taber spent the afternoon with me exploring downtown Philadelphia. At one point, we took refuge from the winter chill in a Catholic church. The golden tones of stained glass portraits added to the sweetness of carrying my little one throughout the day. We rested there. He nursed. I prayed for everyone to know such peace. On the way back to the train, we stopped to watch a crew of skateboarders perform cement-defying tricks. The free spirited, longhaired boys made my tired little one laugh. We were both weary after a full day. I looked forward to going home, putting Taber down for a nap, and meditating.

While waiting on the platform for our train, a young woman approached us. Dark roots and poorly applied red dye marked her greasy hair. Her long fingernails were painted with fading rainbows of mismatched colors. She smiled at us. I focused my gaze on her eyes. They were friendly, sad, and sought connection. Taber snuggled in closer to me. I could have found a skillful way to ignore her, but I didn't. I looked at Taber. He trusted me with every cell of his tender goodness. My task was to navigate life's beautiful and treacherous waters with his well being foremost in my consciousness. I placed a reassuring hand on Taber's back, and I chose to connect to her.

I set aside my own agenda to daydream on the way home and focused on the life story unfolding in front of me. At one point, the young woman described the drama leading up to her losing her job as a restaurant cook. Fired when a new owner took over, she lamented her unemployed status. "It's been really hard," she said. Currently, she could afford to eat only one meal a day. I offered her a banana from my backpack and continued to listen.

Taber nursed and this prompted her to ask questions about breastfeeding. "Does it hurt?" she asked. "How long should you breastfeed? Do you ever run out of milk?" The train moved along. To answer her questions, I drew on my own experience and the wisdom of Dr. William Sears, who is known for his remarkable contributions to the field of Attachment Parenting. Sears encourages breastfeeding mothers to trust the inherent wisdom in their little ones. Nursing on demand honors the evolutionary dance that links mother to child. Both benefit tremendously through this attachment. The young woman listened, smiled broadly, and said, "I think it's really special." Then she talked about her mother's life-long neglect. "She said I wouldn't breastfeed," she shrugged.

I saw how the young woman's struggle extended all the way back to her earliest days of experiencing a trying attachment to her mother. How I wish a skilled lactation consultant had been available to guide her mother though those often challenging first few weeks of breastfeeding. I remember crying as I curled my toes in pain every time Taber latched as a newborn. "Don't give up Amy," my husband Clark said, "one day soon nursing will be something you treasure." When my nipples started bleeding, we immediately set up a meeting with a lactation consultant. I remain forever grateful for this woman. Reaching out for informed breastfeeding support truly made all of the difference in the world for me. Within three days of our meeting, the pain was gone.

I understand that a small percentage of biological mothers truly cannot breastfeed. This is often due to contraindications with prescription medicine or a result of breast augmentation surgery. Also, a small percentage of babies struggle to learn how to latch properly, often due to being tongue-tied. Perhaps that was the case for this young woman. I tried not to judge. However, I do seek to change and challenge our culture's ambivalence towards breastfeeding. Plenty of well-documented medical studies note the plethora of health problems that trace back to the use of artificial milk, the chemical concoctions of infant formula. Human breast milk perfectly evolved. It is in our best interest to respect the milk that no formula can imitate. Newborn babies seek out breastfeeding and while the mother and child must learn how to nurse together, the instinct to latch is innate.

She continued to share her story. Barely making it financially, the young woman relied on unemployment checks while looking for prospective jobs on her cell phone. "They all want online applications," she lamented. "I can't afford internet connection in my apartment right now." I suggested seeking support and free Internet access at the local library. "I hadn't thought of that," she said. She finished the banana and got off at the next stop. From my seat, I watched her walk off the platform into the sprawl of neglected, blown out buildings and faded graffiti. I wished her well.

I continued to think about the young woman and the stories she shared. Her many questions inspired deep musings on my own understanding of breastfeeding at this point in my journey as a mother.

For the first time in human history, the female breast is nearly completely separated from its primary mammalian function. Rather than supporting the healthy development of our limbic lives, breasts are pornographically used to market a multitude of products. Why is the breast's primary lactating function deemed strangely controversial today?

