Mother’s Milk

A cross-cultural conversation of Legacies women.

Digging In
Digging In: Facilitating Dialogue and Action
Key Themes and Terms
Catalyzing Connections
Decoding Questions
  • Description: What stories are told? How did you feel reading them?
  • Personal Connection: How can you connect these stories to your personal exerience or stories in your family?
  • Common Themes: What social issues/themes are raised in these stories? Is there a common issue shared across contexts?
  • Social Analysis: What are the historical and social processes that created this situations?
  • Planning for Action: What can be done? How does this inspire me to change my actions?
Specific Questions
  • Read the five breastfeeding stories. Which ones are the closest to experiences in your family or culture?
  • What are some of the obstacles these women face in their desire to breastfeed their babies?
  • What kinds of support are needed for women who want to breastfeed?
  • How is breastfeeding encouraged or discouraged in your family or community?
  • What economic and political interests are influencing the five women’s decisions about breastfeeding?
Intergenerational and Intercultural Dialogue

What are some of the differences in culture and class represented in these stories?

What does Chandra mean when she says mother’s milk is like cosmic food?

Why does Chandra consider breastfeeding her daughter an act of food sovereignty?

What kinds of support did Anna get to be able to breastfeed successfully?

What can we learn, as Anna’s children do, about mothering and nourishment from the farm animals?

What attitudes were at play among people who criticized Hilda’s breastfeeding in urban Mexico?

What values kept Hilda committed to breastfeeding even in the face of opposition from her family and friends?

How did the attitudes toward breastfeeding shift over time in the autonomous Purépecha community where Maria and her daughter Serena live? What are the forces that have discouraged breastfeeding and encouraged the use of formula in this community?

How does the experience of Mexican migrant workers in the U.S. influence attitudes and practices of breastfeeding?

Individual and Collective Action

Interview family members about their breastfeeding histories and experiences. What obstacles have they confronted and supports have they benefited from?

Research some of the historical boycotts against Nestle and its promotion of baby formula as well as current campaigns against their control of water rights and bottled water. 

Despite strict WHO guidelines, Nestle – the world’s largest food and beverage corporation with over 2000 brands and $91.9 billion in sales in 2018 – has come under fire for price-fixing, violating water rights in times of drought, and aggressively marketing baby formula in developing countries. Nestle spent $1.5 million on federal lobbying in 2018. The Swiss multinational corporation operates in 190 countries and houses dominant international brands including Nescafe, Gerber, Purina pet foods, Dreyer’s ice cream, and several candy brands like KitKat and Toll House. 

Continuing the Conversation
Continuing the Conversation
Laura Solis

Laura Solis is a Mexican-Canadian Registered Midwife and proud mother of two kids who were breastfed before she knew how revolutionary breastfeeding could be.

Chandra’s naming of mother’s milk as “cosmic and spiritual food” really resonated with me. And someone should do a T-shirt with Anna’s phrase: “You can’t get more local than mother’s milk!”

Breastfeeding is a skill that requires time and practice and doesn’t go without some challenges. Formula feeding is then sometimes seen as a quick fix solution that ends up being a very expensive and not very nutritious alternative. All this extends to the way we eat now. Instead of planting the seeds and caring for the food to grow to harvest, today’s society goes for the quick, easy, pre-made, yet less nutritious option.

When a baby is born the mother’s milk takes at least three days to come in. The waiting can be anxiety-inducing for the people who don’t know how their bodies work and are used to quick food availability. The first days of life, babies get colostrum from their mothers, which is commonly referred to as “liquid gold” because of its high nutrient content. But it only took a few generations for formula companies to market their product to make mothers believe the natural process is unnecessary when you can have a readily available “food”.

Bridgette Lynch, one of the first registered midwives in Toronto, has done a lot of research on the 40 days after birth. During a workshop, she described how formula companies switched an entire generation of breastfeeding mothers to formula feeding and changed breastfeeding history for generations to come. This on its own brings changes that affect how soon a person can get pregnant again, as breastfeeding has a certain level of contraceptive protection. With formula feeding substituting breastfeeding, people were getting pregnant sooner. Less breastfeeding equals more babies. And according to Bridgette, that is when the Baby Boomer generation emerged. Listening to her reflections was such an eye-opening statement on how food sovereignty was taken from women, with a ripple effect impacting many other circles for decades!

