Friday, May 11, 2012

Got Milk?

I love it when I get to talk about breastfeeding. It's my thing.

So imagine my delight when I saw the Time magazine cover released yesterday featuring nursing mother Jamie Lynne Grumet breastfeeding her almost-four-year-old son. The cover photo depicted a tank-top clad Grumet standing up and her son--standing in a chair--nursing. The image blew up on Facebook, Twitter and all kinds of parenting websites.

The cover story references Dr. William "Bill" Sears, and his wife Martha, who are widely considered to be the parents of Attachment Parenting. The couple (parents of eight) propelled the Attachment Parenting philosophy to fame about 20 years ago, making it, more or less, a household name and giving new parents different kinds of support and resources than the popular cry-it-out methods being endorsed at the time. Attachment Parenting, practiced by many parents including yours truly, supports a series of practices such as extended nursing, co-sleeping, baby-wearing and a few others. It's not rocket science. In fact, lots of people practice this style of parenting, or some version of it, without knowing it has an official name. (Other cultures--particularly eastern cultures--have done so for centuries and without the endorsement of the Sears library. I'm a big fan of the Sears library; I'm just saying.)

Best I can tell, the stir caused by Grumet's cover photo is a mixed bag. Are people up in arms about the fact that she's nursing a preschooler? Are they miffed by her display of public nursing? Are there judgements about her parenting-style in general? Is there real discussion going on, or just shock about the photo?

Far more brazen than the photo of Grumet, is the title which states, "Are You Mom Enough?" Is Time magazine kidding me? Using the word "enough" with a mother is like a bullet in her chest. We are constantly being told we aren't enough, and are being polarized about whether others are enough, less than or better than we are. Who are you, Time magazine, to judge what makes a mother "enough"? To judge mothers at all? (Further, there are plenty of mothers out there, near and far, who not only worry about being enough, but rather having enough. But that is a topic for another day...we'll get to that. Here, I refer largely to those of us fortunate enough to have access to clean water and health care. Our discussions are also limited to biological children. Two people very close to me are adopted by fabulous mothers for whom nursing was obviously not part of their process.)

I want to be clear about this. I am as passionate about breastfeeding as anything I can think of in the world. Nursing is, by far, one of the greatest acts I have chosen as a mother. It's been an act of service, an act of love and an act of labor. It has been hard work, tender exertion and a bonding, liberating, wonderful experience. I believe I have given my children countless benefits--physical and emotional--that have helped to shape them into the attached, healthy, lovely people they are...and are becoming.

But somehow that isn't translating out there where people are in a tizzy about this cover photo. The comments left by readers and oglers alike are no help at all, though are at once entertaining and outrageous. Is all the anger energy directed where it should be--at establishments like Time Magazine for sensationalizing a topic that, by and large, needs to be discussed more from some organic place of mutual care than polar extremes?

Listen, I spent 12 of the last 13 years lactating. I know about extremes, and Time magazine hasn't been beating down my door for an interview and a photo-op. So what? I nursed each of my kids until they were three and a half, until we had each one's "Goodbye To Milka" party complete with breast-shaped cakes with gum drops for nipples. Yep, we did that--and would do it again should I ever have the privilege of breastfeeding another one.

I nursed in public, too. That issue in particular seems to be one of the hot buttons surrounding breastfeeding, creating a need for nurse-ins all over the place and waging war on Facebook for disallowing nursing photos. Lactivists (breastfeeding advocates), stage nurse-ins at establishments where mothers have been asked not to nurse publicly. The idea that a nursing mother is discouraged from nursing her child wherever she happens to be is, quite simply, absurd. I was once asked by an employee of the Adler Planetarium in Chicago to take my 7-month-old from the theater because I was breastfeeding in the back row. The female employee noted that people might "feel uncomfortable" with me nursing my child, which was code for "I'm uncomfortable with you nursing, and even though at least two other buxom women in this theater are showing way more skin than you are, please leave immediately." I politely informed her that I planned to finish nursing where I was, as was my right according to Illinois legislation regarding such. Later I sent a letter to the board of directors voicing my concern that if Adler Planetarium was really proud of the scholarship they offered female students pursuing careers in science, they might consider a softer approach to this most fundamental issue and that I was pumping my little, future female scientist full of antibodies and wholesome lunch, and surely they could get behind that kind of science. (However, in fairness, I'll tell you that the Chicago Children's Museum offered a world-class nursing area so comfortable I almost checked out of our hotel, just to stay in that pleasant little room for a day or so.)

But I had to seek out great support to facilitate that kind of comfort with nursing. Thank God in heaven for a wonderful nurse named Jo who told me about Attachment Parenting and taught me about nursing. So helpful was Jo, Angel of My Early Nursing Experience, that FOUR MONTHS LATER, I was still popping in for visits to her, because that's how long it took me to finally "get" nursing. Four months. I went to great lengths. I pumped every night, even though my newborn was sleeping for hours at a time. I fed her at the breast, through a nipple shield, through a special bottle called a Haberman Feeder and all combinations in between. At long last, we finally got it with just the breast and it went swimmingly until she was three. The next two came along and nursed right off, though both mostly on my right side, so I'm lopsided evermore. It was worth every minute and it will be a deep grief to think that stage of my life is done.

