Where are they now? Catching up with Lucy Ellen Towbin, LCSW

Towbin admires her grandchild in this recent photo.

Many of Lucy Ellen Towbin’s, LCSW endeavors are defined by nourishment. By the time she was two, Towbin was producing art and as she has continued to make multimedia art into her 70s, she nourishes her Self. As the eldest of four children, Towbin helped provide for her
younger siblings in their childhood. In her 30s, as a new mother,  she nourished her children.  As a social worker and lactation care provider, she supported other dyads in their infant feeding efforts. Later, Towbin started a business (which has since been sold) that offers clean, dehydrated parrot pellets, so that she and other parrot-owners could escape reliance on industry-produced pet food which usually contains additives and food coloring that parrots are particularly sensitive to.

During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Towbin retired from the
Arkansas Health Department, and while she no longer holds her IBCLC
credential, she continues to assist new mothers informally. Towbin now
practices as a part-time therapist for a psychotherapy clinic in
Arkansas.

The last time Towbin graced Our Milky Way was back in 2017 when we
featured the breastfeeding art contest she facilitated through the
Arkansas Breastfeeding Coalition.

We’re pleased to have chatted with Towbin as part of our Where are they
now? series. Responses have been edited for brevity.

 

Towbin poses with Ruth Lawrence roughly a decade ago.

How did you become interested in maternal child health? 

The first job I had at the Department of Health was as the refugee health program coordinator. We worked with mostly refugees from Southeast Asia.  I was really interested in and intrigued  by the difference in how
they were taking care of their children. They slept with their babies, which I’m sure plenty of people in the U.S. still did quietly, but back then, no one was talking about it.
During a panel discussion we once held, a speaker from Laos shared
that his six children born in Laos were breastfed, and the five children
born in the States were bottle-fed. This is when I really became
interested in the cultural aspects that affect infant feeding, and I started
to try to figure out what was going on.

Is there a current trend, project or organization that excites you?

I’m really not that up-to-date about trends in lactation, but what does
excite me are the portable pumps that working moms can wear. A close
friend of my daughter’s is a nurse practitioner and she showed me her
pump that she wears under her white jacket as she walks around seeing
patients. It makes almost no noise and it’s amazing because you don’t
even know that it’s under there. That would’ve been so incredible for me
to have as a working breastfeeding mom.

When I was working outside of the home, it was really difficult; even La
Leche League wasn’t very supportive of working moms at the time. With
my first child, I had a manual pump and my own office, but the pump was
miserable.  It hurt and wasn’t that effective. With my second child, I
stayed home longer with him and then he wouldn’t take a bottle, so I
didn’t do that much pumping. When I went back to work, my mother took
care of him and she lived close to where I was working, so I would nurse
him before work, and then drive back and forth to her house to feed him
about every two hours. It was a lot of back and forth.

What is the most significant change you’ve noticed within maternal child
health?

I have a very small sample size to talk about significant changes. All I
know is from my daughter and her friends. I’ve noticed that there seems
to be less unmedicated births happening in the hospital. I know there are
still a lot of people choosing home birth. But of those having babies in
the hospital, I haven’t heard about anyone doing what I did and having
mine in the hospital, but with no pain medicine or IV or anything.   I was
lucky to find the physicians that I did who went along with my wishes.  I
would expect there would be more supportive physicians now and instead, I don’t hear about any. I do want to reiterate that my observations are based on just a small group.

What is your best piece of advice for the next generation of lactation
care providers?

The most helpful lesson combines my training as both a therapist and
lactation consultant. New mothers need so much emotional support.
They don’t need people to take care of the baby. Bringing food and running errands for them is helpful. But I think what gets overlooked is
how much they need to be told that they’re going to make it, that they will
survive this early period of no sleep, and not knowing if they are doing a
good job. They need reassurance that this difficult time is normal and
they need to be told they will get through this.

My best piece of advice for the next generation is to take a holistic
approach, don’t just emphasize the physical exam. Equally important is
how much sleep the mother is getting,  what she is eating, if she is
getting exercise, if she has family and friends supporting her, if she has a
plan for if she’s going to be working outside of the home. It’s important to
equip new moms with coping strategies like easy breathing exercises or
something when she is feeling stressed that are doable in short time
frames and at home.

Where do you envision yourself in the next decade?

Asking someone my age where I see myself in the next ten years is
basically just hoping I’m still healthy and active! I do all the right things
and have good genes, so I’m on the pathway to that, but you never
know. Appreciate good health and youthful energy if you still have it.

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”

LCTC participant rewrites cultural norms with “Afrofuturist healing modalities”

As you focus on clearing your generational trauma, do not forget to claim your generational strengths. Your ancestors gave you more than just wounds.” — Xavier Dagba

 

Audrey Gentry-Brown, Full Spectrum Birth Sista, Certified Blactation Educator (CBE), Student Midwife, and Medicine Woman in Loudoun County, Va. often found herself asking why?

While present at her sisters’ childbirth experiences, she couldn’t help but question the medical interventions imposed on their bodies. “Why aren’t these doctors allowing their bodies to do what they were designed to do?” she wondered. 

Audrey, hailing from a family with maternal origins in the Southern United States and paternal roots in Jamaica, noticed a stark difference in breastfeeding customs. In the U.S., it appeared that nobody from her maternal lineage embraced breastfeeding, while in Jamaica, it was a widespread tradition.The puzzle deepened when she observed the aversion of many Black women to breastfeeding. 

Just as she diligently tends to her garden, Audrey embarked on a quest for answers and is now sharing the abundance of knowledge she has cultivated.

