Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, "This is the way; walk in it." - Isaiah 30:21

Friday, August 3, 2012


It's 1989. I'm getting a snack from Grandma's fridge, in the big house at the top of the hill. At the kitchen table, my grandmother is telling my mother and my aunts about a restaurant boycott. The daughter of a friend was feeding her baby, and was asked to do so in the bathroom. The manager backed up the waitstaff. The mother and baby left, and told the world about it. My grandmother was appalled, and spread the word further.

I'm filling in the details. What I remember most clearly is a story of a woman breastfeeding - as I had seen my own mother do for literally years at that point - and the words, "So anyway, they're going to boycott the restaurant." My mother and aunts immediately expressed their support. (I wish I knew which restaurant. Hopefully it's out of business.)

It's 2005. My journey toward birth work has begun as, six weeks pregnant with Delaney, it occurs to me: I have to give birth to this thing. I set out to be the informed mother, because that's just what you do. I think about the prospect of declining an epidural. As I chat long-distance with Grandma on a Sunday afternoon, she tells me how much she loved her unmedicated births, and how she hated the groggy feelings that accompanied the pain medication with others. (I believe my uncle's birth, her oldest, was under the influence of chloroform.) I start considering alternatives to conventional modern-day pain meds. Months later, Delaney is born into the hands of a nurse-midwife in a large teaching hospital, without a single drug in my system.

Three weeks ago, my sister and I sit nursing our babies at my parents' kitchen table. My mother's mother and my father's mother compare notes on 1950s formula recipes. Grandma mixed up a concoction that included condensed milk and molasses, on doctor's orders. Grammie supplemented breastfeeding with a similar formula. Breastfeeding was not the norm, and her doctor thought she was silly to bother with it, but it was important to her. It just felt natural. So she defied convention and did it anyway.

Both my grandmothers had complicated relationships with their own mothers. Both of them were, in many ways, a product of their time. They cooked for their men and did all the housework and, for the most part, embraced the traditional gender roles of the era. Yet they gave and they loved with a sincerity and, above all, a matter-of-factness that I think my generation has been hard-pressed to find.

A few days ago I had the opportunity to sit and chat again with my parents and Grammie. No big surprise this week, talk turned to gay marriage. My grandmother recalled a couple she and my grandfather befriended when my aunt was young. The nicest two men you would ever meet, she said. They were wonderful with my aunt. My grandfather - who was often compared to Archie Bunker - loved to stop along his milk delivery route and visit with them for awhile. They were just pleasant company.

The family into which I was born tends to be very conservative. They generally vote republican. This same grandmother once ran for governor as a libertarian, and my father likes to brag that he had "Goldwater '64" stickers on his first grade lunchbox. (Which are, evidently, still available for purchase. Go figure.) At this point in the story I interrupted with, "Wait, you're serious?" Grammie shrugged. "It wasn't an issue yet. It wasn't political. It was nobody else's business."

They may have been products of their era, but in other ways, my grandmothers were light years ahead of their time. My own mother nursed all six babies, even when breastfeeding rates in the US were dismal, and didn't give a damn if someone had a problem with it. Advocating for the right to nurse in public is a conversation I have been overhearing for my entire life.

In honor of World Breastfeeding Week, I'd like to suggest we take a moment to acknowledge the women who mothered before us. The women who gave birth to their babies and fed them the best way they knew how, regardless of whether they embraced convention or defied it. Thank you for bringing our culture to a place where nursing gets a week of worldwide public celebration. And thank you to my own foremothers, for celebrating it every single day when I was young.

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