I have long said, though, that if I could figure out a way to bridge the gap between moms who nurse, moms who don't and moms who combine the two, I would happily make a career of it. I believe it's possible to support, validate and encourage mothers in their experiences. I'm not suggesting it's easy, or tidy, just possible. I've worried a few times while writing this post that I would hurt some of the mothers I care most about by so passionately declaring my support of nursing. Yet, that's my truth, and inviting a real discussion around breastfeeding--sans any judgement of each other--seems a good idea. The stellar moms I associate with (really, I find myself in the company of some truly amazing women), include several who bottle-fed their babies. Some of the best mothers I've ever known (including my own) didn't nurse and I dare Time magazine, or anyone else, to judge the kind of mother they are based on that. I also don't think they judge me, and are glad I'm so passionate about nursing.

Can't that mutual respect be contagious somehow? Women working together could be so much more powerful than women being divisive.

If you can't get on board with that, well, tough titty.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

We Are (Still) Nashville

  It's hard to believe that two years ago, we Nashvillians were wading through the flood that left us stunned. The city and her people took an enormous hit, though it barely made a blip in the national news.
  But we saw it. A few days after the flood, I wrote the following article, that was published in a Kentucky magazine. Two years later, I think it's good to remember.

Nashville Keeps Going
By Kristi Stephens Walker
I have always hated those stupid sayings about when the going gets tough. I don’t like the “tough gets going” part. I especially don’t like the “tough goes shopping” part that cutes it up. But after what I have witnessed over the last eight days, I would have to say that when the going gets tough, Nashville gets tougher.
I live in Nashville. Right now, no one goes anywhere without talking about the flood.  No one.  Further, no one wants to. It is on every mind, in every newspaper, on every news channel in Music City.
A little over a week ago, Nashville endured the worst flooding it has ever seen. FEMA estimates over 1.5 billion dollars in damages. At least 10 people died in Nashville, more in surrounding counties. Homes are lost, employees are displaced, historic landmarks are destroyed. Schools have just re-opened, after a week of crisis management. We are being asked to conserve water. 
But the people of the Volunteer State’s capitol city keep going.
Our beautiful symphony center, the Schermerhorn, is awash, along with its glorious grand piano.  The hallowed ground of the Grand Ole Opry, sacred space for so many of country music’s own, is severely damaged. Even Barnes and Noble Booksellers at Opry Mills mall, where I have worked part time as a barista making latte after latte, is laid bare by the flood of 2010, and the employees scattered among other stores in the region. They, like so many others, are grateful to be safe and doing the next right thing.
But the most remarkable thing about this flood, is how Nashvillians have organically begun to rebuild the community. As immediately as families were being evacuated from homes, churches were opening their doors to provide refuge and safety. Community centers and organizations were setting up information and distribution centers where folks can donate clothing, personal care and cleaning items needed by flood victims. Throngs of people are turning out to help neighbors—and even strangers—sort through rubble, provide lunch to other volunteers and generally pitch in.
Tonight, I looked over the Facebook posts of a friend who has suffered tremendous loss to her home. From the time she and her daughter were forced out by the rising water, her posts (including a mobile upload of a photo that showed water almost covering the stop sign on her street) gave updates on their safety and remarks of gratitude to caring friends and family. Remarkably, as her situation worsened, her gratitude increased, continually mentioning the “blessings” she has received. I want to think if FEMA was standing in my gutted living room assessing untold damage, I could have an attitude like that.
Still, we grieve, but we go on. We joke about not showering for days to conserve water. At the grocery store, I see fewer cell phone conversations and more real ones. Did you stay safe, people want to know? Did you have damage? There is real concern. On a broad scale, the entire community is going there, too. Schools are collecting toys and books for kids. Churches are feeding people, offering supplies and space as needed. Benefit concerts and telethons are raising money. Local businesses are giving discounts or portions of their proceeds to help out.
All in one fell swoop, it seems, while people were asking, “Where do we go?” the city of Nashville, TN was rallying with, “It’s go time.”
I can’t help but wonder what I would have wanted to save if I was forced from my home, after of course, my family members’ safety was ensured. I considered my beloved pictures and scrapbooks and my signed first edition of a Pat Conroy novel.  I thought of all the art projects my kids have made over the years and my husband’s trombone. What about my aunt Sue’s purple handkerchief  or my grandmother’s magazine rack—the one her father made her when she got married? None of my cute shoes made the cut, nor did any electronics, although, truth be told, I may try to grab my laptop, too. But really, if we had to go, would any of the stuff matter? In that moment of realization, that frightening awareness of leave-taking, would I care a whit about anything but my family and our safety? I doubt it.
So, all over Nashville tonight, mothers lie awake—on cots in church basements, on neighbors’ couches, in hotel beds—thinking of their shattered, lost wedding china, their soggy, ruined high school yearbooks, their children’s baby teeth and first haircuts—and they weep. We weep with them. But they keep going. Tomorrow they will get up and do the necessary work to contact FEMA, get phone service, track down deodorant, school uniforms, lunch.
And Nashville will keep going, too.  She is a strong, good city. She’s taken a beating these last several days, but if you listen closely, amid the busy hands and feet going in every direction, her music still plays.
  Nashville, I have seen you re-building, surviving, moving on after such a tough time. I saw the collective cringe that happened for months every time Lisa Patton said heavy rains were on the way. I high-tailed it over to Opry Mills the minute the doors opened, and remembered how it looked in May of 2010. I grieved the absence of Barnes and Noble. I remember everyone adding We Are Nashville to their profile pics and t-shirts in an effort to echo hockey blogger Patten Fuqua's true statement that became our city's rallying cry.
  And, gratefully, we are still, indeed, Nashville.