Menstruation as a source of power

There were times when the tingly surge of a let-down would cause my breasts to swell so much they’d itch. My nursing baby offered such relief. As we snuggled into one another,  all of the tension and discomfort in my body released. Bliss.

And then, many, many months into my breastfeeding experience, there were the times that a child latched caused my toes to curl, my teeth to grind to near disintegration, and tension to build to heights that caused my traps to pique and harden. The tendons in my neck, scarily pronounced. 

Interestingly though, when my menses ultimately returned, it was while I was bleeding that I could best tolerate breastfeeding. 

A colleague and I once theorized that this was biology at play: leading up to and during ovulation, my body was focused on reproduction, but when my period came because I wasn’t pregnant, I could devote the energy instead to breastfeeding. My period offered reprieve. 

I am completely in love with Leona Lioni’s animation and illustration of a character conquering crimson waves. It’s harmonious, which is so distant from the typical sentiment we’re fed about menstruation and female reproduction. 

A colleague recently shared a memory about a male in her life. He used to claim that he could always tell when the lawyer he worked with had her period because of her conduct in the courtroom. He interpreted it as irrational and unstable. This is what we are usually made to believe, that we are unstable humans, those of us who bleed, and when it’s “that time of the month”, we are totally unhinged. 

I am happy to share that menstruation has always been a source of power for me.  I actually feel more physically capable, mentally energized, and focused while I’m bleeding.

This bodily function is also a reminder of what our bodies are capable of: growing and nourishing a human. The process miraculous and absolutely ordinary.

Bleeding is an unmistakable sign of being connected to other women. Long Line of Ladies, the name of a short film by Academy Award-winning director Rayka Zehtabchi and Shaandin Tome, is a celebration of periods, following a Karuk community of women as they prepare for teenager Ahty’s coming-of-age ceremony, or Ihuk. I’ll be clear; I am not Native American though that title– “Long Line of Ladies”– resonates. 

Science is catching up to express menstruation and female reproduction as a source of power rather than our demise. 

A publication released this spring, F. Ronka’s, et al Attentional, anticipatory and spatial cognition fluctuate throughout the menstrual cycle: Potential implications for female sport showed that 

“Women may actually perform better in certain cognitive tasks during menstruation.” [More coverage here.]

Rachel E. Gross points out in Ovaries Are Prone to ‘Exhaustion’ and ‘Fatigue.’ Or Are They? : “…We now know that the vagina is no passive receiver but a muscular organ lined with billions of microbes that have likely evolved with humans over millenniums. Recent research has shown that the egg is no patient damsel but a dynamic cell that undergoes brutal competition and draws flailing sperm into its orbit. The clitoris is no pea-size nub but a richly innervated structure that extends deep into the pelvis.”

Of course, female power has been recognized by Native American communities for generations and generations.

Figures positioned at the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur, Calif.

Adrienne J. Keene’s Native Appropriations article “Sweat Lodges Part II: No, you can’t. Here’s why”. reiterates Barbara Omaha’s (White Earth Ojibwe) teachings:  “A woman’s power during her moon time is so strong that it can draw the power away from the sacred Sweat Lodge, Sundance, and Pipe ceremonies.” 

Gross again points out this time in  The big idea: why we need to rewrite the history of female bodies “We need to finally see the female body for what it truly is: a powerful constellation of interlocking elements, each part indivisible from the whole, that work together to support our health from cradle to grave.” 

One pretty amazing example of this working-togetherness is described in an IABLE Clinical Question. The authors of History of breast feeding and risk of incident endometriosis: prospective cohort study found, as summarized by IABLE: 

  1. Women who breastfed for at least 36 months in total had 40 percent less likelihood of having endometriosis compared to women who breastfed for less than 1 month.
  2. Every additional 3 months of breastfeeding during a pregnancy is associated with an 8 percent reduced risk of endometriosis.
  3. The relationship between breastfeeding and endometriosis lasts for at least 5 years after the last childbirth.

What’s your experience with menstruation and lactation? Are you changing the narrative? Email us at info@ourmilkyway.org with your stories of resilience, resistance, curiosity, discovery, and triumph! 

Other relevant resources 

Milk Production and Menses: What’s the Connection?

