As far as body parts go, breasts are among the better ones. They can provide all of the resources needed to transform 7-pound babies into little men and women, automatically restocking the cupboard like a utility clerk in a grocery store. Individually as unique as a snowflake, a breast stays true to the same appealing aesthetic of curves and bumps.
They display great versatility in the way they invade our culture, ranging from nutritional tools to objects of desire. They go by a multitude of names and have been central to fashion trends of the day. Breasts are inspiration for art. Breasts are the catalyst for a wealth of emotions.
Some women treat them as accessories and inconveniences; others rely on them as a source of strength or power. Men revolve their lives around them from the very beginning. We alternate between admiration and shame, jealousy and ownership. And when not revolted, between hunger and lust. They are to be hidden and flaunted.
It’s no wonder Society really doesn’t know what to do with them when they stick out.
Such was the case last month when a local woman was stopped for a traffic violation. I don’t know how fast Darcee Leonard was going, but I do know where she went — the Monroe County Jail. It seems there was an outstanding warrant for her stemming from a drug-related charge from 1998. The papers were served after Darcee was evicted from her Colorado apartment and relocated to the Midwest. She claimed no knowledge of this warrant and it is evident the state didn’t take much interest in her until it served them. But right or wrong, there were legal questions that must be answered, so away she went. What makes this case important is the injustice that arose after she was taken into custody.
Darcee is a nursing mother. Not convicted of any crime, she was treated as though already sentenced and deposited into a system ill-prepared to handle her special circumstance. In the process, the relationship between Darcee and her 15-month-old son, Elijah, was trampled in the pursuit of justice. Her baby was denied both sustenance and physical nurturing from the principal force in his life — his mother — because of staff limitations, personality conflicts with the presiding judge, and an absence of policy regarding parenting from prison.
Changing Views on Changing Diapers
Maybe that is to be expected. Non-Western cultural views on nursing and weaning are far more accepting of the notion that children should not only be breastfed but that it should continue well past the first year. Similar attitudinal differences exist for other aspects of child rearing, including co-sleeping, use of slings and communal parenting. Even within the United States, there are a wide variety of parenting methods in use. Not many would be universally considered “wrong,” but neither does there exist a systemic respect for all choices in how to raise a child.
If young parents are confused about what to do, it is because Western history appears equally baffled. In 1749, physicians were urging hospitals to avoid feeding altogether in the first few days after birth, arguing that a woman’s breast milk doesn’t come in for 1-2 days. Two and a half centuries later, the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommended breast feeding within 4 hours after birth. The formula craze of the past generation stemmed in large part to our confidence in Western Science to improve on and conquer nature. If Science could put a man on the moon, technology should also make babies healthier, stronger and less inconvenient for parents. Evidence collected since that period discounts that assumption in favor of the built-in food source.
Nursing choices are often the target of criticism despite a strong endorsement from doctors that it is an important part of caring for infants. Although there is a wide range of opinions on breastfeeding, the official word from the AAP is that it is the single best thing parents can do for their children. Yet the stigma still exists.
In a December 1997 statement, the AAP disclosed studies that showed 59.4% of women in the United States in 1995 were breastfeeding at the time of hospital discharge, but only 21.6% of mothers were nursing at 6 months. The AAP cited several obstacles to the initiation and continuation of breastfeeding, including:
- physician apathy and insufficient prenatal education;
- disruptive hospital policies and early hospital discharge;
- maternal employment when the workplace does not support breastfeeding;
- media portrayal of bottle-feeding as normative;
- and, commercial promotion of infant formula
As for weaning, the gradual introduction of iron-enriched solid foods in the second half of the first year should complement the breast milk diet. It is recommended that breastfeeding continue for at least 12 months, and thereafter for as long as mutually desired.
That implies that the only two votes that should count are the child and the mother. Darcee and Elijah may as well have been punching Presidential ballots in Florida. With the Monroe County Jail built to the specs of a maximum security prison, the mother and son could get no closer than the tantalizing glances through reinforced plate glass. So traumatizing was the experience for Elijah — who could see, but not touch his mother — his emergency caretakers agreed not to bring him back for another fruitless visit.
The physical health concerns for mother were addressed, so argues the authorities, when they agreed to provide a breast pump to keep Darcee flowing while not becoming engorged, a painful experience for any woman. While this step was certainly appreciated, the two-a-day discharges interfered with the delicate rhythms that accompany successful breast feeding. It is a fallacy, or at least extremely rare, that a mother is physically incapable of providing sufficient milk for her child. When difficulties arise, it is most often due to other factors — from improper latching techniques to scheduled feedings — that have nothing to do with physical attributes. The longer Darcee was without her nursing partner, the more at risk her ability to provide for her child after legal problems had been cleared.
