Proximity and profit

The red bud in my yard is bursting with magenta. The remnants of nighttime thunderstorms, gems of rain dangle from its branches glistening under late morning sun. There’s a lot of anticipation in our backyard woods; a buzzing of green that will soon become too dense to see the railroad tracks that curve through the neighborhood. 

When I open the grill on one of these beautiful spring days, I’m confronted by a mother mouse perched in her nest. Her black, beady eyes send me shrieking, foolishly and frantically flailing into my house. 

My partner, much less ruffled by the tiny animal, uses the grill utensils to relocate the mother mouse and her nest. Upon removal, he notices that her tiny, pink babies, nearly translucent, are attached to her teats. 

“Oh my god!” he exclaims. “Oh my god, they’re nursing! They’re just hanging on!” And then, minus the flailing, proceeds to freak out, because he is so affected by the fact that he has disturbed a nursing mother and her babies. Despite the assault of grill tongs and  humans giant relative to their size, the mother and her babies remain together, in an act of survival. 

A few days later, at my daughters’ soccer game, my son finds an empty field to kick around his soccer ball. His location and the girls’ game are separated by a small parking lot. I want to finish watching the girls’ game, so my son and I establish a meeting spot. When I go to check on him the first and second time, he is happily occupied, working on what looks like some fancy footwork and big boots. The next time I go to check on him, I scan the landscape, but he is not there. There’s a berm, so I swiftly walk over to see if he’s hidden behind the mound. Still, I don’t see him, so I panic, shouting for him, over and over with no response. 

Perhaps I will reveal too much about my character here…I start to conjure up all of the possibilities: he’s been abducted by a stranger, driven away in a van and I’ll never see him again; he’s been swallowed by the marsh on the other side of the road; he’s wandered off into the woods on the perimeter of the field and wolves will eat him; he’s been coerced by someone in the stands and they’ve snuck off with him somewhere. 

At this point, my heart is beating in my forehead. Blood drains from my arms and legs and they begin to tingle. It feels like I could be staggering from light-headedness, but I manage to make my way over to recheck our meeting spot; he is not there either. I walk up into the bleachers and ask a familiar face if she has seen my son.

“Yep, he’s right there; I’ve been keeping my eye on him,” she points to the other end of the bleachers… not our meeting spot. 

I exhale, thank her quickly, rush to him, embrace him, scold him through trembles. He holds my hand as we make our way to the top of the bleacher seating. He curls his arm around my waist and we sit side-by-side this way watching the reminder of the game together. 

My son is no longer a nursling, but my point in sharing these vignettes is that the connection we have to our children, the instinct to be with them, near them, is mammalian, primal. It’s beautiful and powerful. 

From the start, our infants’ survival depends on proximity. Of the many things that Karin Cadwell and Kajsa Brimdyr have taught me and that have stuck with me is how babies instinctively crawl to the breast, so even when infant feeding hasn’t been a part of the prenatal conversation, or even if a mom has been on the fence about “committing” to breastfeeding, the baby often makes that initial decision, questing to the breast when given the opportunity in uninterrupted skin-to-skin contact after birth. 

“[Babies] are 10,000 years old when they are born,” Nikki Lee has said. “If they’re not next to a heart beat, they are saber-toothed tiger lunch.”

As well as being ancient, breastfeeding is a natural progression in a continuum. Linda Smith once remarked at an International Breastfeeding Conference: “We don’t ask women if they want to deliver their placenta. Why are we asking about breastfeeding?” Smith was not making a point about the removal of choice; instead she was commenting on the fact that breastfeeding is biological

Yet, we find ourselves in a culture that has stripped us of these sacred experiences through marketing and medicalization. We have been acculturated to believe that separation is normal, acculturated to believe that tending to our babies’ basic needs will spoil them, acculturated to believe the only way we can be rested and sane is by separation from our babies, acculturated to believe that we require gadgets to properly raise our children, because somewhere along the line, we started to believe the marketing that nature must be flawed. We fell into the corporate trap, succumbed to their greed, allowed it to dim our instincts. 

