From Anger to Action

by Lissa Knudsen, Board Chair

Growing up with a veterinarian father and on 21 rural acres, I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time around nursing foals, lambs, and litters of puppies, and kittens as a child. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but that and knowing that my own mother breastfed me for 11 months (which is pretty amazing given that I was born in 1974 when breastfeeding in the US was it’s all-time lowest) meant that I grew up expecting I would breastfeed my own baby. My mom and I are very tightly bonded, to this day and there was simply no reason for me to ever doubt the way that I was fed/loved.

13 years ago, the Friday of Super Bowl weekend, I began a long, slow, and unproductive labor. After nearly 72 hours, I had a quick and relatively easy vaginal birth (six pushes, 12 minutes total). Melia’s umbilical cord was cut immediately and though she was washed and swaddled before being handed to me, I put her to the breast and she latched without any troubles. She cluster fed for the first day and then “my milk came in” a day later. I wanted to rest and keep her near me, which was against the hospitals no co-sleeping rules. Despite my conflicted feelings, I put her in the bassinet near the bed. Shortly after, a nurse declared that Melia’s temp had dropped too low and said she had to go to the nursery. My husband agreed to go with her and they promised to bring her back in about 10 minutes. After an hour had passed I got out of bed, left my room, and made my way down the hallway to the nursery. Through the window, I desperately tried to pick her out amongst the collection of babies on display. I found one whose face seemed familiar and wanted to check if she had a little birthmark under one arm to confirm for sure. When the nurses saw me through the window they scooped up the baby I thought was Melia and brought her around to me. Once she was back in my arms I decided we were ready to go home (one day before we needed to discharge). I happily signed the papers to leave AMA (against medical advice) and we never looked back. I remain convinced to this day that post-delivery medical intervention, protocols, and rules in a hospital that was not designated Baby-Friendly inhibited my ability to bond with, care for, and feed the little person that I had been carrying inside of my belly.

Over the next two weeks, one of my nipples became raw and sore and one didn’t. I used lanolin on both and was reassured by the side that didn’t hurt that painless breastfeeding was possible. The chapped nipple healed within a week and breastfeeding became easy for us. Melia fed regularly and gained weight quickly. She has never had an ear infection and she made it through the “4th trimester” without any kind of cold/respiratory infection.

I am so grateful that we had such an easy time of breastfeeding. The idea of having to buy formula, prepare and wash bottles, and pack all of the necessary feeding supplies every time you go out, change foul smelling diapers, or tend to a sick baby seems overwhelming during such an already exhausting time.

I was raised in a body positive home and was consistently surprised by (and even felt a little bad for) those who were uncomfortable with me feeding my baby in public. I never doubted that breastfeeding was normal and instead felt that other’s judgments were a reflection of their skewed beliefs. Oxytocin-induced courage likely played a role in my steadfast strength of will—but whatever the cause, breastfeeding made me feel stronger, more self-confident, and more courageous than ever before.

When Melia was six months old we moved from California to Albuquerque, NM and I started PhD coursework at the University of New Mexico. Going back to school while she was still nursing was hard. I don’t regret it, but despite the gallons of milk, I pumped while we were separated she never took a bottle. By six months, Melia knew what was normal for her and refused to accept anything else. I was grateful that she was old enough to have started on other types of foods and focused on my pumping as a way to maintain my milk supply so that we could continue to breastfeed when we were together.

I was the first graduate student in my department to request lactation accommodations. No one really knew what to do. The department chair ultimately decided to allow me to have access to the room that was dedicated to students taking their comprehensive exams. They directed me to request permission from the front office staff to escort me to and unlock the room when I needed it. One day, about halfway through that first semester, I arrived to request the room and was told that because a faculty meeting was being held just outside the room I would not be allowed to have access. My first thought was that if I didn’t pump I would likely leak involuntarily in front of my next class of 18–22-year-old students. My second thought was that if I didn’t pump my milk supply would decrease—tugging at my already conflicted feelings about choosing to continue with my education instead of being with my daughter full time. And my third thought was that I needed to find a private place where I could cry. I don’t remember exactly what I ended up doing that day… I have a fuzzy memory of gathering myself together, finding an open office and trying to pump quickly without anyone walking in and accusing me of being someplace a graduate student was not allowed to be.

That night, however, my shock, fear, and sense of powerlessness turned to hot burning rage. I woke up around 2:00 or 3:00 am furious and started Googling the California law that protected breastfeeding employees rights. I printed the law and started a campaign the next day. I went to the student government and explained what happened, I wrote a letter to the editor, I posted comments to national “lactivist” blogs. I made breastfeeding rights my research area of focus and talked about it in every seminar class I was in. And people started responding with support. A pediatrician from UNMH (Jim Fisk) read my letter in the Daily Lobo and invited me to attend a New Mexico Breastfeeding Task Force (NMBTF) meeting. The UNM Graduate and Professional Student Association (GPSA) Council Chair helped me draft a resolution and placed it on the next GPSA Council Agenda for the department representatives from across the school to vote on in support. My training in media advocacy and public health communication (the area I was studying for my PhD) kicked in and I made sure to make sound health-based arguments using academic sources. My experience teaching public speaking motivated me to speak at a GPSA Council meeting, an NMBTF meeting and to keep speaking wherever and whenever anyone would listen. In January of 2007, Jim introduced me to Angie Vaccio, the founder and director of PB&J Family Services, and I showed her the California law. She tweaked it a bit and asked then-State House Representative Danice Picraux to introduce it in the legislature. Senator Dede Feldman co-sponsored the bill and I learned from some of the most adept lobbyists in the Roundhouse how to get a late bill moving through the legislative process. I testified in legislative committees. I found the Santa Fe mother who made national news for being kicked off a Delta flight for breastfeeding in November 2005 and she also agreed to testify. Coincidentally, then-governor Bill Richardson was about to announce his candidacy for president, and he sent out word that he wanted to sign legislation that evidenced his support for women. He signed the NM Breast Pump Use in the Workplace bill into law. It was enacted next January.

Melia never did take a bottle and the UNM Communication & Journalism comprehensive exam room is now a designated lactation space on the UNM Breastfeeding Support Program‘s lactation room map.

As Board Chair of the New Mexico Breastfeeding Task Force, I’m proud to continue the work of educating lawmakers and passing legislation in support of breastfeeding mothers and their babies. Join as a member or make a donation to support a breastfeeding friendly New Mexico.