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Ambassador of breast milk

My life as a lactivist

By Karen Oakes

I had always planned to breastfeed my children. It just seemed like the most logical thing to do -- best for the kid, cheapest, most convenient, healthy for me, good for bonding, all that stuff. A no-brainer, as far as I was concerned. Now I'm no earth mother. I'm careful to separate my recyclables, and I sometimes buy organic produce when it's not too pricey, but I also love macaroni and cheese from a box (as does my kid), and I've been known to drive the four-tenths of a mile to the gas station to pick up a gallon of milk rather than hoof it, even on a nice day. In my honest assessment, I'd say I generally try to be responsible and set a good example, but, well, I don't always break a sweat.

So it came as something of a surprise to me when I realized that I had become a lactivist. I had stumbled across the term one day when I was pregnant and was amused by the creativity of whoever coined it, but it wasn't something I anticipated for myself. I'm not sure why, really. I'm a proud feminist (hell, I teach Women's Studies). And I'm an activist of sorts, primarily through my teaching. So there's nothing about the concept that's particularly foreign or off-putting to me. "Lactivist" just didn't sound like any version of myself that I could imagine.

And then Pregnant Me became Mommy Me, breasts heavy and dreadfully messy, spurting milk at the mere thought of anything baby-related, let alone the actual baby. I wasn't quite prepared for the sloppiness of the whole affair, nor for the magic/terror of it all (the amazement of "Wow, I have everything this child needs right here" and the panic-inducing realization of "This child needs what only my body can supply" and the accompanying hundred thousand "what ifs" -- what if I end up in a coma?! Will my husband hold that baby to me a dozen times a day so he can nurse?). But I was certainly not expecting the new role I was about to assume in the world beyond our little slightly sour-smelling, milk-soaked cocoon -- the Ambassador of Breast Milk.

It started almost right away. You see, I came from a family where breastfeeding was fairly normal. My mom had nursed my brother and me (her youngest two children) after bottle-feeding the first two. My older sisters both had kids -- one had breastfed, the other had not. I grew up in a neighborhood and church congregation and circle of friends where bottles were the exception. It was the late 70s, early 80s: breasts were cool. My husband's family, by contrast, had had very little exposure, so to speak. My mother-in-law worked full-time and then some when her kids were small; breastfeeding wasn't a viable option for her in an industrial setting with no bathroom breaks, let alone time to pump. In the very large extended family, very few women (I'm talking here about literally a handful among nearly 200 -- yeah, really, 200 -- relatives who are close enough to count) attempted it, and even fewer stuck with it. So when I, my baby, my swollen breasts, and my general lack of modesty arrived on the scene, it was, well, remarkable.

By that I mean, people remarked on it. A lot. A lot of people inquired curiously and observed shyly, a few congratulated, a small number recoiled, and a few, most notably my father-in-law, were captivated. And thus began my new job as ambassador. The term is quite precise -- charged with representing and explaining something heretofore largely unknown and mysterious and presenting it in a positive light to a skeptical audience. It was a weighty task for a nursing novice like myself, but I was blessed with good supply, an incredibly cooperative infant, and that above mentioned lack of modesty.

We live about fifteen miles from my in-laws, which in this neck of the woods is nothing -- you drive that far for a pound of ground chuck -- so they were around a lot during our early days home from the hospital. Grandkids are pretty central to these folks. They've rearranged their lives so that they can be at their grandkids' morning programs at school, and they gladly babysit on about nine seconds notice, so having them drop by daily was no surprise (and, because it often permitted me to take a shower or eat some lunch, no imposition). My father-in-law was, from the start, fascinated by breastfeeding, simply amazed at the whole process. In his fifties, the second of thirteen kids, father of four, grandfather of three others, he had never seen it up close and personal. One day when Avery was a few weeks old, my father-in-law showed up alone; in the neighborhood, he said. And he asked if he could watch me nurse, if it wouldn't make me too uncomfortable. I agreed, and he sat transfixed as Avery played around a little and then latched on and did his thing. It's amazing," he whispered.  "You have what he needs, and he knows it and he knows how to get it. Thank you for letting me see that."