In her own words, she is rewriting cultural norms within her community, introducing “Afrofuturist healing modalities” that reconnect to “ancestral magic.”

“I engage in this work to revive and reclaim the traditions that we have abandoned. I advocate for, educate, and guide our women through a system that often neglects our needs. My dream is for us to give birth as our foremothers did, within the comfort of our homes, surrounded by love,” Audrey passionately explains.

She says she sees a glimmer of hope in the growing trend of families choosing to reclaim their traditional birthing practices by opting for out-of-hospital births, which grants them greater control and the ability to curate their birth experience.

Having recently been awarded the Accessing the Milky Way scholarship, she is currently pursuing the Lactation Counselor Training Course (LCTC) and continually equipping herself with knowledge to assist her community in addressing deeply ingrained trauma related to infant feeding.

Audrey points out a concerning statistic: Black women are more likely to face in-hospital formula introduction (Echols, 2019), along with other marketing tactics targeting them.

“I’m here to tell you that there’s a better way,” she declares.

Moreover, she is dedicated to educating families about traditional practices like babywearing, which encourages breastfeeding and responsive parenting.

In her quest to preserve cultural traditions, Audrey invokes an African proverb: “When an elder dies, a library burns down.” She urges people to reach out to the matriarchs and patriarchs in their families, seeking knowledge of their ancestral customs, and ultimately, to revive, safeguard, and uphold those traditions.

To support Audrey’s mission, you can explore her apothecary or enlist her birthwork services to contribute to her efforts to gather supplies for her future midwifery practice.

Creative solutions for facilitating traditional Navajo birth

It was a whopping 102 degrees during the day with plummeting temperatures at night in Shiprock, New Mexico on the sacred land of Navajo Nation. The soon-to-be new parents’ camp was set up completely off grid with no running water or electricity.

Indigenous Doula, student homebirth midwife, and New Mexico Doula Association birth equity co-chair Natasha Bowman and her colleague Indigenous Doula and the Executive Director for The Navajo Breastfeeding Coalition Amanda Singer, CLC got to chatting about how they could best serve their client who desired a traditional Navajo birth under these conditions.

Considering their own well-being and the safety of their clients, Bowman and Singer initially joked about hauling Bowman and her fiancé LaDarrell Skeet’s fifth wheel out onto the land. But Skeet helped make it a reality.

The team was able to set up a mobile birthing suite for the new family and their care team complete with air conditioning, clean water and a bathroom. What’s more, the certified professional midwife attending the birth brought along her small trailer too.

“When we do births on the Navajo reservation, we have to think outside of the box,” Bowman explains.

Bowman, who has always been interested in labor and delivery, realized while working with the University of New Mexico’s Birth Companion Program, the lack of Indigenous birth workers. During one training, in a roomful of 40 participants, three were Indigenous.

“I was shocked,” Bowman says. “There has to be a change. There has to be more Indigenous birth workers.”

Later, Bowman attended another training with the Changing Woman Initiative, where she first met Singer. Since then, they’ve been realizing their vision of more Indigenous doulas and birth workers.

Bowman and her partners are continually learning the traditional Navajo ways of birthing and bringing those rituals to their clients.

“Some [clients] are for it, and some are against it because they have always been told they should be birthing in a hospital,” Bowman begins.

She goes on to explain that some of her clients have been scolded and ridiculed by pediatricians, other health care providers and even family and friends for planning a home birth despite the evidence confirming that among low-risk women, planned home births result in low rates of interventions without an increase in adverse outcomes for mothers and babies.

Bowman describes some of the elements of traditional birth which include integrating song, herbal remedies, teas and tinctures, and traditional dress in sash belts and moccasins.

“We believe in the exchange of energy and thoughts,” Bowman continues. “Good intentions, pure thoughts, and lots of prayers.”

It is customary for birth workers to tie a bandana over their heads as well as a Sani scarf, sash belt, or rebozo with an arrowhead tucked inside around the waist to protect the reproductive system.

“It is to protect us from the powerful energy the laboring parent is releasing,” Bowman explains. “It is like armor for us.”

Bowman and Singer and their partners are confronting the health realities in their community through other collaborations too. Their funding partners are The Kellogg Foundation, The Brindle Foundation and United HealthCare. Partnering organizations include Indigenous Women Rising, New Mexico Doula Association, Bidii Baby Foods and Saad K’idilyé, a grassroots organization dedicated to providing traditional teachings to the urban Diné communities around Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Last summer, the Saad K’idilyé Diné Language Nest (SKDLN) opened as a  central urban hub where Saad K’idilyé meets with families, babies, caretakers, and its community.

“A language nest is a community site-based language program for children from birth to three years old where they are immersed in their Native (heritage) language,” as described on their website. “SKDLN is a safe, home-like environment for young children to interact with Diné Bizaad speakers, often elders, through meaningful activities.”

Bowman was able to witness the interactions.
“It was amazing!” she exclaims.

Eventually, Bowman says that she and her colleagues would like to create their own Indigenous Doula training with teachings specific to Navajo birth culture.
In the meantime, they’re celebrating National Breastfeeding Month with Indigenous Milk Medicine Week: From the Stars to a Sustainable Future during the week of August 8 to 14. The breastfeeding coalition will reveal a Navajo translation breastfeeding art piece during this celebration.

And while the fifth wheel doula mobile has stirred up great interest within the community on social media, for the time being, there won’t be an expansion of this service. Bowman and Skeet’s fifth wheel remains on the move though, helping keep the birth team comfortable. Follow its tracks by following the Navajo Breastfeeding Coalition on Facebook.