Sunday Brunch: Interview with a Storyteller

I met this Storyteller on Clarissa Pinkola Estès' facebook page. Estes is the author of Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype (WWRWTW to her adoring legions), a bestselling book that explores the use of traditional folk tales in empowering (mostly Western) women. It came out twenty years ago, and though it sometimes crosses the line into cultural appropriation (we can't very well avoid it if we're finding our strength in... the stories of another culture, can we?), it's a beautiful book that lives beyond its era. It goes further than most in acknowledging the mystery: the mystery of life, the mystery of humanity, the mystery of woman, body and – yes! – motherhood.

So I 'liked' Estès on facebook and occasionally I get her updates. One day she posted the story of Jiang Xiojuan, the 'Madonna of China', a policewoman who is nursing nine (!) orphaned/milk-deprived babies. A conversation about milk and nursing ensued, and one commentator in particular caught my attention. She wrote about her experience trying to donate breast milk (and being rejected) twenty years ago. Since that's a topic I'm interested in (remember my 'Une Vache à Lait, Let's All Donate Milk' post?), I contacted her to see if she would consent to be interviewed about her experiences. 

I'm so glad I did.

Colladay is a film-maker and 'professional student'.
She runs with the wolves.
First of all, this Storyteller (also known in real life as Kaitlan Colladay) has – you guessed it – an excellent way with narrative. Second, she's had four kids, the oldest and youngest being 22 years apart. She's seen both sides of the drastic changes in birth and childrearing that occurred in the West between the 1970s and the 1990s. As she puts it, "With my first child, I tried to get them NOT to give him formula and I couldn’t stop them. With the last one, I just wanted a bottle to tide her over and they refused. Who are these health care professionals anyway?"

Enjoy this week's Sunday Brunch, as we discuss reproductive autonomy, applause after birth, going to the bathroom with the door open, and stealing infant formula from the NICU. And remember, as Clarissa Pinkola Estès says, ''If you have never been called a defiant, incorrigible, impossible woman, have faith. There is yet time."

¡Buen provecho!

 - Svea Boyda-Vikander


SB-V: If you could summarize your parenting philosophy into one word, phrase, or sentence, what would that be?

GS: Mothers are important and serve a much-needed value to our society and our future. Just love them.

SB-V: What do you wish you had known before you had your first child?

GS: That I didn’t have to be like my parents. That I could pick and choose which attitudes and behaviors I adopted when raising mine. That took a long time. My mother was a very caring, attentive mother but she was also a bit “emotionally absent” and had ideas about routine and fitting into the box – all of that was quite normal for the period of time she raised me and my sisters. By the time I had babies, obviously starting young, I had my own ideas of course but I found that I did a lot of things in those early days that were just a mimic of the patterns my parents did and really weren’t necessary. Would have helped if I had known that my parents weren’t going to help in any way whatsoever.

SB-V: What is the absolute worst advice anyone has given you, about parenting?

GS: You’ll love this, it came not just from my mother but also a team of child psychologists when I went to a “parenting group” once for a few weeks. It goes like this: If he’s been fed, cleaned and changed, put him to bed and let him cry himself to sleep. I look back on that and just can’t believe I ever did it. I would sit in the other room and cry while I let him “cry it out.” I should have listened to my instincts. Poor baby. Makes me want to cry even now when I remember it. What a stupid thing to tell someone about a baby. They cry for a reason and maybe the reason is that they just need a little more cuddling. We are the only animals on the planet (Western societies) that make it a social practice NOT to touch or hold our babies very much. Even elephants spend YEARS constantly touching and being close to their offspring.

SB-V: And the best advice?

GS: Do what feels right and don’t worry about what anyone else thinks. Love them for who THEY are. (That’s my advice.)

SB-V: What were your childbirth(s) like, and were you happy with the care you received?

