A couple weeks back I had a funny dream. I dreamt that I reunited with a friend back in the states (I live in Chile), who was meeting my now one-year-old daughter for the first time. Upon greeting us, this friend brought my girl directly to her breast as if of course this is how you greet the baby of a beloved friend, and therefor beloved baby. I remember feeling overjoyed in the dream, as if something magical and right was happening even though in my waking life I've never nursed another's child, nor has my daughter nursed from another's breast.
Since then, and before actually, I've been presented with a few references to co-nursing. It's had me wondering: Would I let another woman nurse my child? The short of it: I think so, but...
There's no shortage of high-energy activism to normalize breastfeeding, to make it easier to nurse in public, to support breastfeeding moms who may feel embarrassed or downright shamed for nursing in front of others, or alone even. Again and again, we hear about how our anatomy as mothers is that of any mammal and that our mammaries are there first and foremost to feed our young. This feeding is intricately connected to our reproductive system, where conception happens thanks to s.e.x., which often also includes pleasurable interaction with the mammaries, on and on. Countless images have flooded our culture referencing the latter adult pleasure nature of our breasts, while few make their way to us for the former, more primal function of nourishment. If we're already having modern-day trouble with allowing our own children their full advantage at our breast, be it in public or private, how on earth could we objectively, if at all favorably, approach the subject of letting our children suck on another's teet, or have another's sucking on ours? Oh! To say it this directly even brings a little "eek!" moment to my stomach. Therefor, I will not re-write that line to be more poetic, less conjuring of boobs and little mouths. We are indeed talking about boobs and little mouths.
Historically, it wasn't so strange to co-nurse. Mothers of the world have long called upon the help of other lactating women to help feed their children for three primary reasons: the mother was not physically able to nurse her child, the mother did not want to nurse her child, or sharing the nursing provided an important connection with another family, or families as it sometimes were. The first two we know plenty about in our day and age because they are at the center of many debates about breast milk vs. formula. The third reason of nursing one another's young as an expression of family or community strategy was an idea completely new to me until very recently.
In Africa, the Masaai are known to seal treaties through the exchange of mother's milk. Two nursing mothers would meet in a neutral place and exchange babies for a feeding, thus "signing" the agreement with the milk flowing into each other's tribes.
I have read compelling accounts of societies where it was thought best for the child to be nursed by other mothers in the community in addition or instead of her biological mother as a way of creating strong bonds throughout the people. I have been reading, too, about how some friends or family shared (and share, as it is occurring to me after a bit of research for this post that it is a much more common practice than I thought) breastfeeding for convenience in child care and as an extension of kinship.
In fact there is plenty of current-day co-nursing happening. Some of us will remember the headlines after Salma Hayek publicly nursed another woman's baby in Sierra Leone
, both to help the hungry baby and his mom, and also to send a message that breastfeeding is a good thing (Sierra Leone reportedly has the highest infant mortality rate in the world, much attributed to a lack of breastfeeding). La Leche League offers info on its website about wet nursing and cross nursing, but primarily cautions against it. Most surprising to me is finding that there is a modern day surge in woman offering their services as wet nurses
. Like in the Victorian era, hiring a wet nurse is a luxury mostly afforded the wealthy, but that it is happening, and quite openly, is remarkable to me.
Probably because we had breastfeeding difficulties, I've found myself considering the idea of co-nursing a bit since my daughter was born, though never presented the option. If I had
had the option of having a wet nurse of some kindred kind instead of supplementing with formula (there are no milk banks where I live), I think I would have taken it (we're doing great in the nursing department these days, though, so available wet nurses need not contact me). I have found this a very interest thing to consider. I once went through, in my head, the list of nursing mothers I knew and found that there were a few women I felt I would be comfortable with nursing my daughter, and others with whom I would not be wholly comfortable. My reasoning was a mixture of health habits (heavy smokers and substance-lovers did not make it to my "yes" list), and my own personal feelings about the woman's temperament, my understanding of her view of child rearing, or just the tone of our friendship. Admittedly, I think those last considerations are a little silly given the powerhouse of nutrition and immunity that nursing offers whether or not the woman is a little left of my cup of tea. I bet if I were writing this smack dab in the middle of our breastfeeding struggles, pumping like a maniac to little avail, strapping the SNS to my breast for hours every day, and wincing at the awful smell of the baby formula we had to use, I'd appreciatively accept the nursing help of any healthy lactating woman.
I hold dear my nursing relationship with my daughter. I believe it connects profoundly, not just in body, but in mind and spirit. Our lives are forever entwined as she grew from my body, and now that deep connectedness is renewed again and again when we nurse, even as as our relationship grows to be more cooperative, my daughter more independent day by day. Would I want her to have a similar connection with another woman? It depends. Here's an excerpt from the writings of Martín Prechtel about time he spent among the Tzutujil Maya in Guatemala as referenced in my book addiction of the moment, Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection
Then [my newborn son] was passed to the next woman, and the next and the next and the next. Every woman who was lactating, who wanted to bless the new mother, my wife, came to let the newborn suckle so that he would never feel like a stranger in any compound of the village. In the minds of the Tzutujil, having suckled from the breasts of women from eery clan in the village, my son would now be related to thew hole village in the deepest way possible.
For me, thinking about it this way is lovely; that by being nursed by a woman, my daughter would feel welcome in her home and that woman would feel a maternal bond with her, thus take care and watch over her differently than if she had not been one of her nurslings. I think of the small beach community where we live and wish I could have a way to know that my daughter would be both welcome and well cared for in every home she happened upon when she is older, scallywagging about freely. Would nursing with all the other moms provide this? Maybe, maybe not, but it would probably increase the chances of another family looking after her more like their own than like just another neighbor's kid.
There are women in my life with whom I'd be very happy for my daughter to have that bond, for one or more of these women to be a milk-mother to her, and to be milk-siblings with her children. I don't hold the nursing relationship to be a proprietary, mama-only thing, but rather a caring, connecting gift which could be given by others as well - to her, and to me - albeit on a very different level. I will always be her mother. If she has other kinds of mothers in her life, I think that is a great blessing for her.
Of course, like my comfort with nursing in front of my father-in-law, my resolve in being personally pro- co-nursing waivers around the edges, too. I blame my constant exposure to the over-sexualization of breasts for the slight squeamishness, the nervous embarrassment I feel rising in me at the thought of it really happening, even after writing all of this. However, I stand firm in my declaration... um, 99.3% Let's see how true it holds next time I visit the states and my dear friend offers my child her breast!
What about you? Would you let another woman nurse your child? I'd love to hear other moms' thoughts on this!