Now, the language we use refers to the “benefits” of our mammalian behavior: the benefits of physiological birth, the benefits of skin-to-skin contact, the benefits of breastfeeding. Max Ramirez of IBFAN & MOH Panama has said that “Talking about the advantages of breastfeeding versus the risks of not breastfeeding is like talking about the advantages of breathing instead of the consequences of smoking.”

The idea that without breastfeeding, a baby is significantly disadvantaged, is not in our vernacular. 

As commentator Frn Ange wrote on a The Natural Parent Magazine post “…Proximity is not profitable…” and so we have been forced away from the power of the dyad, the power of our innate abilities as babies and parents. Marketing propaganda created the breast versus bottle wars because it drives profits, further dismantling our power. 

In this Leadership Pittsburgh presentation about “Milk Money,” Todd Wolynn goes as far as to say, “Economics dismantled us as a species.” (He’s referring to formula companies.) 

All is not lost. In fact, Camie Jae Golhammer has said of Indigenous traditions, that they’ve gone dormant rather than have completely died off. 

 

Like the boasting red bud in my yard, these sacred moments during our reproductive years will not always lay dormant and there are bright spots to celebrate. 

Programs like the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative empower families with practices and messaging like: “Every mother has the right to evidence-based information, free from commercial interests to help her decide how to feed her baby and should be equally supported and treated with dignity and respect for her infant feeding decision.” 

Global recognition of the importance of midwifery care came to the forefront late last year when midwifery was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This recognition is not only well-deserved by the many, many generations of midwives who have supported and continue to support healthy families, but essential in order to safeguard those in the practice of protecting fundamental human rights and these sacred moments. 

 

Another ray shines as the people at the United States Breastfeeding Committee (USBC) do lots and lots of hard work to advance policies that actually allow people to be with their babies. The organization offers a hub for policy action that makes it incredibly simple for citizens to engage and influence change. 

 

Further reading 

Interrupting the mother-child dyad is not the answer to infant safety

Ancient bodies in a modern world 

Mothers matter 

Nuturescience and Kangaroo Mother Care 

The Hidden Pregnancy Experiment which explores anxieties around surveillance.   “As a general rule, these devices don’t lead to better outcomes for the babies they monitor. More often—like social media, which promises connection as a salve for the loneliness created by social media—parenting tech exacerbates, even calls into existence, the parental anxieties that it pledges to soothe.”

A story of lactation and breastfeeding as a ‘Tummy Mummy’

Apryl Yearout, a school psychologist in Washington state, uses her body in powerful ways. For one, Yearout, known as Ariel Pain on the roller derby track, competes as a full contact skater excelling as both a jammer and a blocker.

Used with permission.

Yearout was drawn to roller derby well over a decade ago because of the “incredible community” it offered her.

“I heard ‘I’m proud of you’ and ‘good job’ more than I ever had,” she reflects. “It’s physically demanding and makes you feel strong and capable.”

In another manifestation of her power, Yearout birthed and breastfed her two daughters. Yearout’s eager body produced so much milk that she was also able to donate about 1,000 ounces of milk to local families.

Beyond this, Yearout helped create a family as a gestational carrier, or “tummy mummy” as the intended parents refer to her.

The idea of surrogacy came to her as a few realities collided. She’d anticipated having many more children of her own, but she and her husband divorced when their youngest child was 18 months old. As her children grew and without a new partner, she didn’t feel she was in the position to “start over” again with a baby.

Yearout watched her sister struggle to carry a pregnancy to term for some time, but ultimately, she was able to birth her own baby, so Yearout pursued the services of an agency and matched with a couple in need.

In April 2023, Yearout gave birth to the couple’s son. The baby and her youngest daughter wound up sharing a birth date, fulfilling her daughter’s birthday wish.

As discussed during her pregnancy, Yearout breastfed her surrobaby on occasion, for a few days after the birth while spending time with the new family.

“Overall, it felt like the natural completion of the pregnancy,” she shares. She also predicts it’s why she recovered so well from pregnancy.

Though she and the indented parents had already discussed direct breastfeeding as their plan while possible, Yearout expressed colostrum in the event that the intended parents felt strongly about being the ones to feed their baby first.

Unlike some surrogates, Yearout didn’t struggle with the idea that breastfeeding would create an unhealthy bond with the surrobabe.

