Monday, September 15, 2014

Thoughts on Women's Rights: Civic Engagement, and Lactation

In my years of breastfeeding, I have never fed my child in a public restroom that I can recall. If I ever did, it was not to hide, but rather, because I was already there, and had a baby already in arms who wanted to nurse while we happened to be in the bathroom. But I have never intentionally sought out a bathroom to nurse, just as I have never walked into a restaurant and asked if I could please be served my meal in the women's stall. Breastfeeding is recognized appropriately as a form of nutrition and comfort, not as a means of waste elimination.

I must admit, due to societal pressure, I have attempted a few times to put a blanket over a child's head while nursing, but generally this irritates and confuses babies, leading to them looking around wildly to figure out why they have a blanket on their head. Once everyone's attention has been drawn to the mother and baby playing tug-of-war with the blanket, the baby sometimes succeeds in dropping the blanket on the floor, thereby exposing the whole operation. Some mothers feel more comfortable feeding a baby with a cover, some mothers prefer to provide milk in a bottle, but for the sake of cost, for health benefits, and for convenience, many mothers prefer to just nurse.
Unsurprisingly, diverse species of mammals eat with uncovered heads whether being fed via bottle, supplemental nursing system, or breast. If babies were designed to be covered during feeding, we would have been created or evolved with a big flap of skin to shelter the child from human contact during meals. In that case, women would have big wings like elephant ears across our chests under our shoulder blades. Instead, our biology allows that human arms are of the length and strength to hold an infant in close proximity to the heart and to the human face without obstructing the senses. The nursing child is positioned at a distance that the child can see, hear, and engage in learning from social cues that the mother provides.

But why can't women take this feeding and cooing operation to a secluded place for the comfort of others who feel awkward around breastfeeding? Because women have too much to do to spend half of our lives hiding in the bathroom. Pumping is time-consuming for most mothers because a pump is less efficient than a healthy baby. At 6 months postpartum, I produce about 5 ounces in 45 minutes of pumping using a high quality double electric pump. It would take an entire work day to pump a full milk supply and no one pays mothers for that inefficiency. Instead, my baby regulates my milk supply and receives the same nutrition in small bursts (nursing for 2-4 minutes at a time) at his own demand around the clock.

When squeamish adults send women and babies to the bathroom, the message is clear: that breastfeeding is shameful, and that children's nutrition is of low priority, and that women's / mothers' presence in the school building, the city council, the board of elders, the corporate headquarters, and other governing bodies is of low importance. Society asks mothers to choose between civic engagement, using our voices and minds to influence policy, to lead, and to serve, and the biological needs of our offspring. There is a better way. When women insist on change, it happens. We must continue to push on the glass ceiling. To do less is to betray ourselves.

We know from research on postpartum women's health that a contributing factor in perinatal mood disorders such as postpartum depression is social isolation. Research on PPD highlights storytelling as a preventative measure, as women benefit from processing their experiences in conversation. When society shames breastfeeding, women are forced to choose between their child's biological needs and the company of others. Cessation of breastfeeding, especially rapid weaning, contributes to the onset or worsening of postpartum depression. The United States has higher rates of depression in mothers than cultures which honor the presence of women in society, provide rituals for mothers to support one another and to process their experiences, and which recognize the biological need for togetherness of mother and baby.

Instead of encouraging women to hide their children in the bathroom or go sit in the car to meet biological needs, and instead of asking parents to stay home or rely on daycare, we must find ways to accommodate the presence of parents and children in all aspects of society. Women of childbearing age are under-represented in America, from the Congress and White House to the grass roots level. Employers find that policies which allow parents to bring children along when necessary and that encourage mothers who nurse to do so freely enhance workplace wellness and employee loyalty. In architectural design, we need spaces where babies and children can be present with their families, allowing parents to participate without children's presence disturbing the hearing of all in assembly. In healthcare, we must prioritize education of providers about the role of breastfeeding as a means of preventative care, and provide necessary support to lactating mothers. In human resources and benefits, we must prioritize flexible schedules, accessible childcare facilities, and breastfeeding-friendly staff. In planning events, we must consider the biological needs of the nursing dyad. Are breaks long enough to accommodate mothers to leave to feed their child, or is there seating available for nursing mothers to bring their child along to conferences? In celebrating diversity and enhancing inclusion, we must respond to the cultural norms that require mother-baby togetherness.