Blood: The Science, Medicine, and Mythology of Menstruation

Our Bodies Ourselves Today The Menstrual Cycle 

105 Ways to Celebrate Menstruation 



Celebrating Pride

This summer, we are revisiting some of our previous publications as they relate to various national celebrations.  June is Pride Month, so this week we are elevating Glenis Decuir’s beautiful story about co-breastfeeding with her wife for  two-and-a-half years. This piece was originally published in 2022.

——

The lactation care provider glanced at her breasts and claimed, “You’re not going to be able to produce much milk.” Glenis Decuir, CBS, a young mother at the time, had just given birth to her first baby (now 17 years old), and while she intended to breastfeed her daughter, without explanation, without proper consultation and counseling, without a shred of compassion, the lactation consultant disparaged her intentions so tragically that Decuir not only did not breastfeed her daughter, she remained discouraged through the birth of her second child (now 14 years old) and did not breastfeed him either.

Decuir eventually learned that she has Insufficient Glandular Tissue (IGT) disorder.

“I knew my breasts looked different, but my mom’s looked the same as mine; I didn’t think anything was abnormal,” Decuir explains. “ I was young and wasn’t resourceful; no one explained anything.”

Though Decuir’s introduction to infant feeding was shrouded in the unknown and total neglect from care providers, her story takes a turn, epitomizing self-determination, advocacy and education, perseverance, resilience and empowerment.

In 2018, Decuir’s wife became pregnant with their third child. Because she would not grow and birth this baby, Decuir wondered how she would form a bond with him.

“It was very difficult for me to wrap my head around that,” Decuir shares.

Plunging into self-guided research, Decuir landed on the potential to induce lactation.

When she decided to embark on this path, Decuir reached out for guidance, but found herself in a void.

“Unfortunately, I received the most pushback from doctors, many of whom didn’t even know that inducing lactation was possible,” Decuir documents her road to co-breastfeeding. “I had to see four different doctors before I could find one willing to work with me. Being under the doctor’s care was very important because I had never done this before, and I knew I would be taking medications. After exploring several options, we chose the Newman Goldfarb Protocol as our method of induced lactation.”

For well over 20 weeks, Decuir delved into the protocol.

“Because I had really poor experiences with my first two and poor experiences with seeking help with breastfeeding professionals… I became an advocate… I had overcome so much adversity,” Decuir begins.

Laws state that we can pump anywhere, Decuir continues. And that’s what she did.

“I was pumping in every location imaginable! At my desk, in the car, the movie theater, Six Flags, and much more!” she writes.

Decuir goes on, “I decided to be very public about my entire journey on Instagram. One, I have the right to and I exercise every right, but it also opened a gateway to educating others.”

Prior to inducing lactation, Decuir reports that her children had never been exposed to anyone breastfeeding, “not even at a playground or anything,” she elucidates.

“This is how behind closed doors moms are with breastfeeding,” she says.

But Decuir and her wife’s approach is different; they are open-books with their children, she explains.

“They were old enough to understand scientifically, biologically, physically what my body was going to go through,” Decuir starts. “I educated them through a scientific standpoint, but also talked about normalizing breastfeeding. We talked about my daughter breastfeeding in the future, and my son and his role as a man in a household and how he can support his future wife to breastfeed.”

Decuir recalls the emotional and practical support her older children offered: “I cried in front of them, I pumped in front of them, I laughed in front of them; they helped wash bottles and Spectra parts…”

In sharing her journey with others though, Decuir wasn’t always met with such maturity and acceptance.

“I got everything under the sun,” Decuir remembers. Some told her it was disgusting, some found it weird, and some even went as far as to claim it child abuse.

Orion was born on September 2, 2018. At the time of his birth, Decuir was producing 16 ounces a day– quite close to what is considered full production– and had stored over 1,000 of her milk in a deep freezer.

Decuir says that she didn’t set forth focusing on the quantity though. “I wasn’t thinking about achieving full supply; I was thinking about producing anything. Even if it was only five ounces a day, I thought, I can at least do one feeding a day and that to me was worth it on its own.”

She continues: “Every time that I would latch Orion on, I just thanked Mother Nature and how amazing our bodies are. Maybe if I had birthed Orion, if I  had just latched him on, it wouldn’t have been a second thought, but because of what I went through–I worked real, real hard– every time I was able to latch my son, I literally thanked the universe. I was so grateful.”