Despite the efforts of breastfeeding advocates, consider that mainstream news publications and talk shows feature mothers who nurse toddlers as cultural oddities. The American Academy of Family Physicians warns, "If the child is younger than two years of age, the child is at increased risk of illness if weaned." Yet, only a fraction of Western babies receive the life-sustaining gift of breast milk during their first year of life.  In New Jersey alone, less than a third of babies are exclusively breastfed past their third month. This stands in stark contrast to tens of thousands of years of human evolution where children weaned at some point during their toddler years. Our own society's rupture from the wisdom of ancient ways is the true cultural oddity.

I applaud the efforts of public health advocates seeking to reconnect to the ancient wisdom of our female ancestors. Friends and family need to draw a fierce circle of protection and non-interference around the nursing mother-child dyad. "If nothing else, think optimal nutrition," my friend Jon said. A former Marine and a self-declared warrior for peace, he firmly supported his wife in nursing their sons during the toddler years.

If it were up to breastfeeding advocates, federal legislation mandating paid maternity leave would exist everywhere. For nothing pressures a new mother to give up nursing more than struggling to meet the financial needs of her family. While teaching in Colombia, my employer was obligated legally to give me three months of paid maternity leave. Yet, if I had been working in the US at the time, it would have been up to my employer to determine the status of my maternity leave. The US stands alone as the only developed country without legally mandated paid maternity leave. This directly connects to our woeful breastfeeding rates.

Even though my mother breastfed all seven of her children as babies, I inherited the bias of my culture and formed harsh judgments about women who breastfed their toddlers. I had no idea what I was talking about. Falling in love with my son, trusting the process of nature, and participating in the mother-child nursing relationship offered a humbling awakening. Reading Gabrielle Palmer's The Politics of Breastfeeding fully opened my once egotistical and judgmental eyes. From my conversations with other breastfeeding mothers, I know I am not the only one who has experienced this needed paradigm shift.

In particular, Palmer's connections between poverty and breastfeeding moved me. Over the last century, the purposefully deceptive marketing ploys of infant-formula makers have left tragedy in their destructive wake. For example, when promoting artificial milk in the developing world, companies dressed their representatives as medical professionals who claimed that their products were better than breast milk. Poverty stricken and largely uneducated mothers were persuaded to spend a large percentage of their household's monthly income on the artificial milk powder that was considered best. To prolong its use, they often diluted the powder further reducing any nutritional value. In addition, these mothers lived in areas with poor sanitation and unsafe drinking water. Palmer describes how hundreds of thousands of babies died. At times, I had to put the book down as angry tears washed through me.

Choosing to move beyond the painful disconnections of our culture, I do my best to support the breastfeeding mothers I meet. Our world must move beyond separating baby from mother, self from breath, and bodies from hearts. At night, Taber and I dive into dreamland together, as mothers and babies have throughout human history. His organic rhythms of rest and wakefulness mark my days. When he cries to communicate, he is heard. Clark and I respond with a surprisingly deep well of patience. Taber benefits from a hardy combination of the best of Clark and me, but his happiness directly correlates to the fact that his inborn biological need to nurse and be securely attached is lovingly fulfilled. People so often remark, "He's such a happy baby!" It's true. Taber exudes health and joy. It is not by accident.

While nursing, I read about human brain development. Again, quoting from A General Theory of Love, "The infant's brain is designed for ongoing attunement with the people predisposed to find him the most engaging of all subjects, the most breathtaking potent axis around which their hearts revolve." My heart spins with this love. I take refuge in the intelligence of nature and a growing movement of modern mothers who co-sleep, breastfeed on demand, and practice the kindness of child-led weaning. I join them in trusting the body and trusting the baby. For the health of our future, we must honor the evolutionary links that bind mother to child and child to mother. We ignore this wisdom at our peril.

"Birth, Breath, and Death—Meditations on Motherhood, Chaplaincy, and Life as a Doula," is available in print and on Kindle via Amazon.

Philosophy, religion and love infuse this thoughtful set of observations.

-Kirkus Reviews

Amy Wright Glenn's collection of essays is filled with wisdom that arises from her own life journey as an esteemed high school teacher, inner-city hospital chaplain, birth doula, yoga teacher, daughter, wife, mother, and thoughtful, intuitive human being.

- Sharon Salzberg, Author of Real Happiness and Lovingkindness

Filled with a wisdom that touches into the great mystery, "Birth, Breath, and Death" is a poetic and beautiful reading experience.

-Tara Brach, Ph.D. Author of Radical Acceptance and True Refuge