04 Aug Breastfeeding warriors

This is World Breastfeeding Week which seeks to promote, protect and support breastfeeding by anyone, anywhere and at any time.

As a woman who’s breastfed all my children, I know firsthand the challenges, commitment and endurance that can be required to keep an infant fed – all while managing a home, a family, work, church and everything else that life throws at us.

My youngest is 9 though, and so it’s been awhile since I walked that road of leaky boobs / cracked and bloody nipples / sore back / being constantly tired, and generally feeling like you’re a gigantic lactating cow. (No offence to actual cows.) Yes there’s some beautiful love-filled moments when you’re breastfeeding your baby, but let’s be real here – there’s also a whole lot of hellish moments.

But on Saturday, I witnessed something rather awe-inspiring that made me appreciate the power and strength of a breastfeeding parent.

I’m in San Francisco USA as cheerleader for my husband who competed in an Ironman event on the weekend. For this event, participants have to first swim 2 miles, cycle 112 miles, and then run a marathon (26.2 miles). It’s a gruelling sport that truly tests a person – physically, mentally and spiritually. This is my husband’s third Ironman this year and it took him 12 hours and 16 minutes to complete.

I was standing at the transition point where the athletes come in off their bikes and change into their running shoes. I saw one of the athletes go into the tent where she expressed breastmilk with a pump. She came out with a bottle of milk and gave it to her waiting partner on the sidelines. Then she stuffed a couple of breast pads into her spandex top – and set out to run a marathon.

I was – and still am – in total awe. I watched her run down the road in the glaring hot summer sun and thought, ‘There goes a warrior…

(And yes, I confess, I also thought about what a loser I am because I’m not feeding any babies and yet I still can’t run up any roads, bike any mountains or swim in any monster-infested lakes!)

As I look though at what’s required for a woman to breastfeed successfully, I realise that for all the breastfeeding people out there, you may not be doing 12 hour long Ironman races, but you’re all warriors.

Your body is literally keeping another human alive and sustaining them through their fastest growth and developmental stage. At the same time, many of you are working to support your family, and still taking care of your other children as well. You’re balancing baby feeds with housework and church work and community service and everything else that you do.

That’s exactly the kind of discipline and hard work required to do an Ironman.

And just like that woman in the race, breastfeeding mums need support to do what they do.

That warrior woman was only able to do the Ironman AND breastfeed because there was a clean and sheltered place for her to pause and express milk. Race rules and conditions allowed her to stop and take that breather without getting penalised. Family and/or friends were looking after her baby so she could do her Ironman-thing. Her partner was there to help – to collect the bottle,  and make sure the milk reached baby.

A woman who births and then breastfeeds a baby – is not weak or incapacitated. But she needs support to be the warrior that she is truly capable of being. Practical hands-on support. From partners/husbands. From family and friends. From her employer. From all of us.

Paid maternity leave helps make successful breastfeeding happen. A big reason why women stop breastfeeding is because they have to go back to work as soon as possible.

Employers can support breastfeeding by giving a mother flexible breaks so she can either go fa’asusu her baby, or express milk on site. Employers can ensure their workplace has a clean private area set aside for that, and the use of a fridge for keeping expressed milk safely stored until that mother can go home.

We can support breastfeeding by being encouraging of a mother’s efforts. The beauty of breastmilk is that its ready on demand, anytime, anywhere – and mothers should always feel like they can stop whatever theyre doing, wherever they may be in public, and find a comfy place to sit and feed their baby.

We are blessed in Samoa to have the right approach to this. I have never had anyone tell me to ‘cover up’ or ‘go somewhere else and do that’ or ‘that’s disgusting to show your breast in public!’ Unlike some other countries, we know that a lactating breast is not a sexualised or shameful or secret thing.

I am grateful for all the people who helped me on my warrior journey of breastfeeding my children. As we celebrate World Breastfeeding Week, I hope we can all commit to being better cheer crew and practical supporters of all the warrior breastfeeding women in our families, workplaces and wider community.

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