I felt the pangs of a familiar struggle, watching moms stride onto Capitol Hill carrying breast-milk bags filled with Hershey's kisses to symbolize the liquid gold of mother's milk.
A dozen moms and a handful of dads, many of them pushing strollers and wearing babies, made a showing in the lobby of the U.S. Senate building and in key legislative offices as they advocated for better workplace conditions for nursing mothers forced to pump milk in storage closets, public bathrooms and parked cars.
I never marched on the nation's capital with a breast-milk bag while onlookers watched via Facebook Live.
But I remember well the liquid gold that kept each of my three babies alive 20, 25, and almost 30 years ago.
I remember my own small contributions to the fight when I was a new mother and a reporter working at a daily newspaper in the Deep South: the faltering requests I made of newsroom supervisors for a clean, private space where my colleagues and I could pump. The negotiations with editors (some of them sympathetic, others not so much) for me to change jobs from news to features to accommodate my son's feeding schedule. The urgent writing in this space about the emotional and physical benefits of breastfeeding for both mother and child.
I remember, as much as anything, breastfeeding. As beautiful, healthy and natural as many moms find the act to be, women who nurse in the United States, especially those who do so beyond infancy, will inevitably square off with an American culture that still doesn't know what a woman's body is for. I easily recall the waiter in the restaurant, the woman beside me in the church pew, the neighbor in my living room while I was feeding my older baby one day who could not contain his alarm. I remember the deep well of pain and confusion I felt at the time, knowing I was doing something so wonderful that was yet so shamed.
Visiting this issue this week, almost two decades after I breastfed my last baby for the last time, I see policy strides have been made. Today, a nationwide consortium of 50 organizations called the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee (USBC), is well organized around policy and advocacy. Today almost every state in the nation – 49 – along with the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands, has laws in place specifically allowing women to breastfeed in any public or private location. Today, more than 400 hospitals in the country have earned the distinction "baby-friendly," which means they are armed, ready and committed to providing new moms with breastfeeding support and education.
We are a country whose surgeon general in 2011 issued an historic and far-reaching Call to Action, asking communities, health-care providers and businesses to make it easier for women to breastfeed. We are a nation whose pediatricians banded together on breastfeeding standards: Ideal child health includes exclusive breastfeeding until the age of 6 months, the American Academy of Pediatrics agreed in 2012, and then supplementing a solid diet with breast milk until age 1 and beyond.
Today, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 81 percent of women leave the hospital breastfeeding, compared to an all-time low of 22 percent in the early 1970s.
And yet here is where the numbers crash: Only 52 percent of moms are still breastfeeding even occasionally at 6 months, with just 22 percent breastfeeding exclusively at that age. By 12 months, only 31 percent are still breastfeeding.
Advocates blame the diminished numbers on some of the same old problems, to include an absence of accessible education about the how-tos of long-term breastfeeding. They point to a lack of paid maternity leave that forces one in four moms back to work within days of giving birth; often, into a workplace that may not be supportive. Although a 2010 federal law requires employers to provide break time and a private place for hourly paid employees to pump breast milk during the work day, the law makes it easy for employers not to comply and hard for many working mothers to succeed at breastfeeding. And then there's U.S. culture, which can never be overlooked, which plays a role in all of the above; despite laws in almost every state to the contrary, a recent study in The Journal of the American Dietetic Association says 57 percent of Americans polled believe women should not have a right to breastfeed in public.
This is not to say all women should breastfeed for as long as possible at all costs; some women are physically or psychologically unable to breastfeed in the short- or long-term and should not be discredited or made to feel guilty. Breastfeeding activism rather is about ease of choice. Advocates want to make it easy for all mothers to make an informed decision.
Which is why the fight continues. Which is why the advocacy group MomsRising led a stroll on Washington recently; gathered 13,000 signatures in a letter to Congress; and started a photo blitz on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter called #Ipumpedhere.
Which is why I found myself reaching out this week to the new crop of young mothers who've come to join the battle and to the same women and men I quoted in my column decades ago. In their 50s, 60s and 70s now, they are advocates and activists who never left the battleground, the Susan Cady Stantons of the breastfeeding movement who can relate to four and five decades of fighting for a cause and still not see the end of the tunnel.
They include national La Leche League board member Linda Smith who at 70 has been advocating 47 years for breastfeeding, who took time out from National Breastfeeding Month and a USBC conference in D.C. to talk to me on the phone. They include my friend, James Akre, a former breastfeeding expert with the World Health Organization, who I had the pleasure of meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, in 2002, the year after I quit breastfeeding. Seventy-three years old now, he just published an article in The Huffington Post captioned: "Being male in no way disqualifies me from adopting a pro-breastfeeding perspective."
Once a breastfeeding advocate, apparently always a breastfeeding advocate.
I couldn't make it to Washington for the recent event or post a picture on #Ipumpedhere.
But hearing about all those determined mothers in D.C. made me want to get back in the trenches, gathering stats and quotes, stories and struggles, lending my ear and my voice once again to the issue that was so central to my heart during some of the most exquisite years of my life.
I got back in the remembered fight, not for me anymore, of course. But for my daughter and all the daughters who come after, with hopes that some generation of women might one day know only the joy of feeding their babies with their bodies, and not the shame.
(Debra-Lynn B. Hook of Kent, Ohio, has been writing about family life since 1988. Visit her website at www.debralynnhook.com; email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or join her column's Facebook discussion group at Debra-Lynn Hook: Bringing Up Mommy.)