Penny Van Esterik

Penny Van Esterik is a nutritional anthropologist, retired from York University, Toronto, and a founding member of WABA (World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action). She works on food issues in Southeast Asia, as well as advocacy around maternal and child health.

How wonderful to see nurturing practices like breastfeeding acknowledged as an important part of women’s legacies! These stories are a reminder that breastfeeding is food security for infants and an important aspect of food sovereignty for families. They also illustrate that the nurturing and breastfeeding experiences of every mother and baby are unique. Less often do we hear that nurturing practices like breastfeeding are also helping the environment. Breastfeeding is the most environmentally friendly way to feed an infant. It safeguards the health of mothers, children and mother earth, now and for future generations because it produces no garbage, no greenhouse gases (GHG) and requires no water, unlike the production and distribution of ultra-processed, expensive, industrial foods like infant formula.

The stories remind us that the knowledge of nurturing practices passes from generation to generation, and can be easily lost. We learn of the broken links between generations from Chandra, and the threats posed by infant formula marketing and poor maternity entitlements from Hilda and Maria. In my case, my mother was impressed with the formula samples given by the hospital when my daughter was born decades ago. I was not breastfed but given the newest fad, lactic acid milk mixed with corn syrup. My mother felt sorry for me and assumed I was breastfeeding because I was a poor graduate student. Peer support helped me succeed. Anna was lucky to have her mother as a role model. Serena explains that migrants from Mexico to the United States can be taken in by this image of infant formula as the best and most modern, western way to feed an infant. This marketing, combined with poor working conditions and no maternity entitlements, makes it difficult for parents all over the world. Yet most parents can reconstitute the knowledge and skills needed to nurture our children.

My area of interest is Southeast Asia. I have learned about nurturing practices from mothers in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Lao PDR. The parallels in these stories resonate with my experiences in those countries – the importance of mother’s milk as a spiritual food connecting the generations; the view of clinic births, caesarean sections, bottles and carriages as more modern and western than midwives and carrying shawls; nursing another woman’s baby; free samples of formula provided by social services; and concerns about breastfeeding in public. Humour serves us well in these days of politically correct expectations and vicious mommy wars that pit breastfeeding moms against formula users. Here is one of my favourite responses to people who criticize a woman for breastfeeding in public: “If seeing a mother breastfeed her child in public bothers you, put a blanket over your head”.

Digging Deeper
Digging Deeper: Resources for Further Research and Action
Books and Articles

A cross-cultural conversation of Legacies women
Chandra Maracle, Anna Murtaugh, Maria Blas, Hilda Villaseñor, Serena Gioanetto1

With baby Theo in her arms, Anna revisited the field of thyme she had planted when she worked on Dianne Kretschmar’s farm in the Muskoka region in the early 2000s.

The Legacies Project brought Chandra and Anna together at the farm in July 2016, Chandra coming from Six Nations in Ontario, while Anna was visiting from her home in Quebec.

Sitting down to share food and stories, they nibbled on the nutritious cornbread that Chandra had made from Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) white corn. As both mothers were still nursing their babies, they discovered a common passion for breastfeeding.

Cosmic or Spiritual Food

Chandra and Vyolette: Mother’s milk is the original food, what we call Kakwa’on’we or the go-between food. There’s the food a baby gets in the womb, fed from mom on the inside. But as soon as the baby is born, she doesn’t eat earth food just yet. She gets cosmic food, which is spiritual food.

That connection remains between the Skyworld and babies before they can actually physically eat human food or earth food. I like talking about breast milk as an important link in the food chain. It says a lot about my food sovereignty and Vyolette’s food security.

Breastfeeding hadn’t really happened in my family for a couple of generations. My parents were very supportive, but it was a process that I had to learn myself. And a couple of my kids had serious health issues so couldn’t breastfeed. In the hospital, having your pumped breast milk be dumped down the drain accidentally is one of the worst things I’ve experienced.

"But as soon as the baby is born, she doesn’t eat earth food just yet. She gets cosmic food, which is spiritual food."