According to, a lactivist blog, this week an Indiana daycare center is alleged to have a policy restricting babies and children's rights to breastfeed.  Here are some of my thoughts on modesty and breastfeeding from an email I shared with the directors of Grace Academy whose harmful policy is under scrutiny:

When a policy asks a mother to hide when she is feeding her child, this reinforces the immodest idea that a woman's breasts are only for adult pleasure in sex, and that feeding a baby is a shameful use of women's bodies. This type of thinking leads to considering women as sex objects rather than as people. It is dehumanizing and degrading to accuse a mother of being inappropriate when she feeds her baby. Just as mouths are for smiling, kissing and talking, breasts serve more than one function. Lactation for nutrition and comfort is a normal, biological role of mammary tissue.

If children at the school see a mother nursing her child, they may have questions about feeding babies, leading to an educational opportunity. Parents are best equipped to talk about the biological foundations of human reproduction when children have a frame of reference for how babies grow and are nourished. A child can understand that after living 9 months in the womb, following birth, a child continues to be nurtured by the mother's body. A child learns to respect women and to honor the human body by learning about how wondrously humans are made.

As a Christian woman, I value modesty and freedom. As a mother, I consider it a blessing to be able to partake in my children's education and nurture. We belong together as a family, and when my youngest child is hungry, I stay where I am to nurse. There is no reason to hide away to provide nourishment for my child, just as I do not hide myself away when I need to eat a meal. Eating together is fellowship, and I welcome my children into the company of others by teaching them that eating is a social activity.

Indiana state law recognizes that mothers and babies belong together so that a mother can nourish and nurture her young.

IC 16-35-6-1
Right to breastfeed
Sec. 1. Notwithstanding any other law, a woman may breastfeed her child anywhere the woman has a right to be.

A more appropriate school policy would be to cite the Indiana State Law verbatim, and to allow anyone with questions about the school policy to review the Indiana code.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Gun Safety and Buying a Used Minivan

Many moms give a lot of thought to staying alive, being as healthy as possible, and keeping their children free form harm and danger.  There is a balancing act between living one's life and making security a priority.  This is true when opting yes or no on prenatal ultrasound, choosing an organic bugspray, buying a pet, hiring a pediatrician, or acquiring a used minivan.

We recently bought a used van off Craigslist for cash.

I've been burned before when buying a cell phone off Criagslist, in which the teen owner had not had his mother take his phone off the lost/stolen list before selling it.  Fortunately, his parents took my panicked calls and met us at the phone store to activate the device in my name.

We've also had a bad experience with a used van.  A thousand dollars will buy a running vehicle, but there are always a few catches in those great deals.  Since I had been hit in the Blizzaster snowstorm by a speeding SUV that hit ice and totaled my third-previous minivan, we bought fast from a guy who turned out to be very sketchy.  He had altered the title and taken a hammer to the odometer, but had our cash in his hand and had turned over the key before we realized these defects.

So we approached the van purchase this time around with an abundance of caution.  We had a list of priorities in mind, a price range, only what we could afford to pay in cash, a mileage range, and some repairs that my husband said he would be willing to do, versus a list of car defects that we would veto.

Craigslist in the Madison, Wisconsin area was much more promising than the few listings we saw in the Chicago area, so we headed up to the Cooksville farmstead on the Fourth of July to sleep on the options.

On Friday the fifth, we headed to Madison, passing first by an auto dealer on a country road near the farm.  I liked the idea of dealing with a small business.  We saw a few vans on the lot, and were unsure about the prices because the painted figure on the front of the windshield was significantly lower than the price listed on the paperwork hanging on the passenger side.  Still, we saw a couple promising vehicles and went to the office to inquire.  Unfortunately, the doors were locked up and the sign read that the owner was away, please call his cell phone.  I called and left a message.  That's when I noted the other sign on the door of his business:

 I wasn't keen on doing business with an owner with a propensity toward violence.  I prefer to do business with a handshake and a smile.  After all, American businesses are built on trust, and as an activist against gun violence I didn't know if I could buy a van from a person so prone to mistrust.

We had emailed a few other sellers and had heard back, but wanted to set appointment times.  Friday after a holiday on a long weekend is not the best time to bother people at home, but one woman took our call.  She was on her way out on a bike ride, but said she'd wait for us if we came right away.  We liked her van, and she handed us her keys to test drive it.  I thought I should give her a credit card, so I offered her identification, but she said she trusted us, and we were leaving our truck by her condo.  She told us the van had taken her family to Florida many times, but that her boys were independent now and she'd replaced the van with a smaller vehicle, so it was time.

