Speech is great, but silence is greater

I’d be willing to bet you’ve never thought to compare a circus clown to a nursing mother and her infant. I certainly hadn’t until I had the pleasure of speaking with Healthy Children faculty Kristin Stewart, BS, CLC.

Jay and Kristin pose in the middle of Clown Alley.
Jay and Kristin pose in the middle of Clown Alley.

“With circus clowning, you can’t speak,” Kristin explains to me. “Someone in the top row of the arena isn’t going to hear you.”

Instead, circus clowns resort to non-verbal communication.

“If you’re good at what you do, the people in the back will know exactly what you’re doing and why it’s funny.”

Somewhat recently, the stars aligned in such a way that Kristin ran into childhood friend and Healthy Children faculty Kajsa Brimdyr. Shortly after, Kristin began working with HCP.

Having nursed both of her children, Kristin tells me that she has always been interested in lactation on a personal level.

“But once you start really learning, you become more and more passionate,” she says. Kristin is inspired by the idea that something so personal has sweeping influences on “the big picture.”

Since working with HCP, Kristin has also become fascinated by the unspoken communication between the breastfeeding pair, similar to clown and audience.

“There are all sorts of unspoken language,” Kristin explains.

For instance, infants display a wealth of feeding cues other than crying. For more information about infant feeding cues visit: http://www.amazon.com/Pocket-Guide-For-Lactation-Management/dp/1449687784/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1360015618&sr=8-1&keywords=pocket+guide+lactation and http://www.nal.usda.gov/wicworks/WIC_Learning_Online/support/job_aids/cues.pdf.

The more time a mother spends with her child, the better she will understand those cues. Kristin explains that this learning of infant body language is not a conscious process. She refers to it as a “subconscious soaking in.”

Health care providers’ disinterest

Kristin describes another non-verbal, subconscious experience.

“I’m sure it’s happened to you,” she tells me. And she’s right.

“You go in to see your [healthcare] provider and you are clearly not what they are thinking about,” she describes the familiar situation. “It’s a subconscious feeling that ‘I’m not important to this person.’”

Because of this scenario she offers this advice to lactation professionals: Really listen, listen to mom and listen to baby.

Kristin knows lactation care workers face unique challenges. She asks us to remember that we’re not alone and to seek support when needed. Getting the support you need will only enhance your ability to encourage mom and baby.

Not your average herstory

After graduating with an Ivy League liberal arts degree, Kristin decided to attend Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey®’s Clown College in the early 90s.

Kristin married her husband and fellow clown, Jay, a few years after graduation. Two years later, they welcomed their first born Karen into the world.

The Stewarts pose with daughter Karen for a Good Housekeeping article.
The Stewarts pose with daughter Karen for a Good Housekeeping article.

When Karen was just eight months old, the Stewarts made a brave choice to leave their vinyl flooring jobs behind and journey to Japan where Jay had been offered a clown position.

“It was terrifying and exciting and all of those things,” Kristin says.

After spending about a year in Japan, the Stewarts were offered a place in the Ringling’s Red Unit where Jay served as Boss Clown.

Currently, Jay performs with Big Apple Circus’ Clown Care a signature community outreach program that offers classical circus entertainment to hospitalized children at 16 leading pediatric facilities across the United States. [Retrived from: http://bigapplecircus.org/clown-care]

Togetherness

Circus life, a life defined by its commitment to family and community, allowed Kristin time to develop the delicate, non-verbal relationship she’s fascinated by with her second born, Nicholas.

He was only three weeks old when Kristin hit the road with the circus again. She wasn’t performing at that time, but she worked in the circus’ nursery. This allowed Kristin and Nicholas to be with one another very often.

“The time that the circus gave me as a mother was hugely instrumental in my breastfeeding success,” Kristin says. “There was never any pressure to go back to [performing.]”

Kristin’s nursing experience with Karen was more of a struggle.

She tells me Karen was born in a huge facility in Atlanta where locating a lactation consultant was a chore.

Lack of and inconvenient lactation care access remains a huge barrier to mothers’ breastfeeding success everywhere. Measurable steps have been taken by the Affordable Care Act to make services more reasonable for mothers.

Not only did Karen face insufficient access to lactation care, she was afraid to ask for help. Why is it that many women feel like they have to do everything alone? Is it the pressure society puts on us to be flawless in every aspect? Is it because we don’t know where to ask for help? Is it because we’ve lost a sense of sisterly community?

“It’s such a cliche but the circus is such a family-centered place to be,” Kristin says comparing her nursing experiences. “Babies in the circus are everyone’s babies.”

Kristin says she felt embraced by this sense of togetherness while nursing Nicholas.

“There are so many great people,” she says.

The Stewarts became especially close to the 12 to 16 performing clowns.

“They became our extended family,” says Kristin.

When Karen was about 20 months old, Lisa, a family friend came to visit the Stewarts on the road. While Lisa carried Karen around backstage during Kristin and Jay’s performance, she recalls at least six people stopping her wondering, “What are you doing with the Stewart baby?”

“She was so happy to know that we were so safe with the circus,” Kristin says.

Consistent prenatal care

The stories of the Stewart family adventures only get wilder.SFE Family shot

A typical week looked like this: Arrive in a given city on Tuesday or Wednesday, load in, perform Wednesday and Thursday night, perform two shows on Friday, three on Saturday and two on Sunday. Sunday night the crew hit the road for the next city which could be anywhere between six and 20 hours away.

Imagine going on an extended road trip for the duration of your pregnancy!

Kristin explains that obstetricians many times refused to see her for prenatal care only once while she passed through the city. Luckily, Kristin’s theatrical talent served her well.

“Often I would have to call and say ‘I’m moving to the area…’”

Kristin simply carried her medical records with her. As a second-time pregnant mom, she says she was confident about her pregnancy even without traditional prenatal care.

“The circus provides outstanding health insurance,” she adds.

Several weeks before Nicholas was due, Kristin traveled to her home on the Cape.

“I wasn’t willing to just go to any hospital,” she explains. “It wasn’t a comfortable option for me.”

Once again, the stars aligned in such a way that Jay happened to be performing only a few hours away when she went into labor. He attended the birth.

“The timing was unbelievable,” Kristin laughs.

To read more about responsive parenting and infant self-regulation click here, here, and here.

Please note: it is vital for moms to have access to all lactation care workers. CLCs, advocate for your services by contacting insurance companies and let them know what a difference you make for moms, babies, families and communities.

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