Breastfeeding is a lifestyle choice. Some women make other choices and have a much easier lifestyle. It’s the harder road in this culture and in this climate. Once a waitress in a restaurant said that my breastfeeding was making another customer uncomfortable. That’s not something you want to say to me. I firmly but politely said, “Well, she’s almost done,” and kept going about my business.

People are generally more accepting now; breastfeeding is again the norm. Once an older woman came up and thanked me for breastfeeding my child. That we need acknowledgement shows that it’s still not back to where it used to be.

The first time that I heard the term ‘food sovereignty’ , it seemed over-politicized. It took me a while to wrap my head around that phrase, and see it as important. The work that I do IS food sovereignty, it’s living that food sovereignty. It’s not about pumping a fist and holding a picket sign. It’s about sitting down with a stool and just feeding my kid…anywhere.

That’s my pitch on food sovereignty and food security – the humble beginnings of breastfeeding.

The Most Local Food

Anna and Theo: Breastfeeding or nursing my babies was the obvious choice for me. It was what I experienced as a baby and toddler, and watched as my mother nursed my younger brother.

I was breastfed until the age of about three or four. Not so much for nutrition at that point but for comfort. Many people find that to be very weird if not totally wrong. I don’t remember being nursed per say but I do remember the closeness, and playing with the gold chain around my mother’s neck.

Not only that, but my mother was a vocal champion of breastfeeding. She liked to boast about having helped other babies and mothers get the hang of it by feeding them herself and teaching them a proper latch. Imagine that – nursing someone else’s child!

I had a strong role model, good personal experiences, and a family and community that were supportive of breastfeeding. So when my first child, Katherine, was born, it was an obvious and natural choice. I know that is not everyone’s experience. Although I had my mother as a role model, she was not around when my children were born. She died two years before.

I was also very lucky to have my children born in a place where a mother’s choices are respected. The nurses and community health clinics in Quebec are so supportive of families. We were given information, even pamphlets for fathers and grandparents on how to support breastfeeding. The nurses at the hospital taught me how to nurse a newborn and proper latching.

We had a visit from the nurse 24 hours after coming home, and she put us in touch with an organization in the area called “Suportons-lait”. They provide information for prospective parents about breastfeeding and can connect a new mother with a breastfeeding “godmother” or “marraine” who offers support when needed by phone, Facebook, or in person.

I enjoyed the social support of group gatherings and outings at local family centres, cafes, even a museum visit during world breastfeeding week to see a lactation themed art exhibit…! I didn’t know any other mothers at that time so meeting people was very important to me. I like to joke that Katherine is the poster child for breastfeeding as she is featured in the pamphlet for Suporton-lait, the photos taken at one of the monthly “causeries” or chat groups.

Katherine quit nursing on her second birthday, saying it tasted “yucky”. I think the flavour had changed as I was pregnant at the time. And with my second child Theo, it was my choice to stop nursing him when he was just over two years old. I was pregnant with my third child and felt I needed a break. I took a vacation for a few days without him and told him the milk was all done when I came home. He told me to go to the store to get more milk!

Nursing our third child Amelia was good but a little more challenging. Theo was a little jealous, and climbed all over me as I tried to nurse. With three kids it was hard to sit down and relax into it.

“If we’re talking about local food, you can’t get more local than mother’s milk.”

I had a bout of mastitis which was so painful, and really knocked the energy out of me, but again with supportive health care I was able to get over it quickly (thanks to a nurse phoning in a prescription during a snowstorm)! One of the main perks of breastfeeding for me was not having to have to get up at night to prepare a bottle. Just roll over, feed, and go back to sleep.

On the farm, we also see breastfeeding with our animals. Our kids get to see the goats and the rabbits being breastfed from their mothers.

If we’re talking about local food, you can’t get more local than mother’s milk.

A beautiful connection

Hilda and Diego: Hilda Villaseñor was a third breastfeeding mother at the Legacies gathering in 2016 accompanying her partner Fernando Garcia to Canada from Mexico. She recounts her struggle to breastfeed without the kind of support that Anna enjoyed.

Breastfeeding creates a beautiful connection. But in Mexico right now, it is highly criticized. There’s criticism for moral reasons, for example, for exposing your breast in a very conservative culture. Ads showing women exposing their breasts are not considered bad, but breastfeeding is seen as bad. It’s hypocritical.