Decuir and her wife went on to co-breastfeed Orion until he was two-and-a-half.

Throughout her breastfeeding relationship, Decuir remained visible in her efforts. “Having the power to go through that experience breastfeeding anywhere and everywhere in public, it became almost liberating and very freeing to be able to exercise my right, and in doing so I came across a lot of people. I took them as opportunities to talk more about breastfeeding and breastfeeding in public.”

At the start of her journey, in order to create her village, Decuir started a private Facebook support group. Today it has over two and a half thousand members.

Locally, Decuir serves as a breastfeeding support person through ZipMilk and is a ROSE Community Transformer, all on a volunteer basis. She has presented at the ROSE Summit in years’ past and is currently working on a book.

You can read Decuir’s former publications about her co-breastfeeding journey here and here .

More for Pride Month 

It’s Pride Month! Working to close the gaps in LGBTQ+ Care

Skin to skin image goes viral

Exploring language among gender nonconforming individuals and nontraditional partners

On Becoming Transliterate: An Interview with Diana West, BA, IBCLC

Celebrating Father’s Day

This summer, we are revisiting some of our previous publications as they relate to various national celebrations.  This week, we’re celebrating fathers with our 2017 piece “Fathers profoundly influence breastfeeding outcomes”, a piece highlighting Muswamba Mwamba’s, MS, MPH, IBCLC, RLC work with families.

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At a WIC clinic a few miles north of Dallas in an immigrant community, a pregnant woman confided in a male peer counselor–part of the WIC Peer Dads Program— that she wanted to breastfeed her baby. Her boyfriend wasn’t at all interested in supporting this journey though. The counselor offered to speak to the father; the mother agreed, so the counselor called him just then. Ring, ring, ring. After introductions, this conversation ensued:

Counselor: We heard you have an issue with breastfeeding.

Father: So you are calling me to convince me that breastmilk is better?

Counselor: No, I just want to give you some information.

Father: I will come to your office. You prove to me that breastfeeding is better.

The next morning, the father arrived at the clinic before it opened.

Source: United States Breastfeeding Committee

“Tell me why she should breastfeed,” the father demanded of the counselor, who was feeling rather intimidated.

The counselor replied: Forty-five years down the road, your unborn son is guaranteed to be the president of the United States. What are you going to do today?

The father looked at him perplexed and laughed.

“You tell me,” his retort.

The counselor handed him a sheet of paper instructing him to write these letters: B-R-E-A-S-T-F-E-E-D, providing corresponding ‘benefits’ to breastfeeding with each letter. (B is for bonding and so on.)

“Dude! You’re good,” the father exclaimed, changing his demeanor. “Ok, you got me,” he agreed to open his mind to breastfeeding.

Mwamba demonstrates ways to hold baby during a class for parents .

Muswamba Mwamba, MS, MPH, IBCLC, RLC, a public health nutritionist, told me this story during a fascinating interview for Our Milky Way. Having worked in nutrition for nearly three decades, Mwamba has acquired a brilliance for carefully interpreting and reflecting on the stories of the people he encounters.

“The guy was bold,” Mwamba remembers of the father. In fact, the father planned to dump his pregnant girlfriend after she became pregnant.

“A lot of men may know how to change diapers, know how to carry the baby,” Mwamba begins. “But something they don’t know is how to befriend the woman. When they don’t know, they run away.”

This couple’s story took a happy turn. Mwamba reports that they married with their peer counselor as their witness.

“You saved my relationship,” the father heartfully expressed his gratitude to the counselor.

After serving nearly 10 years as the City of Dallas WIC Peer Dads Program Coordinator, Mwamba is currently Director to Reaching Our Brothers Everywhere (ROBE), a descendant of Reaching Our Sisters Everywhere (ROSE). ROSE and ROBE are dedicated to reducing breastfeeding disparities among African Americans.

But Mwamba’s career goals didn’t always point specifically to breastfeeding. Always fascinated by nutrition as the foundation of health, Mwamba found himself in a microbiology lab in Belgium completing two master’s degrees in Food Science and Technology and Agricultural Engineering & Human Nutrition.