GS: Oh, but mothers can talk about their birth experiences for hours!
  • Firstborn son: 3-4 weeks premature. At five weeks [before my due date], began labor and they stopped the labor with an alcohol drip. I’m serious. An alcohol drip. I’m lucky/he’s lucky he didn’t have FAS (fetal alcohol syndrome). A week later, my water broke and at the hospital, my blood pressure shot up to 240/210. I found out years later I was lucky I wasn’t dead or had a stroke. He was 4 pounds 10 ounces and quite healthy, but the hospital policy at the time was to not release them until they were 5 pounds, so he stayed in hospital for two and a half weeks. This really damaged my ability to nurse because although I would bring them my breastmilk and go down every day to nurse him at least once, it just wasn’t enough. They were giving him formula or glucose water instead even though I’d instructed them not to and told them to use my milk.
    Also, this was 1974, and in that final push on the delivery table, I closed my eyes and the doctor grabbed a pair of forceps and yanked him out with them – wholly unnecessary. I didn’t know about it until some days later when I kept asking about the cuts on the side of his head that were getting worse and looking like they were infected. Some nurse said, “was he a forceps birth?” I said no because he was small enough, there really wasn’t a problem but she looked it up on his chart and confirmed that he had been. They had to put him on antibiotics because the cuts developed a staph infection. 
  • Second child. My blood pressure had begun to “creep up” and a routine exam showed I was dilated to 2 cm so my OB decided that I should go to the hospital “right away” and be induced. I was two weeks away from the due date. I didn’t know then that this was not all that unusual and I could have kept her in me for another two weeks and let her brain and lungs finish developing. But OBs are always in a such a hurry and I believed it was necessary because he said so. Then at the hospital, I wasn’t “progressing fast enough” for his taste, so he turned up the IV on the Pitocin because I was still only dilated to 2cm. I had a single contraction that made me feel like I was going to just die and I thought if I have seven more hours of this, I won’t make it. It was horrible. So I let the OB talk me into a spinal block which I didn’t want (first child was without drugs). So, he tries to give me the block and missed and hit a nerve and I screamed again and he asked what I was doing and I said pushing. He checked and I was now dilated to 10cm and she was crowning. Basically, that first contraction put me from 2cm to 10cm and through transition in one contraction. No wonder it hurt so bad. Everyone went nuts trying to get me in the delivery room on time. I delivered her in 3 contractions total and only 45 minutes from start to finish. And all his, “let’s induce” because it will minimize my blood pressure which was only 140/90 at the time, was for nothing because my BP shot up and I spent the next 36 hours in intensive care anyway. 
  • Third child. Did a lot of reading on theories of pre-eclampsia. Discovered it used to be a disease of the poor and then became a condition of the middle and upper classes and had everything to do with eating enough fats and not worrying about weight gain (poor can’t afford to eat right, upper/middle doctors tell clients to restrict weight gain) so I wouldn’t let my doctor tell me how much weight I’d gained. Spent a great deal of time telling him that no matter how much I begged, don’t give me drugs and don’t even try to do that spinal block thing! I started to go into labor on the 4th of July. Got all the way to the hospital and found out my OB was out of town for the weekend and freaked out. Suddenly my labor stopped. Scared me out of it I suppose. A week later, I lost the mucus plug, so he wanted to check me in and induce if I hadn’t started soon, which he did. That one was about 3 hours from start to finish and I lost a lot of blood but all was okay and he was term and a happy plump little boy. 
  • Fourth child. BP [blood pressure] issues again. Jerk Woman OB made a nasty comment when I told her I was tired all the time and she said that I was “a little old” to be having a baby (I was 39 at the time). Then we did a routine ultrasound in which she told me that there was no doubt that my baby was a Down’s Syndrome child. Higher level tests later and we discover she wasn’t and isn’t. I changed doctors and got a male OB who understood that pregnant women shouldn’t be working if they can help it because, after all, I’m pregnant. So he wrote a note to my firm and I got to take the last two months off from work with full pay. A week before she was born, my doc wanted me in the hospital full time. I spent a day there and said I’m going home because I only saw nurses about three times a day and not only was I bored stiff but I was also starving! At home a week later, I started labor around 10 p.m. and we rushed as fast as possible to the hospital. They wanted me to hang out while they “checked” until I told them it was my fourth child and I had a history of short labor. We got upstairs and the doctor showed up while the Pediatric Trauma Team gathered in the back of the room (since she was premature by three weeks). I had a birthing bed/table. A really nice environment to be in. I never dilated completely and she got stuck on the “cervical lip”or something. The doctor wanted to do an emergency C-Section but the pediatric nurse just sort of shoved him aside, waited for me to push again and just “held” me open with one hand and reached inside with the other until her head came out. My vaginal muscles have never recovered from that but the baby came out fine and never lost any oxygen. When she popped out, the doc’s hands slipped and she (the baby) screamed at him. The six members of the pediatric EMT team in the back all cheered and clapped. It was awesome having the applause! I can still hear it!
    This becomes important . . . She was fine, I was more or less fine but doc was worried about my BP possibly shooting up. (With pre-eclampsia and eclampsia, it can shoot up to a stroke anytime in the 24 hours after delivery). He put me on an IV drip of the same magnesium sulfate drug which made my arm hurt so bad that I told the nurses to take it out (It’s a very painful drug going in). They said they couldn’t take out the IV unless the doctor ordered it and he was asleep (it was about 3 a.m.). I told them to wake him up and they said they weren’t “authorized.” So I said wake him up or I’m taking it out myself and reached up to pull the IV out (it’s not rocket science). They scrambled, he finally came in, said I might die if he took it out and I signed some papers and they took it out.
  • Okay, this is the really important part and as I write this on the evening of the 29th of February 2012, I am thinking about the latest news regarding Douglas Kennedy, youngest son of Robert F. Kennedy, and the “scandal” when he tried to take his newborn baby out for some fresh air. There are two issues that came up with the last baby (born in 1996). The first was that, as is normal, my milk had not yet “come in” in those first hours. I naturally nursed my new girl so she could get the colostrum, but she was a truly hungry baby. She didn’t want to sleep, she wanted to eat. So I asked for some formula. The nurses wouldn’t give it to me. I’m not kidding. They said, “the chart says you’re nursing.” I said, “yeah, but there’s no milk yet and she’s hungry.” They replied that I should just “be patient” – okay, well patient in my case, I don’t know about others, is that it might take three days before my milk comes in. That’s not all that unusual and has been the case with me before and in the meantime, she’s awake and she’s hungry so could I please get some formula (my other kids weren’t interested in the first 2-3 days and slept most of the time – this one was just downright hungry). They absolutely refused to give it to me! I had to go into the nursery and steal it when they weren’t looking! Unbelievable. Then later on, she got a little restless, so I wanted to walk her up and down the hall. The nurses said I couldn’t. I wasn’t “allowed” to walk her/rock her in my arms. I had to push her in the little pushcart basinnette and I could only do that in my room! You weren’t “allowed” to walk your baby up and down the halls. I called my husband and told him to come get me and I checked out before 24 hours was up after she was born. 
  • The interesting part to me is that with a gap of just 22 years, in the first case with my first child, I tried to get them NOT to give him formula and I couldn’t stop them. With the last one, I just wanted a bottle to tide her over and they refused. Who are these health care professionals anyway? And I wasn’t allowed to carry her out of the hospital. I was wheeled out and some other nurse carried the baby. 