We’re a very elitist and classist society. When upperclass women saw me breastfeeding, they said in a derogatory tone: “You’re like an Indian!”

They also criticized me for carrying Diego in a rebozo to keep him close to my body. They thought he should be in a stroller or carriage. But when we came to Canada for the Legacies Project, people did not think it was strange for me to carry him in a snuggly, close to me.

My mother couldn’t breastfeed me, she had problems and it worked for only one month. So I was bottle fed with formula.

I wanted to give my son the best food when he was a baby, but I also did it for the strong connection it would give us. Through breastfeeding, I was giving him more self-confidence and a strong relationship between mother and son. And I can see the results in him: he’s very loved and very secure.

I was criticized for breastfeeding for more than two years. Many mothers only breastfeed for three months, and that’s it. Instead of seeing it as natural and normal, they see it as abnormal. They think you are spoiling the child.

I visited many pediatricians who said that it would damage my son psychologically. I went through eight doctors before I found one who would support me.

Many of the things I did were criticized: carrying my baby close to my body, breastfeeding, having him sleep with me. Even Caesarian birth is now more normal than natural childbirth.

I fought to keep breastfeeding. I even lost friends over this. Once in a restaurant with a friend, I breastfed Diego under a cape. My friend criticized me for breastfeeding (even covered) in front of the waiter.

I believe very firmly in breastfeeding not only as a method of healthy nutrition but as a way to nurture and connect with my son. So if I had to lose friends and family, so be it.

Maria with grandson Felipe in 2020
Backwards or Modern?

Maria and Serena: Legacies collaborator Maria and her 21-year-old daughter Serena live in the autonomous Purépecha community of Nurio in Michoacán, Mexico.

When my sister Ana was a baby, almost 40 years ago, we couldn’t buy bottled milk in Nurio. Everybody breastfed.

In the past, women would have children every year, and it was considered not acceptable to breastfeed while pregnant. Though there were some women who would breastfeed both the older and the new baby at the same time.

I had an aunt who breastfed her 8-year-old child. She would do it before she went to school and when she came home. It was less about feeding and more about giving the child comfort.

Many years later they started to sell formula. It was offered to support the women who had a small child and a new baby. And It was more practical for women who were working. We had to boil water and keep it warm in a thermos. You had to buy formula, but the federal Health Ministry offers it free as a social service for people who can’t afford it. Companies would donate their products and distribute them to people who needed it.

Now many people buy the formula, because if they breastfeed, they are seen as backward, stuck in the past. They are considered modern if they use formula.

“Now many people buy the formula, because if they breastfeed, they are seen as backward, stuck in the past.”

Twenty years ago, people still had their children at home. There were midwives, but some women gave birth alone. Later they were encouraged to go to clinics to have their babies.

They now do more caesarian births as a form of birth control. Because you shouldn’t have more than three caesarean births. It’s more expensive to have children in the hospital. Natural births are cheaper. Normally women don’t want caesarean births because they say that God sends you the children that He wants you to have.

But we still keep the tradition of using medicinal plants that we know are good for our health. And I continue to find new seeds and gather plants that I might use for my family.

Serena and Lindsey: I decided to breastfeed my daughter Lindsey because I knew that it was beneficial for her and for me. It’s very nutritious and prevents certain diseases. I breastfed her for six months and she didn’t get sick. It is a beautiful experience as a mother, to have the baby so close while breastfeeding.

Before all women breastfed their children. Older women, like our mothers and mothers-in-law, think it is better.

Miguel, Serena, and Lindsey on the land where they hope to start their farm.

“But women who have migrated to the U.S. come back saying that formula is best.”

But women who have migrated to the U.S. come back saying that formula is best. Women in the U.S. don’t breastfeed their children because they are only with the baby for a short time after they are born, before they have to go to work.

When you have a baby, you have to be there constantly, breastfeeding every few hours.

Now I think if a woman has money, then she will buy the formula.

But once our children start to eat solid food, they always have the nutritious corn tortillas that we make on the comal by the fire.

  1. Hilda and Serena are family members of Legacy’s collaborators. To learn about them, see bios in Storytellers section.