Writing the book “Mother Food”
A Slow Gestation
The idea for this book was conceived and then took hold of me, a little more each time, with the births of my four children. With each child, I learned a little more about overcoming my low milk supply issues by using traditional herbs and foods — an area of knowledge that was not at all in the mainstream twenty, or even ten years ago, and that today is still little understood.
The catalyst to actually begin researching and writing was the birth of my forth child and my only daughter. That was in 1992. With her, I encountered new and considerable obstacles to breastfeeding and bonding. I was able to overcome these with the knowledge I had gleaned with my older three children — knowledge that I believe every mother has a right to know.
The first major challenge was childbed fever and a stay at the hospital. A sliver of placenta had remained in my womb, and when it began to decay, bacterial infection invaded my body. My daughter was ten days old when I was rushed to the emergency room, shaking from fever, too weak to stand. Fortunately, my breastfeeding-friendly doctor agreed that I could continue nursing in spite of undergoing surgery and taking high-dosage antibiotics. I was also allowed to room-in with my daughter: she slept in my bed, right next to me on the extra-large pillow.
Although I was so weak, I responded to her needs as quickly as possible, day and night. I changed her clothes and her diapers right there in bed with me. At the first sign of hunger or fretfulness, I fed or comforted her. I loved being close to her and feeling the warmth and emotion flow between us, that incredible exchange of finest feelings, as comforting to the sensitive new mother as to the baby.
Each afternoon, a friend came by and was available to carry her around during the hours when she might be fretful. Evenings, my husband was there to do the same. The quintessence: my daughter never felt abandoned to discomfort.
As mentioned above, I struggle with chronic low milk supply. The causes were hormonal (mild PCOS), a minimal amount of glandular breast tissue, and possibly also my having a medical condition that suppresses my immune system (Lyme disease). To prevent milk supply problems in the hospital, I asked my husband to bring me bottles of “Rivella,” a soft drink flavored with herbal extracts that is drunk in Switzerland (where I lived) to increase milk supply. In addition, the nurses made me pots of an herbal lactation tea. The result was that although my body was struggling to maintain milk production throughout this medical crisis, I did indeed manage to exclusively breastfeed my daughter.
Then something happened that made a huge impression on me. Nurses I had never seen before began to visit us, to stand quietly and respectfully inside our room for a while, and then leave without saying a word. I finally asked one what was going on. She told me that the nurses “downstairs” were talking about my baby — about the remarkable baby who ever cried. The nurses wanted to see for themselves if it was true! She explained that in the maternity ward, the babies were fretful and crying a lot of the time.
You see, in Switzerland, health insurance pays for up to ten days of rest at the hospital after birth. During this time, mothers are supposed to learn about babycare from the nurses. In my case, however, I had gone straight home a few hours after the births of my first two babies. My last two had been homebirths, so I had never had the benefit of their guidance.
Well, the nurse’s amazement amazed me! Obviously, they didn’t understand the kind of interaction necessary to prevent a baby from becoming fretful. Indeed, I remembered the questionable “support” I’d received the first few hours after my two hospital births. With my first, because he was fretful, the nurse put him in a little bed, all alone, crying, so that I could rest. That separation ripped my heart, and his crying began to sound horribly angry. Being born and immediately initiated into anger and separation is not my idea of a good start in life! But since the nurse seemed to think it was okay, and I was a new mother and insecure, I trusted her. With my second, the nurses took him for testing and then didn’t return him for a half hour. I was aching for him all that time. When I asked about the delay I was told it was because he was so cute, and a very special baby. They had enjoyed their time with him. When a nurse then saw that I was attempting to breastfeed him, she said, “What? So soon? Don’t you want to rest?” It was now 45 minutes after birth. Didn’t she know that the best time to initiate breastfeeding was the first hour after birth?
Well, with my daughter cooing on my lap I assured the nurse that she was no angel. She would cry like any other baby if her needs were not met. The secret was recognizing her signals and responding to them as soon as possible — even within a split second. But there was more to it. I also knew how to keep up my fragile milk supply, and I knew that I should eat certain foods and not others to avoid risking my baby’s digestive distress. Indeed, I knew from repeated experience that a baby who has enough milk, and whose milk is easy to digest, is very simply going to be an “easier” baby. Every baby is different, of course, but a mother can learn how to be sensitive to those differences and gauge her choices accordingly.
A few weeks later I encountered the next big obstacle: postpartum depression. I had gone through a long phase of exhaustion following each birth, but had not experienced depression before. Now I saw what it was like: parts of my brain shut down; I no longer felt involvement in life; I felt no joy in being a mother, or in my new baby.
Nonetheless, because I knew it was important, I continued doing things that contribute to a bonded relationship: I gave my baby the contact she required (she was the sensitive kind of baby who never sleeps if put down, so she had to be carried in a sling or snugly during the day, even when sleeping, the first three months of her life). I continued taking foods and herbs to maintain my supply. I observed which foods caused her digestive distress, and I avoided these. When I watched TV, I wore a headphone. I believe that babies who listen to television or radio and who hear, for instance, sudden loud sounds or music that convey shock, horror, surprise, or pathos are at greater risk for the sensorial disorganization that many children have today. I also sang to her throughout the day, including when I watched TV with headphones on, even though it felt very odd to do so. The result was that when I came out of depression (the healing process took about four months; I was not informed enough to take medication), I had a trusting, happy baby, (and a very musical child as we would discover) who would continue to be confident in our relationship, and to nurse for several years.