Elijah was forced to get his nutrition elsewhere. Darcee’s milk was discarded after pumping, leaving the responsibility of providing food for Elijah to a friend of the family who effectively became a wet nurse to the boy. Opinions about whether a 15-month-old baby should be nursing in the first place influenced the decisions of the jailers, if not the court, and completely ignored the desires of mother and child to continue the process. The actions that deprived Elijah of milk also deprived him of the emotional nurturing that is a large aspect of breastfeeding. Even for those mothers who have difficulties providing food for their babies, doctors strongly urge attempts at nursing to continue. The family can still develop the trust and empathy that comes with holding a child that close.
To deny this at all is questionable, at best. To deny it so abruptly is abusive.
With the Leonard case, there are many interesting questions that surface. Is it wise to treat drug use as a crime? Should prisoners and detainees be afforded more courtesy, if not respect? How much do personalities unfairly influence our judicial process? Is there a better way to handle extradition between states? Should mothers breastfeed at all, and if so, when is the best age to stop? At the end of the long day, these are merely subplots to the larger issue: a child always has a right to proper care. Regardless of what someone’s opinion is about breastfeeding, there is no pediatrician worth their handicap who would say such a sudden weaning was beneficial to Elijah, either physically or emotionally.
The Poignant Pen
The common interest in Darcee made unusual allies of people standing on opposite sides of ideological fences. Local mothers, including my wife, got wind of the situation after the judge’s denial. Together, the group has been active in bringing the issue of parenting from jail to the attention of the Sheriff, the City Council and the County Commissioners. They’ve even had to overcome some poor journalism by the local paper, the Herald-Times, that misinterpreted the Sheriff with regard to why Darcee was denied the opportunity to continue nursing Elijah.
It is this last twist that prompted Amy to speak out in the form of a letter to the editor. She had been ruminating for a couple weeks about Darcee and Elijah’s ordeal, attending the meeting with the Commissioners as her first participatory act of protest. That gave her a first-hand account of what went on during the meeting as she listened to the patient and considered statements from young mothers. She even got up and said a few words herself, urging the authorities to create some policies that will consider the child and the effects of abrupt weaning when the parent is incarcerated for any length of time.
And she was there to witness two members of the press as they dozed or left the room during this impassioned plea. When the story broke in the Herald-Times — under the headline, “Nursing moms descend upon commissioners” — she was infuriated by the coverage. Despite the headline, the mothers were not quoted at all, and the reporter misinformed local readers by stating Darcee’s request to nurse was denied because she had drugs in her system, a claim never made by the Sheriff. While Amy fumed for a couple days, a doctor in town wrote to express his shock that the protesters would support the idea of a drugged-up woman nursing her baby. Procrastinating no further, Amy sat down for a couple hours while I watched Carter and wrote her own letter.
I have thoroughly enjoyed watching Carter grow up. Even at this young age — he’s entering his 16th month — the boy amazes me in how he reacts to the little successes and failures he has. He concentrates to put a bottlecap back on a bottle with the same focus I can envision later in his life when sculpting or splitting an atom. He smiles bigger just after the camera clicks, probably knowing at some level we’ll be more inclined to try again. He dances and shrieks with abandon, just for the joy of moving. He loves like he dances.
When I watch him do these things, I appreciate my wife even more. I had ideas about how I wanted to raise a child, some of them reflective of my own upbringing and some purposely contrary to my experiences. I even read a couple books to give me some idea how a kid was supposed to operate. But Amy immersed herself in the subject, just as if she were pursuing a higher degree.
She found things she liked and absorbed the information. She found things she didn’t like, then followed-up by reading the original sources cited and forming her own opinions. She braced herself against the inevitable criticisms from both family and society at large about our choices. And then she did what was best for Carter. The result is a young healthy boy with an uninhibited love for life and trust for those around him. Any expectations I had about being a father have been exceeded because Amy is his mother. And my partner.
There will be a day when the interaction with Carter will become more cerebral. We’ll talk about the economic impact of television on sports and the what-if presidency of Jimmy Carter in the 1980s that was ruined because of Richard Nixon. I’ll recite the Hobbit in bits and pieces each night as he goes to sleep, and he’ll return the favor by reading a paper he wrote for school. And we’ll talk about the letter his mom wrote about a boy named Elijah and a woman named Darcee. He’ll understand why that act is as much an expression of love for him as the nursing that got him through his first couple dozen months of life.
There are two kinds of boobs in this world. Carter will be well prepared to understand one and respect the other.