I talk a lot about breast milk, more than I ever thought I would, in the HIV work I do around NYC. Young people of all ages have a lot of questions about drinking and touching breast milk, and now with new technology in the US, women who are living HIV positive can give birth to negative babies, their questions continue. I remember my first NYC college class a student asked about accidentally drinking breast milk that was in the refrigerator and the risk of HIV transmission. There is still a lot of interest and curiosity around breast milk, and not just among pregnant and parenting people.
Often folks I meet and work with think of breast milk and associate it with pregnant and parenting women. When I read an NPR story last week by Nancy Shute, “Moms Who Can’t Nurse Find Milk Donors Online,” (audio and transcript available) I was really interested in a use of breast milk in a way I’ve never been before.
Before even reading I thought about class and access. I also thought about my pregnant sister-in-law and how I’ve been talking to her and my sister about birthing centers, mom and the “other mother” (as my sister says) journals, and baby showers. I had asked my sister if her wife had planned on breastfeeding and I remembered her response was “she wants to as long as it doesn’t hurt so much.”
The article by Shute is about women who have built a community of support in finding and sharing breast milk with one another, often for free, or in exchange for small donations or as mentioned in the article, bottles. One of the communities built, and that continues to flourish, is Eats on Feets GLOBAL (EOF) which is on Facebook. Many of the current members have found chapters or founded chapters via Facebook. I would think that Twitter is not far behind, especially for pregnant and parenting people who are wired. After all, there are so many of my friends who have had children who posted images via their cell phones hours after giving birth!
Eats on Feets GLOBAL shares in their About Us section:
Eats On Feets GLOBAL is a network that facilitates local woman-to-woman milk sharing via regional chapter pages on facebook. We assert that women are capable of making informed choices and of sharing human milk with one another in a safe and ethical manner. Eats On Feets GLOBAL does NOT sponsor the selling or corporatism of human breast milk.
Eats On Feets Global was created by a worldwide network of women coming together for a common cause; Feeding babies human breast milk. Spearheaded by activist Emma Kwasnica and inspired by the local action of Shell Walker LM, Eats On Feets is quickly becoming another example of the creative functions available through social networking.
Eats On Feets does NOT: diagnose, delineate, dictate, direct, determine, debate, debit, deal, deputy, deliver, deposit, or otherwise participate in the dogmatic control or outcomes of human breast milk sharing.
Eats On Feets DOES: Provide an online space where families who want human breast milk for their babies can find women who have breast milk to share. We encourage milk-sharers to utilize the principles of Informed Choice when establishing milk-sharing relationships.
I was fascinated and excited about this movement as it speaks to so many communities that are built all over the world. However, with such communities centered on sharing, building, and nurturing in a collective way, there are critiques. Many of the critiques are in the over 140 comments that accompany the article. There are concerns about safety, health, transmission of various diseases, and communication. As EOF shares above, and I completely understand these concerns and they are real and should not be ignored. At the same time I see connections to how the women and people (because not everyone who is pregnant identifies as a woman) who participate in these communities gain so much more than breast milk and nutrition for their child(ren).
Among those who critique EOF are the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Shute’s article quotes Lori Feldman-Winter, spokeswoman for AAP as saying “We cannot recommend the sharing of breast milk over the Internet” and encourages people to use one of 11 breast-milk banks in the US. Eleven breast-milk banks in comparison to the 110 EOF local chapters available for people in need. Plus, EOF does not charge in the same way breast-milk banks do. Seems to me that there could be collaboration, but, to the surprise of no one, the resources does not allow for such merging, especially when financial profit is not attached to the union.
There are two events I’m thinking about that connect to this NPR story: Salma Hayek’s breastfeeding while in Sierra Leone in 2009, and programs supporting new parents to breastfeed, especially young parents. These two events have been on my mind for a while, and I think they are most definitely connected to this story and community building.
When Mexican-born actress, activist and media maker Hayek traveled to Sierra Leone in 2009 and breast-fed a baby, I remember how people in the media interpreted this story. Hayek was questioned as to why she gave a hungry baby her breast milk, as if breast milk should only be shared among a birth parent and their baby. Hayek is a breastfeeding activist and breast-fed the baby boy to help alleviate the stigma in the country around having sex with a woman who is still breastfeeding.
On an ABC news story by Kimberly Kaplan, they quote Hayek as sharing:
She told "Nightline" co-anchor Cynthia McFadden that she thought her daughter wouldn't mind sharing her milk. "Am I being disloyal to my child by giving her milk away?" Hayek said. "I actually think my baby would be very proud to share her milk. And when she grows up I'm going to make sure she continues to be a generous, caring person."
Hayek told McFadden that that the idea of helping a child in this way had a long tradition in her family. She related a story about her great-grandmother many years ago in Mexico saving the starving baby of a stranger by breastfeeding the child.
I remember some of my own community repulsed by Hayek’s actions and sharing these openly on social media outlets. The irony in all of this, that historically, this nation was built on breastfeeding other children’s babies and never once was that a concern. It was more an expectation that enslaved women who were lactating would provide for whomever needed feeding, most especially their master and mistress’ children. Wet nurses have often been attached to class status, and breastfeeding and access to breast milk remains an issue of access and class.
So maybe the concern is an issue because the sharing of breast milk is among “our” (read US-born) children and not those who are living outside the continental US. Many may assume that because a wealthy and well-known woman shared her breast milk that she is also free of communicable diseases, drug and smoke free, and all the other illnesses of concern. Or perhaps it’s that we just don’t really care as much what happens to that African baby? Either way it seems to me that this “modern society” of the US we like to think we find ourselves in, has found a way to ignore, debunk, vilify and, erase community building and sharing of resources that has occurred for centuries all over the world. This nation also does a great job of erasing the legacy of sharing breast milk that has sustained many families for generations.
My second thought was tied to encouraging young parents to breastfeed. I have shared before that I’m unapologetic about being one of those folks who watches 16 & Pregnant as well as Teen Mom. Rarely have I seen an episode where a young parent is encouraged to breastfeed. There was one young parent, whose name I can’t remember, who was encouraged and provided with nursing bras, yet the support did not go beyond that. I’ve also never seen an episode where the young parents are in a birthing center or seeking care through a midwife or doula, but that’s another issue for another time.
When I was working with young parents in the foster care system while at the Child Welfare League of America, I remember one of the main concerns for the parenting teens was their feelings of sexual arousal during breastfeeding. For those of you who are familiar with oxytocin and its connection to uterine contractions during delivery, milk release during breastfeeding, and uterine contractions during human sexual response, this is not new to you. However, for many young parents this experience, or acknowledgement that this may occur, was often one deterrent for them I heard often. I remain wondering why there are limited discussions with young parents about this, and even with older and seasoned breast feeders.
As my work has moved me in a different direction from where I was over a decade ago working with young parents, my conversations around breast milk have shifted. Nonetheless, breast milk has remained a topic of discussion for me, just in different contexts. Now, as I will be my niece or nephew’s only (read best and greatest) aunt by the end of the summer, breast milk and it’s access is becoming more important to me.
I always find it interesting when our life’s work and experiences leads us down paths and information we rarely thought we would go into. Often I’m cautious of using Facebook and (sometimes) Twitter to share some forms of content, but I have to admit that being in another state four hours away from my growing family, it has helped me stay connected to them. The pride I feel when I see sonogram posts of my sister and her wife’s baby on Facebook is indescribable. For that, I’m grateful for social media and yes, modernization to an extent.