He quickly realized that he “prefers people to mice.”  So when Mwamba, a Congolese native, came to the States in 1997, he searched for a doctoral program that might better fit his passion for behavioral science. Mwamba made his way to Columbia University in 1999 where he studied Nutrition Education, exploring the intersections between science and behavior, environment and genes.

At the time, Mwamba remembers being happy to be in the U.S. but in retrospect, he says he realizes he was naive about racial disparities in health care. It wasn’t until later that he learned about the historical forces in the United States that make health disparities a reality.

Mwamba pictured with colleagues Brenda Reyes and Mona Liza Hamlin.

“Thinking backward, I didn’t see anyone in my class who was local; they were all caucasian female,” Mwamba recalls.

Except for himself of course, the only Black man, and an immigrant at that. Institutions have policies written to encourage diversity, Mwamba begins.

“When they see Black, they see diversity,” he says. These policies ignore the heterogeneity of Black culture.

“As an immigrant, I was privileged when I got the scholarship,” he explains. Mwamba already held two master’s degrees and had seen the world. His experience was vastly different from those of the People of Color living in the community he was to serve.

“We have the same color of skin, but not the same stories, not the same backgrounds,” he reiterates.

Mwamba adds that African immigrants are the fastest growing and most educated group of immigrants in the U.S. From 2000 to 2004, four percent of immigrants in the U.S. were African. Today, African immigrants account for 8 to 10 percent, he reports.

Mwamba stresses, money needs to be properly allocated to serve those in need.

“The gap is increasing within the [Black] community,” he says of health disparities. “…Diversity is not the solution for the disparity.”

Little did he know, his opportunity to work to close this gap and to give a voice to “the folks who think they have nothing to say because nobody ever listened to them” was just around the corner.

Discussing a course’s simplicity with his professor at Columbia one day, a woman from Ghana happened to be listening in on their conversation. She was the director of a WIC clinic and recruited Mwamba as a nutritionist one year later.

Mwamba was instantly fascinated by the components of artificial baby milk, inspired by the questions his clients asked, and curious about the effects of clients’ infant feeding experiences.

He noticed that mothers who fed their babies formula often came to the clinic with various complaints.

Then there was a woman he remembers who exclusively breastfed her baby for one year. When she came in, she seemed happy and had only one concern: Why hadn’t her period returned yet?

Mwamba needed to do some research. He read everything he could. He worked to develop appropriate language to discuss infant feeding with his clients.

He began to grasp delicate intricacies like the sexualization of breasts in America. One client in particular expressed concern about her baby touching her “boobs.” (As a self-taught Anglophone, Mwamba never encountered “boobs” in his literature.)

As he discovered more and more about breastfeeding, he shared the information with his team. Mwamba became a breastfeeding champion.

In 2003, Mwamba moved to a WIC clinic in Dallas. Here, he received structured training through breastfeeding modules.

In 2005 he and his wife, an OB/GYN, welcomed their first babies to the world, a three pound baby girl and a four pound baby boy. Over the next couple of years, they added three more children to their family. Mwamba spent several months at home with their infants.

Source: United States Breastfeeding Committee

Aware that a primary reason a mother chooses not to breastfeed is her perception of the father’s attitude toward infant feeding, Mwamba launched the City of Dallas WIC Peer Dad program. The program was promptly a success.

Perhaps most importantly, the clinic was already breastfeeding-friendly. Secondly, there were several men already working in the clinic– including Mwamba who understood rich, complex immigrant culture. As Kimberly Seals Allers puts it, “The experience of being interpreted is different from the experience of being understood.”

Mwamba and his team worked by the motto Prepare, Equip and Empower.

They validated men in their role as a father and gave them tools like how to speak up and say, “Hello, I’m here!” when others failed to recognize their presence.

“Equip the father with tools they can use today,” Mwamba begins. “If you start talking about the future, they won’t get the information. Meet people where they are.”

Mwamba started conversations with his clients in an attempt to get fathers to connect with their relationships with their fathers; Emotion is more valuable than hard science.

For instance Mwamba describes one client, the father of five children, who “was over six feet tall with dreadlocks and his underwear showing.” He remembers this client had an air about him: I’m the dude here.