My Happy Baby
My happy baby was my little miracle. How had I come through postpartum depression with an intact relationship to my daughter, including an intact breastfeeding relationship? Everyday, I marveled and rejoiced. I also rejoiced that I had known how to overcome my low milk supply, and to produce milk that did not cause my daughter to have an upset stomach. (She would get an upset stomach and become colicky whenever I ate certain foods or combinations of foods, so I was sure to avoid these.) I had learned these tools not from doctors but from mothers, especially mothers from the “anthroposophic” community (Waldorf school) which, in Germany, has studied the effect of foods and herbs on mothers and babies for decades.
I felt as though I had stumbled upon a treasure chest of insights – to which mothers held the key. This set of insights seemed ancient in its “rightness.” I believed that all mothers should have access to it.
Putting this key back into the hands of all mothers was the motivation for researching and writing Mother Food.
Now, there are two types of persons in my family: scientists and artists. I lean toward the latter. My degree is in music. I also love to write, especially poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction. Well, research shows that musicians use their brain in an integrated way, using both halves creatively. That was the approach I took to researching this material: get the whole picture, discover the interconnections, and explain these in simple terms that make the reader think, “Oh, I get this now! It’s so clear!”
Imagine a mother of four lively children, bringing home boxes of books from the university library, and reading these each evening in bed while nursing her baby – then toddler, then young child. My daughter was four years old when I published an article in “c u r a r e,” a German academic journal of ethnomedicine, titled, “Have Lactation Medicinals an Influence on Culture?” This article summed up my findings: that lactation medicinals had been ignored by science (this has now changed), that foods that increase milk production were the crops earliest cultivated by Neolithic peoples (perhaps because breastfeeding mothers preferred these foods), that lactation medicinals are plentifully found in world mythology, associated with breastfeeding goddesses or mother goddesses. Finally, I included a description of some of the chemical pathways that lactogenic foods and herbs use to increase milk production.
What Kind of Book Should I Write?
In 1996, I sent my initial manuscript, then titled “Ancient Tools of Motherhood,” to a Swiss publishing house, the Kreux Verlag. Their main editor responded that I was writing not one book, but two: I was writing a self-help book, but also a book about history and culture. She said that this combination would be hard to market, and that I should instead write one book or the other.
I thought about this suggestion a long time, but remained convinced that mothers deserve and require a book connecting both history and culture to their practical experiences today. One of the remarkable moments of motherhood is the realization that one is sharing an experience common to women of all times and places. The next step is to understand how this universality includes our choices for diet and health, with respect to how these choices influence our breastfeeding and mothering experience.
At the risk of sounding dramatic, I believe that understanding motherhood has never been as crucial as it is today. More of our children are born prematurely, or are born at term but with neurological damage such as learning problems (and suck problems), concentration or sensorial disorders, and a spectrum of autistic disorders. Indeed, it is estimated that 1 out of 96 children are born with an austistic disorder, and nearly every second boy has some degree of concentration or sensorial integration disorder. We need to understand how we got where we are today and what we can do about it — for although this problem belongs to society as a whole, and as a society we will eventually have to come to terms with it, we mothers can be proactive now, both before conception, during pregnancy and birth, and again through our choices for our baby’s nourishment. “Mother Food,” precisely because it is many books in one, can offer important impulses to this discussion.
In 1999, I was thrilled to learn that a new venue of publishing had opened up: “Print on Demand,” a digital publishing arrangement that leaves complete responsibility for content and editing to the writer. This venue would allow me to write the combination how-to and cultural book that I had planned. I was energized to concentrate on writing again.
In 2000, I was almost ready to publish. Then I was bit by a tick and my life turned upside down. My doctor believes I’d had Lyme disease since my early twenties, but without its having broken out actively. With the new tick bite, Lyme disease quickly developed and put me out of function for six months of antibiotic treatment. When I began to recover, enough that I could consider working on this book again, I realized that I could not return to this book as it was. I had to re-write it in order to remember what it was about (Lyme disease affects memory and thinking processes)! And that was a good thing.
Again I had boxes of books to read. Wonderfully, everything I read in the very most recent books on diet, the immune system, allergy, and babycare confirmed and complimented what I already knew. Now I had many more insights for mothers. I continued to work toward publication, and in 2001, became a certified holistic lactation consultant in a new school founded in Switzerland. Local midwives referred mothers to me who had extraordinary problems with milk supply. Most wonderfully, I moderated a breastfeeding group on the internet where mothers with exceptional breastfeeding difficulties congregate for support. In 2005, this group became a non-profit, MOBI Motherhood Intl. (Mothers Overcoming Breastfeeding Issues).
What is Unique about Mother Food?
The central goal of Mother Food is to address breastfeeding issues that are linked to a baby’s apparent suffering at the breast, such as persistent hunger from true low supply, and pain from colic, reflux, and allergy. These conditions are the least well explored in breastfeeding literature today, and mothers who describe having these problems often feel misunderstood by their healthcare providers.
Another goal is to include a historic overview of mother foods from ancient Greece, India and China. These comparisons offer fascinating surprises and insights that are the birthright of all mothers.