The pictures that come to mind when I am caring for my daughter Cilla during the still, unhurried moments of our day are the images of my own mother, my grandmothers, and my aunts. I see memories, but mostly stories told by them or about them that I wasn’t present for. My maternal grandmother was a powerful matriarch of my kin, looming over her nine children and dozens of grandchildren like a legend and sort of family compass. Her opinions were not shrouded, her stories about her impoverished and abused childhood open plain as day, and her love of celebrations and joy uninhibited. She believed mothers should stay home with their children, that people were too materialistic, that priests should be able to get married, and that mothers should nurse their babies. Her opinions were as strong as her love.
[All images by Abby Jean Photography | @_abbyjeanphotography]
A story I wasn’t present for, that I don’t even recall her telling, has become like a favorite photograph to me. My mind refers back to it often. Both of my maternal great-grandfathers were Pennsylvania coal miners. I take this heritage, alongside my paternal side that consisted of slaves and other low laborers, to be a source of pride and who I conjure my stubbornness from. I am emboldened to do anything: have a baby without drugs, stand in the face of fear, make a living doing something ridiculous and frivolous, because the people who came before me weren’t weak and neither am I. In this story, my grandmother speaks to me about how her mother would sit along the stone walls outside of the mine waiting for her husband to get off. She’d nurse her babies and wait. This was her motherhood, her reality, her story as a nursing mother who survived a hard marriage, and lived at times in public housing. My grandmother, like her mother would go on to nurse her children, and my mother would nurse me, as I am now nursing my toddler.
Priscilla’s first few hours of life and the beginnings of nursing are hazy. At some point within the first week or so I had developed sharp pain on one side and was in agony each time I fed her. One night, on the couch, I nursed Cilla while tears streamed down my cheeks. I was unaware of them until Seth asked me if I was okay. I had been fixated on her and the show we were watching in our dimly lit living room. “We can get formula if you want to,” Seth told me. I pushed through, found a solution in shields, and visited with a lactation consultant. I was determined, if not by the skin of my teeth, to keep going. I am so glad I did. This would be the second time my stubbornness would serve me in light of new motherhood. I know my grandmothers would be proud of me.
There’s a magic to this kind of legacy, and I’m more than surprised at the beauty of it. These are the jewels of motherhood, the unexpected good things that take us by surprise. Am I proud of be a nursing mother? Absolutely. Am I impressed that we’ve made it this far despite a challenging start? Every day.
I’m a truth over feelings woman and sometimes that’s beautiful and sometimes that means I anger people, and I take full ownership for that. I don’t think my grandmother thought twice about her openness on controversial topics. I want to have a back and forth with my great-grandmother, who I see as my age sitting on that rock wall, about how the act of feeding her baby might trigger people. I want to sit next to her and nurse my toddler while my growing belly makes it a little trickier by the day. There’s a connectedness and holiness to this act. This is motherhood broken down to its most basic responsibility: providing food for your child. At a midwife appointment a few weeks ago I told my midwife I was worried my milk was drying up. I have a goal to nurse Priscilla until she’s two, the World Health Organization’s recommendation. She still loves nursing and asks for it daily. “Your milk may very well be gone, but at some point it will come back.” I held my breath, but we kept going. A few weeks went by, and suddenly my had milk returned.
My life differs so greatly from the women who came before me. I have significantly more comfort and peace in my daily life, grocery delivery, and Marco Polo to chat with other moms. I have maternity leggings, a smart phone, and Amazon Prime. The tenacity of my grandmothers in light of what they lived and thrived without makes them even more beautiful in my eyes. Nursing continues to be a thread that connects us. Our daily lives may be different, but one tradition remains, and for that I am grateful and proud.
The ability that we as women and mothers have to be able to breastfeed is a wonder. And yet, with this miracle comes challenges as well. We all have our own beautiful journey of motherhood to traverse. Here are additional stories of struggle and triumph from mothers with the universal goal of loving their children. What’s your story? We would love to hear it.