The van drove smoothly, but we had agreed to think about the price and choice over lunch.  So we headed to a Thai restaurant to think it out.  We were greeted with a welcome sign:

Over Pad Thai and green curry, we discussed the pros and cons.  The owner had a folder with a record of all repairs and maintenance.  She had agreed to come down by $400 on the selling price.  Our dream vehicle, the Honda Odyssey, (which seats eight!) was elusive.  We liked the color, seven seats is enough for us, the price was good, mileage was not too bad.

When we went back to buy the van, the owner was just returning from her bike ride.  She invited us in to meet her dog and to sign papers.  We found out that we are both teachers.  She showed me her herb and flower garden, and then we counted cash together.  As she hand-wrote a bill of sale, she offered me her social security number, which I said I didn't think I would need for registration.  She said to call if we needed anything.

As we were driving away we realized that we still had her license plates, so we went back to her door again to see whether she wanted to keep them.  She seemed a bit nervous, perhaps wondering if we were having second thoughts or if the van had a problem.

As I thought about the risks fo doing business with strangers, it made a lot more sense to deal with people who base their interactions on mutual trust and human decency, rather than relying on the threat of killing their customers.  In my humble opinion...

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Border Scar

How much deeper can the scar that marks the border become? We have funded a wall between the US and her neighbors to the south. We sponsor drones, military personnel, and a sense of enforced "otherness" that borders on hatred. People used to travel to Mexico for pleasure, and are now deterred by wait times. People used to travel to the US and are now deterred by gunfire and the desert walk. We have forgotten our collective humanity.

Love and ties of family cannot be broken. There is no wall, no trench, no helicopter full of machine guns that will prevent a mother from providing for her children and or a father from being present with them. No construction will deter this drive to maintain family unity. Further militarization only guarantees more deaths.

The border has become a scar. We are the amputated part of the Americas. We have cut ourselves off. We mistreat those who provide our food. Someday we will regret this, as abuse harms both the soul of the abuser and the body of the abused. Someday, when we are hungry, will our neighbors be people of welcome? Will they teach us to grow food? Will they share their clean crops and seeds when we have poisoned ours with GMOs? Will they send us some bees and butterflies? Empires do not last forever. I love my country and I hope the US stays strong by remembering the weak. Yet cutting ourselves off undermines our participation in the global economy and slashes the social fabric of foreign relations.

I am praying for a change of heart the size of an entire political party. I envision a southern border grown of citrus trees. I dream of an orchard that spans the width of several states, trees to feed the hungry, shade to welcome the displaced, and fruits of the earth watered by God when the rain falls down.

Collaborative Solidarity for Social Justice and Human Rights

Social media is easy armchair activism--yet it yields power in these small acknowledgements of human connection and collective action for justice. I was proud that a couple key family and friends came out as allies with their profile pictures. Solidarity is a feeling that breeds courage, and we need more of that now than ever. 

The red and pink equals sign logo pictured here was borrowed from a DREAMer activist and the image depicts a monarch butterfly, a symbol of liberty in migration, as marriage equality is a life-or-death issue for some of the 11 million US residents who are undocumented, and face persecution at home for their identities and relationships. There is no equality in living in constant fear that a knock at the front door will lead to a partner being arrested and taken to immigration detention and deportation without a trial. There is no equality in the lack of equal access to medical care, protection of children's relationships in the family, and shared property rights. There is no equality in lack of access to employment, driving privileges, and even the ability to open a joint bank account. Yet despite these constant threats of family separation, civil marriage offers some limited protections that must be demanded for all and extended to any who wish. 

The movement for equal rights must not neglect the disenfranchised and must reflect the beauty of real diversity. People have every right to be who they are and to live and to love in freedom as God created is to love and thrive in liberty and in community.

This week on Twitter, the United Farm Workers Union founded by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta is hosting a hashtag photo-sharing collaboration during lunch breaks for workers in the fields (#FieldFotos). In the US, we outsource our food production and much of our domestic produce is harvested by newcomers to our country who are being denied papers and who are kept in constant separation from their families. This is simple:  We eat. We vote. We are in this together.

Collaboration does not water down the struggle for acceptance. Casting a wide net for allies means allowing people to connect in their own way to the issues of human rights and social justice. One human rights issue leads to another as our logic follows civic engagement. Community-based networking leads to friendships with flesh and blood people engaged in human struggles. The stories of real lives that face barriers in pursuing happiness can lead to change. Stories slow us down and make us listen. They remind us of our own struggles. It is at the level of the story that we can connect and transform.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

End of Semester and Start of Summer: The Reflections of a Teacher

It is that first week of summer when the grades are in, the faculty workshop is over and the dreaded and excruciating student evaluations have been read and are slowly being digested.  I want to be a great teacher.  Most semesters I am a good one, and I am getting better.  The process of learning to earn students' respect and to inspire their imaginations is slow.  I am impatient.

