Baboons, Billboards, and Mommy Tribes

Sit with a group of moms long enough and you’ll hear a familiar conversation: “What’s Joey doing this summer?” “When did your daughter potty-train?” “Who’s your pediatrician?” For some, these conversations are about competition and making sure you’re winning the mommy race (oh, you know you’re out there). But for most of us, these chats are about wanting to become better at what we do, more informed, armed with the information we need to successfully raise our kids.

A couple years ago, a study was done on a group of wild baboon mothers (hang in there, I promise this will be interesting). The researchers studied the level of sociability of the mothers and then looked at the survival rates of their babies. What they found explains why coffee shops all over America are packed full with diaper bags and strollers at 10:30 every weekday morning. Mama baboons that were more social had babies who survived. Yeah, we don’t live in a jungle (though you should see my garden), but I think it’s an easy jump to make from primate to primate. The ability and opportunity to connect with other moms is good for you, but it’s especially good for your baby. 

So why bring that up on a breastfeeding blog? We are socially connected! We’ve got the internet now! We can look at one of the 24,000 breastfeeding videos on YouTube. We’ve got Facebook, the only place on earth we can subject our third cousin to our lactivist tendencies without having to look him in the face! There are new breastfeeding blogs and websites popping up every day! Look how far we’ve come, baby.

I really don’t think it’s that far. Real connection, face-to-face connection, doesn’t happen through a screen and real connection is what we need to change Chicago’s breastfeeding culture.

Here’s what I mean: Four years ago, I was sitting in coffeeshop with my mommy crew for our weekly get-together. These are the ladies who showed, not told, me how to deal with toddlers in a loving, respectful way. It was by watching them interact with their older kids that I learned that the occasional milk spill is absolutely not a big deal and actually pretty funny if you think about it. It was by watching them that I learned to help my child stand up for himself and tell his friends what he wants and doesn’t want. And it was through them that I realized that breastfeeding is part of life, just like any other parenting activity. On that day, four years ago, Kelly and I were talking about who knows what (probably social justice school reform, because that’s what we like to talk about) and she gracefully lifted her son away from her chest and pulled her shirt down. In that moment I realized that she had been breastfeeding the entire time we were talking; I just hadn’t noticed! I remember Michelle sighing when she talked about the fact that her older daughter still wanted to nurse at night, along with her baby sister. I learned that Pat had induced lactation and pumped for months before her adopted son ever arrived home. I didn’t even know that was possible! Yeah, these are amazing ladies in a lot of different ways, but they get some credit for me becoming a breastfeeding freak. And by freak, I mean lover.

The lessons these ladies taught me aren’t covered in a breastfeeding class, they can’t be found in a book, and nobody uses them as status updates. The real lessons in parenting (and breastfeeding) come from the interactions with other moms that we were designed to have, the interactions that our DNA tells us to have, the interactions that our babies’ wellbeing is dependent upon, because we become better moms every time we see a good mom in action. We may not notice how the interaction changes us, but it puts one more tool in our toolbox… and who doesn’t need more tools to deal with these special little creatures we call our kids?

Right now, public health experts are wringing their hands trying to figure out how to get more moms to breastfeed their babies. They are failing. You can have brilliant billboards with breastfed babies on them (like Milwaukee’s campaign), you can have celebrity endorsements of breastfeeding, you can a million adorable breastfeeding accessories for your smart phone, but nothing is going to change the breastfeeding culture like mom-to-mom support. Period.

Unfortunately, getting moms to speak up is a hell of a lot harder than sticking up a billboard. None of us wants to be “that” friend. None of us wants to hurt anyone’s feelings or seem judgmental and pushy. So what do we do? We nurse in front of our friends. We nurse at playgroup. We nurse at the park. We nurse at church/temple/mosque. We nurse at family reunions, birthday parties, weddings, baby showers, and bachelorette parties. We ignore people’s negative comments, and have a simple, but firm response in our pocket (something like “This is the way I’ve chosen to feed my children”). We become our own silent, but omnipresent billboard.

Once this happens, once all of our “billboards” are up all over the city, our mom friends will start asking questions. “Doesn’t it hurt?” “Can you still have sex and breastfeed?” “My friend said her milk ran out – is that true?” “Aren’t you back at work now?” And we will smile, and we will answer all of their questions, and we will share with them this awesome parenting tool called breastfeeding, because that’s what we do.

Lesson of the day: Find your tribe. If you can’t find a tribe, find a group of moms that you can tolerate, because you’ll need them on this journey, and they will need you.

Katrina Pavlik, founder of Breastfeed, Chicago!, wants to thank her tribe for all the invaluable lessons they have taught her. This journey would not be the same without you.

5 thoughts on “Baboons, Billboards, and Mommy Tribes

  1. love my Tribe! I read a LOT and study and google, but I learn BY FAR the most just watching, talking and interacting with my core mommy friends. There is NOTHING like a supportive, honest, loving tribe. You’re so right – we ALL learn from each other, because we all have different strengths, and nobody can get it all right :0)

  2. Katrina, you said it well: “NOTHING is going to change the breastfeeding culture like mom-to-mom support.” Here’s a story: Years ago, I was a LLL Leader at a large and lively evening meeting. Several of the moms there had, I knew, experienced significant difficulties at the beginning of breastfeeding and now, weeks later, were doing quite well. After a few of them spoke about some of the things they had gone through, I asked them if they could share what helped them the most — why were they able to overcome their challenges and go on to have a rewarding breastfeeding experience? One by one, they all answered: it is because I come to this meeting.

    I was floored. I had expected them to say they’d gotten help from a great professional — a good lactation consultant, a supportive pediatrician — or a close friend or family member — a mom, a sister, a spouse. To a woman, they identified mother-to-mother support as something that made an enormous difference to them.

    I’ve never forgotten this lesson, and I’ve seen it happen over and over again. In a roomful of people who have a common purpose, basic friendliness toward each other, some good information, and a few ground rules (like, “we’ll take turns talking” — that kind of thing) amazing change can happen!

    1. Agreed, Jean! Something special happens when you have a common purpose, no matter your differences in other parts of your life. What lucky women to have been a part of your group! On behalf of all the babies who got a longer breastfeeding relationship with their mamas, I thank you!

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