Mwamba discussed with him his role to protect and provide for his family. He asked, “Is there a man you look up to?” The father reported that he had a close relationship with his big brother. Mwamba wondered if he looked to his own father as a hero, or if he would change his relationship with his father. At that, the father’s voice cracked. He began to sob. This father was in the position to reflect on his role as a father and accept the influence he would have on his family.  And a father’s role is profound. When he is indifferent about breastfeeding, mothers will breastfeed 26 percent of the time; if he is pro-breastfeeding, mothers will breastfeed 98 percent of the time.

Tapping into the generalization that “men like the brag,” Mwamba and his colleagues encouraged their clients to spread forth their infant feeding experiences into their communities.

In his years working with the peer counselor program, Mwamba listened to stories that seriously question one’s capacity to have hope in humanity. In these moments, he didn’t have a script. Whatever rage he felt, whatever sympathy he bestowed, he couldn’t find a book or a module to learn how to accept the rawness, the vulnerability of his clients. Instead, Mwamba offered his presence and his willingness to listen, learn and understand.

Check out the rest of Our Milky Way‘s collection celebrating dads here.

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.

Louisiana doula protects BIPOC women from abuse through birth work and beyond

Having endured the trauma of a lost pregnancy at the hands of her obstetrician during her teenagehood, Angelica Rideaux vowed that she would work to protect BIPOC women from emotional and physical abuse.

In 2021, she enrolled in Community Birth Companion, a non-profit doula training program serving those in Southwest Louisiana. 

“During the training, I was loved on by women who looked like me, and had the same purpose of ending racial bias in maternal child health care,” Rideaux recalls.

She now serves as a doula for BIPOC families around Louisiana  with the ultimate goal of becoming a Certified Professional Midwife (CPM). Currently, there are only three Black CPMs in Louisiana, according to Rideaux. In 2021 Baby Catcher Birth Center, the state’s first Black-owned, CABC accredited free-standing birth center opened.  

Most recently, Rideaux was accepted as a member of the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice’s She Leads: Community Activist Fellowship 2023 cohort: a “network of women activists who are disrupting the current power structures and realizing change in their communities.”

Rideaux’s accomplishments go on. She earned one of the most recent Accessing the Milky Way scholarships to support her completion of the Lactation Counselor Training Course (LCTC)

Because Rideaux is a hands-on learner, she reports the online format of the LCTC challenging. Even so, Rideaux says she likes challenges. 

“So I am going to push past that,” she states. 

She says she has found the office hours helpful; they make the experience of online learning feel less isolating. 

Working her way through the course, Rideaux has been surprised by how many myths have been put to rest. Specifically, she says it was “mind-blowing” to learn that water consumption is not solely responsible for milk production. She plans to share the knowledge she continues to gain among her colleagues and the families she supports.    

Rideaux sees the LCTC as an important piece in making her future in midwifery more well-rounded, effective and supportive. 

As Rideaux continues on her journey to know more to better serve her community, she reminds us of some important concepts to reflect on as we move through our own work to improve maternal child health outcomes. 

First is that discomfort is necessary for change, and sitting in discomfort, having those difficult  conversations is part of bringing an end to racial inequity.

Secondly, creating healthy environments for women and children, especially those in BIPOC communities,  is not a trend. Rideaux comments that while she wants everyone to be culturally aware and competent, she hopes that the impetus comes from “hearts to get the situation resolved” rather than for “the dollars” or for “the accolades” or for an illusion of doing good.  

In Equity is more than a buzzword, the author writes: “Those committed to equity should understand that the harm of racism cannot simply be ‘undone’. The ramifications of colonization, enslavement and segregation penetrate almost every aspect of our society, including our education systems. Merely boosting representation is not an effective way to increase equity in predominantly white institutions.”  (Paytner, 2023)

It’s a reminder that improving maternal child health outcomes for the BIPOC community is part of a revolution, as Rideaux describes it. 

A lot of us are on the ground getting this work done, never receiving any kind of media coverage,” she begins. “We are soldiers in this war, and the goal is to get everybody on the same path for equity and justice. We  want everybody to feel like they are humans because that’s what we are first and foremost.”  

Learn about ending obstetric racism by visiting Birthing Cultural Rigor, founded by Dr. Karen A. Scott, MD, MPH, FACOG.