She shares: “I was already very connected to this baby. I approached the surrogacy with a mindset that I need to make sure I have the right couple, I need to fall in love with them becasue I know I’m going to fall in love with this baby… physically and emotionally…everything is tied up… he’s not mine, I never felt like he was my child but I still love him… For me, not nursing, not having any breastfeeding experiences would have felt a little incomplete. I think it also would have put a physical strain on my body that could have pulled on those emotions and made it harder. I didn’t like the idea of forcing my body to stop [producing milk].”

The intended parents were not interested in managing the shipment of her milk after they returned home, so Yearout sought out a local family to donate to.

“And I get to see that little one grow up,” she says.

Yearout completed pumping and donating her milk in the autumn of 2023.

“Pumping alone is really hard,” she reports. In contrast, Yearout after a workday pumping for her keepers, she would come home to breastfeed through the night, and her body responded to this interaction much differently.

“When I was just pumping, [production] tapered off a lot faster,” she shares.

Thinking back on her experience as a tummy mummy, Yearout articulates her discomfort with the perception that gestational carriers are compelled solely by financial compensation.

She says in a somewhat joking manner, “I feel like I could sell pictures of my feet for more money.” (Let us note that this is not to diminish the financial burden that surrogacy can cause for many couples looking to create a family.)

“The thing that always bothered me was that people assumed that I did this for the money,” she goes on. “I had other motivations. [The arrangement]  helped me take my kids on a trip we would have never gone on before, but it wasn’t my reason…Money wasn’t a primary motivator but it did come up so often [with others].”

Instead, Yearout sought and found connection.

She comments, “This is what my body is good at and I’m going to use it to benefit other people.”

Yearout and her mom recorded an interview with StoryCorps. Unrelated to surrogacy, it’s a conversation about Native American roots, racism, white privilege, and their relationships with their extended family, and it’s worth a listen. You can find it here.

Midwifery inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

During a home visit recently, a new mom described how calm and simple her birth was as she gazed dreamily at her sweet, new baby nursing. She shared that she’d opted to be induced, and I don’t know if my eyes narrowed, or my energy changed, or if I inadvertently showed some judgment or discomfort on my face, but she quickly defended her choice.

Just in general, I often share about why after my first birth in the hospital, I opted for subsequent home births attended by midwives, how I caught my son by myself, my natural-term breastfeeding experiences, because I am proud of those things. Sometimes, personal approaches, choices and experiences can be construed as indirect judgment upon those who have divergent experiences. That’s how I was interpreting or reading into this interaction. 

Around the time I’d gone to visit this dyad, I saw the graphic, as I’m sure many of you may have, of a sketched pitocin bag and text that reads: “Holidays are not a medical reason for induction.” Indeed not! In the case of this mother, she was well-informed and she felt in control of her decision about how she would birth her child. Where there is autonomy and informed choice, there should be no judgment or scrutiny.

Home birth scene by a 4-year-old

I’ve been exposed to several of the faces of the kaleidoscope of reproductive health: as an adolescent, as a birthing patient in a hospital, as a home birther, as someone going through IVF as a prospective gestational carrier, and in all of those experiences, where I felt heard, held, safe, where my autonomy was honored, was in the care of my home birth midwives. 

It’s why I was so pleased to learn that midwifery was recently inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Securing this recognition is not only well-deserved by the many, many generations of midwives who have supported and continue to support healthy families, but essential in order to safeguard those in the practice of protecting fundamental human rights. 

Please enjoy this beautiful video by UNESCO honoring midwives. 

More to explore 

US women of color increasingly seeking alternatives to hospital births – study

more OUR MILKY WAY COVERAGE ON MIDWIVES

Honoring midwives during Women’s History Month

Alabama birth worker facilitates holistic, sustainable care for families

Taking ‘if’ out of the equation

Skin-to-skin in the operating room after cesarean birth

High schoolers explore human placenta, learn about physiological birth

Happy Birth Day, a new project by Dr. Kajsa Brimdyr

An opportunity for normal birth

Renaissance Woman

Dr. Soo Downe: International Breastfeeding Conference presenter Sneak Peak

LCTC participant rewrites cultural norms with “Afrofuturist healing modalities”