August 4, 2009

An Aunt Who Shares

Nestles mother book 1 When a baby is born at the local hospital, the clerk in Labor and Delivery calls the pediatrician identified by the parents. The call I received one night about 3:00 AM was a little hard to understand. Granted, I had been awakened. But I asked the clerk for the patient’s name. ‘Oran…,‘ she said, then ‘Oranolantu…,‘ then ‘…bat…. “Do you mean Oranolantubaataar?“ I asked. Relieved, she told me I had a healthy big baby girl to come in and take a look at. I knew the family, and took care of the 4-year old son. I told her I’d be in later that morning. She politely told me that everyone in Labor and Delivery would really like me to come in now. I got dressed and went to the hospital, fearing the worst.

The Charge Nurse for L&D, who is the supervisor of all the nurses and operations of the department except for the obstetricians, and always one of the most experienced veteran professionals there, met me at the elevator, before I entered the ward. She said she’d never seen anything like it and didn’t know if it was OK and wanted me to evaluate this and write a note about it in the chart. She was afraid the hospital might get sued, and maybe a little afraid of losing her job. When I walked into the room, I was not prepared for what I saw.

The mother I knew was smiling happily in bed. Her labor had been relatively short with this second child, born about 2 hours earlier. She greeted me warmly in her broken English. I looked around. “Where’s the baby?” I asked her. She pointed to the chair next to her bed on which was a young woman. ‘Sister’ was her one word introduction. This woman was bare-breasted and nursing the newborn child.

I had never seen anything like it. I met with a group of the nurses, the charge nurse, and others.

The transition from unencumbered adult to parent is always unforeseeably and indescribably enormous. It seems that in recent years, the pressure on new parents has continued to build. The parenting shelf in the bookstore has become a whole section with many aisles. Perhaps it’s a good thing that you now can choose to learn what one author thinks you should have been expecting while you were expecting and another author claims to help you raise a child who is an over-achieving, healthy, gifted, socially adept, high IQ athlete who knows both how to control her temper and who goes to sleep without problems. (My approach to advising parents is almost always to ask the child to provide the right guidance. They usually know.)

Why has this proliferation of parenting advice taken place? The simple answer is that there’s a market for it. Publishers are aware of the demand and are in the business of meeting it. What’s behind this demand?

The desire to produce a text on childrearing isn’t new. Especially with the industrial revolution, the idea gradually took hold that maybe there was a ‘right’ way to raise kids.

Especially for the new parent, and the new mother in particular, these books can seem like an essential reference. There is a tendency for new parents and new mothers in particular to feel that the ‘success’ of nursing the baby, soothing the baby, even bathing the baby is a great burden that falls on them and them alone. If things aren’t going exactly right in the first days and weeks, it’s hard for new mothers not to see that as a personal failure. This is a major contributor to postpartum depression. But what has caused this crushing pressure? Is this part of Eve’s curse (Genesis 3:16)?


I don’t think so. According to archeological evidence, and teenage caveman 1958according to countless cave-people movies, humans most likely never went through a phase of living in completely isolated family units. The idea, maybe born out of the settling of the American West, that there would be settlers who lived a hardscrabble life by themselves on a ranch the size of some European countries, is not one that has typically existed elsewhere in the world. Sure there are subsistence farms and always have been, but they are small and the families live close to other families.

And, finally I’m getting to the point, all the households are multigenerational. With marriage as teenagers, there would usually be grandmothers and even great-grandmothers living with the new mother. There would be sisters and aunts with their babies, too. And despite the considerable work all the women were required to do, some of the work of childcare and an enormous amount of cumulative experience and wisdom would be easily available and given.

Though it’s a good guess that midwives, people with special expertise in childbirth, have been around for a long time, Lactation Consultants are likely a newer breed. Within a multigenerational household, there would be lots of sources of advice about sore nipples and babies who don’t latch well. I suspect that postpartum depression has always been with us, but some of its pervasive contributors--isolation, the feeling that every need of the baby must be met by the mother, the sense of failure if the mother’s milk hasn’t come in by day 3 or 4--would be so very much relieved by having a crew of experienced and trusted peers who know what the heck they are doing.

The baby’s mother was from one of the Mongolian families I take care of. Some speak no English at all. But they all live very near each other in one neighborhood of Oakland. Many bring their kids to me. Her sister had given birth a few months earlier, and was still nursing her own infant. In their culture, this wasn’t unusual--it was simply what was done.

About a hundred years ago, and for millennia before that, wet nurses were common. Women who couldn’t nurse or those who could but had the resources to avoid this task of the masses, would employ a woman whose lactation was maintained by her continued employment. There were few alternatives. (The picture above is from a booklet produced about 1900 by Nestle, for a product called NestlĂ©'s Food, which was among the very first commercial baby formulas. It’s from my collection.) But before there were professional wet nurses, there were women who would share their supply with the less fortunate, or the babies who had survived childbirth when their mothers did not.

One of the nurses asked if it was hygienic. Honestly, I didn’t know. I suppose, in these days of Universal Precautions and doctors afraid to touch you without gloves on, I could see what the concerns might be. There are some diseases which can be transmitted through breast milk, along with many medications. As politely as I could, I tried to get a little medical history from this other woman. She spoke almost no English, and the postpartum mother was translating my questions—I think. She’s the one who told me ‘she OK’ and left it at that.

I told the L&D crew it was OK with me and I would write an order in the chart explicitly allowing it.

The woodcut from 1550 is by Hans Brosamer and is from my collection. It shows the creation of Eve, her temptation, and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The poster from the 1958 movie Teenage Caveman was part of the collection I sold in 1992. Produced by—who else?—Roger Corman, I think it was Robert Vaughn’s first starring role.

1 comment:

  1. Funny how we think we know everything on raising children. What a comfort to this mother to have her sister nurse her baby while waiting for her own milk to come in.


Please let me know what you think. Do you know a child or situation like this?