SB-V: Can you share with us some of your tricks and tips about staying sane as a new mother?

GS: I think the biggest tip is just don’t expect to get enough sleep or feel normal for the first two years and next to none in the first weeks and months. Remind yourself that it WILL get better and it WILL get easier (because it does!). It’s like that last contraction as they go through transition. When that one happens, that’s usually when you think you just can’t do it anymore (someone shoot me please!), but if you’ve been through it once, you remember that this is the one that signals that it’s almost over. So, if you know going into motherhood that you will not get sleep, you will not feel normal for a while, then it makes it easier to cope because you know that this IS normal. Can’t remember how many times I had to choose between shower, eating or sleeping. As a nursing mother, I generally had to eat like it or not or I wouldn’t have enough milk the next time, so showers just didn’t happen often. But I learned to take the baby in the bathroom with me and just let him/her roll on the floor if you need a shower or a bath. Usually the sound of the running water will soothe them anyway. My kids still make fun of me because I spent so many years going into the bathroom and leaving the door open that even today, sometimes I forget to close it! But the big thing is don’t “expect” anything. Do what you can and if you can’t then don’t. If you have other kids, even if they are little, let them help as much as possible. I still feel I made a mistake with my son when I wouldn’t let him “help” with the baby because he was only five. I could have. He wanted to but I was too busy “doing it all” and not being patient enough with him to let him be a part of it which in the end made him not only uninterested but I think it really increased his jealousy level higher than it should have been.