Today I picked up my kids after school aware that for a few days, my time belongs mostly to them. I grocery shopped, nursed the baby, and then boiled pasta, made guacamole, supervised the making of fruit salad, heated vegetables from the Mexican market and a few fresh organic spinach leaves from the backyard garden which just produced its first-fruits on Pentecost. I felt a twinge of guilt when we sat down at the table hearing, "Mommy!! Thank you so much for cooking this food for us!" (My own mom baked her bread from scratch every week. I was 16 when I went to a Chinese restaurant for the first time. In stark contrast, we have eaten many quick meals this past month. This is not the good wife my mama raised me to be).

There are days when it feels to a working mother that she does nothing well. Laundry piles up. Corners are cut. People are neglected. Foods are scarfed down and thrown haphazardly into lunch boxes. Babies cry. Compost rots on the counter. Gas tanks run dry. Deadlines are missed despite sleepless nights.

It is on these days when I want to spend everything in the bank on a 300-square-foot Tumbleweed tiny house on wheels, buy a couple homing pigeons and a dozen chickens, and to go park the whole lot of us for a while in the middle of my favorite moss-covered campground, to dig a big garden around it, buy a goat, and settle in for the long haul of surviving on the land.

"The world is too much with us, late and soon / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers....(William Wordsworth). It is hard to keep everyone happy, to keep the fridge full, the papers graded, and the bills paid. A decade ago, our first pediatrician told me, "Women are pulled into motherhood by the nipples." Some days, we go kicking and screaming. You cannot hear it in our voices because we all have the gene for courage, but if you look closely, you can see the panic in our eyes.

Evaluations of teaching and mothering are necessary - room for improvement is healthy. Mostly the students were gentle, appreciative, and kind. Only a few comments hurt, but they stung. One of my students said I speak too much Spanish in a Spanish language class.  Did I not convince her of the value of being bilingual, with my pep talks about the gift of language? Another thinks the university's cultural diversity requirement is not worth an undergrad's time and money, and she says that language is not culture. One student said the novel by Sandra Cisneros was okay but she hates literature, another said to cut out poetry entirely (even though we spent only two days reading poems in a language course). Expecting eight hours a week of study time is unrealistic, says one. Another wants grades posted online in a spreadsheet within two days. There were grateful comments also, but I did not see those on the first read-through.  Grading is grueling.  I need some distance in order for the criticism to have a constructive effect---because I take evaluations seriously and I adapt and learn every semester from what has been effective for my students.  They know themselves, and they know what they want (even when that is not what I think they really need).  I pour such effort into teaching language within real life, imparting culture, and inviting students to peer over fences, to open doors, and to build bridges. I recognize that a language requirement is a challenge for some, as physics remains very hard for me. It should neither surprise nor burden me that despite the lovely weather and good company, some students really want to stay home on the couch.

We are limited by enrollment numbers, by budgets, and by a healthy respect for safety and liability. I would like to teach my students to grow their own food and to describe and prepare it in Spanish, to make salsa verde and mole from scratch, to turn masa into fresh tortillas, to grow tomatillos in a little tree, to roast poblano peppers over an open fire, to season pozole with home grown epazote and pápalo, as my community has taught me. To complement grammar, I want to bring my guitar and sing hymns and songs of the fight for freedom and justice. I do this occasionally, but I would do more. I would put "hiking boots" on the syllabus along with the required materials, and immerse them a global experience of pilgrimage. I would walk with them 500 miles along the Camino de Santiago so they could experience the role of global translator, a modern-day medieval traveler on a well-worn trail. I would cheer them on back at home to listen and relate when a migrant in their own nation says to them, "I thought I was going to die when I walked through the desert." Then they would nod and agree, having spent time walking a mile in well-worn shoes. This is what I have done to learn language through culture, and it is what every global citizen deserves.

I would ask them to write a letter in Spanish to a person in prison on death row and then to reflect on the letter they got back, to ask what freedom means. I would invite them to send out and try to publish a personal essay or poem in their first or second language, to experience fear of rejection, and to know how to share like life depends on it.