He got it. Now my father-in-law is a nice guy. He's incredibly affectionate with his family and open with his emotions, which you not might expect from a former Marine whose favorite hobbies involve hunting and heavy equipment. And he got it, mostly, I think, because he really watched. Instead of turning his head and ignoring what was happening over there, he took a moment to appreciate what was going on -- a mother sharing herself with her baby. I couldn't envision any more surprises. I had this whole explaining the breastfeeding thing under control.

Then a month later, we were all at a graduation party for one of my husband's bazillion cousins. It was an all-day, outdoors thing -- the "bring lawn chairs and a dish to pass" type of affair that dominates small-town summers -- and in between surreptitiously wiping everyone's germs off our baby after they all pawed at him, we were mostly hanging out and enduring the barrage of questions about sleeping habits and diapers and where did we get a name like Avery. Late in the day, as the party was winding down and I was nursing Avery beneath a blanket (thanks only to an unseasonable chill, not to modesty), a little girl wandered over. I recognized her only as "not related to me, I think." (It's a big family, and though I wish they would wear nametags with detailed genealogies, they don't.) She asked what the baby was doing, and when I replied that he was eating, she quickly pointed out that there was no bottle and she knows that's how babies eat. I explained that he was eating from me, and, skeptical, she pulled back the blanket and demanded to see. She stood there dumbstruck for a moment before looking me dead in the eye and slowly and deliberately forming these words: "Boobies are for babies?" I nodded, and she continued to repeat the words, growing more confident in the truth of this statement each time, and then she ran off, proclaiming to anyone who would listen as she wound her way through the crowd to her mother that "Boobies are for babies!"

By this point, I was laughing so hard I had tears in my eyes, and my husband rushed over to see what I possibly could have told this four-year old to produce such an outburst. As I relayed the story to him, it was my turn to be dumbstruck -- this little kid knew enough about breasts to know we were supposed to keep them covered up (and knew the sexualized term "boobies"), but had no idea of their actual biological purpose. Sure, she's young, but in her four years, years when I'm sure she was surrounded by babies in this community where people seem to reproduce like bunnies, she had never seen a mother nurse an infant. Wow. Though I got some death-glares from her mother for the rest of the party (one presumes for introducing her young child to something so profane), I felt like I had accomplished something.  Now, at least, she knew.

Henceforth, that became my mission -- to nurse openly as my baby demanded (he was not a fan of blankets of any kind for any reason), to answer any question about nursing forthrightly, and to proclaim the good word, I guess. Let the lactivism begin. There was no seeking out opportunities for missionizing; they always presented themselves. There was the time a student of mine came to office hours on a day when I happened to have Avery with me, and during the course of the whole fourteen minutes she was there, he decided he needed to nurse. I cleared it with my student first, and as she watched, she finally worked up the nerve to say "That's cool. I didn't know you could breastfeed if you were a working mom." It's not easy, I explained, but it's certainly possible. It was a good visit: she made some progress on her paper, and perhaps she stored away an important fact for herself ten years down the road.

There was the time we were talking about breastfeeding as a legal issue in my women's studies class, and a student of mine who's working her way through school as a waitress suggested that perhaps women should just take their babies to restrooms to nurse, rather than doing so where people are eating. I couldn't help myself. Constructive criticism be damned: "So babies should eat where people are pooping rather than where everyone else is eating?! Would you eat in the bathroom at your restaurant?" Later that same term, in the aftermath of the tragic case of the Kim family, stranded in the Oregon wilderness, I mentioned to my students that Kati Kim had kept her daughters alive for more than a week by nursing them both (ages 7 months and 4 years). Their incredulity launched an hour-long question-and-answer session about extended breastfeeding and milk supply and cultural mores. These young, well-educated, feminist women had simply no idea that women's bodies could do such a thing. How is that possible? Well, for starters, we don't talk about it much, except among ourselves.

I do try not to preach, and I seldom climb up on my high horse unless provoked, but I guess I do spend a fair bit of time sounding like a public service announcement (You know, "The more you know…") It's the zeal of the newly converted, I suppose. There's this magical thing that I get to be a part of -- who wouldn't want to hear about that?

Mmo : February 2007

Karen Oakes lives with her husband and son in Oswego County, New York.  She happily lives the frantic life of an adjunct -- teaching writing at Syracuse University and history and women's studies at SUNY Oswego, and writing a dissertation in her spare (ha!) time.
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