SB-V: What kind of sleeping arrangements did you have?

GS: First two kids had their own nursery and a crib although they did spend a lot of time in the bed with me because I was nursing so I’d just fall asleep with them in my arms (and, no, you are not going to suffocate them! Prop yourself up on a pillow, pillow under the arm and then nurse!). The third one slept with us until he was five or so. Had to actually lay down with him to get him to go to sleep and after that, no point in moving in because he’d wake up and cry until he got put back in the bed with us. The fourth had a crib initially but again, slept with me a lot because of the nursing. Then there were times when I was single and very broke that both of them shared the bed with me out of necessity. I don’t think it’s “damaged” them at all, in fact I think they have no doubt in their minds that I love them and that can only be a good thing.

SB-V: Can you talk a bit about your experiences breastfeeding?

GS: I breastfed all my children. But with three of them, I always had difficulty and it didn’t last long – three months tops. But then with the first two, I had some serious pre-eclampsia and premature birth plus they gave me Magnesium Sulfate shots which I learned in a class I was taking with Dr. C. Everett Koop that this could have interfered not only with my breastmilk supply but also could have caused some serious damage to the children. The third child was the only one born at term and I nursed him until he was nearly 9 months old. The only reason I stopped was because he got all eight of his front teeth in (four top, four bottom) all at once and he fell asleep and then clamped down so hard I had bruises and almost couldn’t nurse him after that. I tried to teach him not to bite (I may be a human bottle but I’m not a human teething ring!) and he wouldn’t get it, so I quit nursing. With the other older two children, I substituted the bottle for the breast when my milk supply gave out – as in I made it the same “ritual” and NEVER gave them the bottle without me holding it for them and then just went bottle to cup when they were old enough to sit up and hold it and they were eating babyfood by then. The bottle was gone immediately and they were both out of diapers by the time they were not quite two – even at night. I think that had a lot to do with it (no bottle) because I certainly wasn’t fanatical about toilet training or night time diaper issues.

With my last child, I had to go back to work when she was 10 weeks old. No choice. She was about 3 weeks premature and she had difficulty latching on so basically the milk she got was what started if it decided to – or not. Turns out that in later years, she really had some difficulty with her tongue and had articulation problems in the early days of speech. Then she also had a completely erratic sleep schedule. She’d sleep for two hours, wake up, nurse, sleep for three hours, wake up, nurse, then sleep for seven hours before she’d wake up again. When I noticed that this was interfering with my milk getting established, I tried waking her, but it just wasn’t happening. So, I’d try to pump at the 3rd or 4th hour just to keep the supply going and almost like she knew I was doing it, she’d wake up 5 minutes after I’d done that! It was really tough. Her schedule was what she wanted it to be. Even after I went back to work, I tried pumping – not much success – so I tried going home at “lunch time” but that didn’t always coincide with her wake schedule. By the time she was three and half months old, I gave up.

SB-V: What was your experience with having over-supply of milk? How do you wish people had responded to your offers to donate? 

GS: With the third child, he nursed every two hours around the clock for the first two months. When he eased up, he just went to every three hours. I had so much milk, easily an excess of 12-24 ounces in a 24 hour period. I called local hospitals. I called not so local hospitals. I called the La Leche League. I called everywhere and I got the same answer and that was that they weren’t interested. They might get sued. They had no way of guaranteeing that the milk was not contaminated. All I could think about was mothers of the seriously premature babies who weren’t getting breast milk because they can’t quite suckle yet and their mothers were never able to establish the milk supply. What a difference that might have made! But no one wanted it. I still don’t have an answer to that. It’s so cultural and specific to our western society.

SB-V: What mistakes did you make as the mother of small children?

GS: Really? That’s a question? Lots. You’ll have to read my book! But we can’t all be perfect and I did the best I could with what I had and what I could do always making sure to tell them and show them with affection that I love them.

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