On days like today, there is a disconnect between school and real life, between the calling of motherhood, the angst of writing, and the vocation of teaching. There are gifts I cannot give my students that I can still offer my own children, if it is not too late. I need to sink their hands into the garden, make some bonfires, build a bigger clothesline together, and sit on the front stoop sipping lemonade and watching the cars go by. My four becoming-bilingual children need to sleep under the stars, fly a kite, and see a movie at the drive-in. We need to sing our favorite songs and talk about our plans and dreams. 

Summer break comes at a very good time.  

What are your summer plans for recreation, renovation, renewal, and rest?  Please share in the comments!

Immigration Reform Bill Passed the Senate Judiciary Committee

It is time for merciful immigration reform. The sojourner, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan are to be protected, not abused. Yesterday marks a moment we have been waiting for, as the Senate bill was adapted by the Senate Judiciary Committee, a first step in learning to love our neighbors.

"Who is my neighbor?" Jesus was asked.  What are we to think of the stranger, the sojourner, the immigrant among us?  The Samaritans were a hated and misunderstood class for being foreign and different--and Jesus consistently showed them kindness and compassion, and he welcomed them into the community. He told their stories. He made a Samaritan the hero and protagonist of a didactic parable, while making the proud and powerful appear as selfish and heartless.

If we today have trouble seeing how we are divided up into a nation that maintains Pharisees and hurts Samaritans in institutionally racist ways, we must step back and examine the world from a meditative distance. When we begin to identify modern-day Pharisees and Samaritans, then we will freely and gladly roll up our sleeves and get to work, writing, speaking, caring, advocating, and changing the world.

Passing merciful and long-awaited comprehensive immigration reform to maintain family unity is a step in the direction of loving our neighbors well.  Let's lace up our boots and step forward in faith.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Praying Now

This morning I am praying for the marathoners who are still shaking.  For all of us who waken to tremble again today. 

Praying for the runners who came to run 26.2 miles and who are in hospitals now.  Praying for those who are in shock, who are in pain, who are wondering if they will walk again.  Praying for 170 injured in body, and thousands who are wounded by terror in their psyche.

Praying especially for the families are planning funerals.  Praying for comfort and hope, and for them to know and understand the greeting of "well, done, good and faithful servant" as their race came to an early and tragic end.  Praying for the mothers and fathers, the siblings, the children, the friends, who gathered to cheer for their finish line and who are in shock, horror and grief.  Our prayers are just words until they are heard by a God who cares.  We are left without words and are not sure how to pray. 

Praying for Watertown.  Praying for Boston.  Praying for the students, faculty, staff and parents of Harvard, MIT, and Boston University.  Praying for communities that are surrounded in terror and fear. Praying for the neighbors, parents, and friends of all those affected by this terror.

For all of us staring at pictures on screens, in horror and shock, seeing children who have become killing machines.  Praying for protection from the bad feeling when we see of youth with backpacks and hats and hoodies.  Let us see others as sisters and brothers, and not as terrorists.  Let us maintain focus on peace and safety, and remove all fear.  Give us courage and give us peace.

Praying for Chechnya, for a place that seems far away and mysterious, a place that I have long neglected in prayer.  Praying also for the student missing from MIT.   Praying for the Tsarnaev family.  Praying for the mother and father of these boys.  Praying for immigrants and refugees who are fearful of their own status in this country, of the fear of discrimination, retaliation and perception of their guilt by proxy.

Praying now a prayer that is hard, a prayer that Jesus has asked us to pray.  Praying a prayer for mercy for us all.  Praying for protection and help.  Praying for Dzhokhar, who is armed and dangerous, that he may come to peace.  Praying that he may stop to breathe deeply and consider his humanity.  May he think of the face of those who fed him when he was a child, who prepared his favorite food.  May he picture the faces of his mother, of his grandmother, of the smallest and most innocent children in his life.  May he feel his arms and his legs, and feel hunger in his stomach.  May he look at his collection of bomb-making supplies and see them once again as the cooking implements and construction materials that they are. May he set aside the shrapnel as recycling and set it aside.  May he look around him and find some vegetables and some rice to boil in his pots and pans.  May he cease to feel anger and fear, and turn himself over to the authorities.  May today be the day that he realizes that he is a human being.  May he feel within himself a call to begin to be sorry and to sorrow with the rest of the world for these days of grief that we face together.

We may need respite from the news channels of terrorism and explosions, crime scenes, man hunts and fear.  I have shared a video of the pilgrimage, life and work of Peace Pilgrim. 

In July, my family will be walking this pilgrimage for peace.  Please let me know if you'd like to join us.