Hers was just one of the many tragic stories hitting the airwaves that night. Although her name is long forgotten, her pain etched an image deep into my memory. She was a new mother, still showing the roundness of pregnancy, sitting under the scrutinizing lights of a news camera. Streams of tears painted white lines down her cheeks. As she spoke, her empty eyes looked through the wet tissue she shredded between her fingertips.
This timid young woman was awaiting trial for the death of her baby. The infant she loved had languished at her breast, then died in her arms.
In spite of her claim that she nursed her baby regularly, and cared for the child to the best of her ability, the cause of death was starvation. The first-time mother explained that she had no idea the newborn was not getting nourishment. In spite of her love and best efforts, the baby withered in her arms until she became too weak to nurse.
Alarmed, she sought help —but it was too late.
The usual “experts” were trotted out in an attempt to explain the tragedy, each with their own finger of blame. Some claimed it was the hospital’s fault, reasoning she was released too soon. A direct result, no doubt, of what was then a new policy of discharging new mothers twenty-four hours after delivery. “Drive-by-delivery” one commentator sneered, blaming the cold-hearted, cost-cutting insurance companies.
Others blamed state social services. The government let this poor young woman slip through the cracks of bureaucracy. Their laments of the system’s failure still echo in my mind even now, years later.
“Where were the pediatricians, the lactation experts?” they asked.
We all need moms.
As if they were trying to find a sleeping operator on a conveyor belt that caused a system to shut down. Their questions, of course, were rhetorical. The answers never came. Even more tragic is that this young mother’s fate disappeared into the next news cycle.
As a young mother myself at the time I thought, “They are asking the wrong questions.” Now, as an older mother, with grown children, it’s clear; they were asking the wrong questions because they were mourning the “breakdown.”
Each expert could talk only of a systematic failure. Not one person in the interview dared to ask: “Where was her mother? Did she not have sisters? No older, or at least experienced mothers in her life?”
Not an utterance of the breakdown of the family.
The baby’s father was never mentioned. The role of a father never slipped through the lips of any of the so-called experts interviewed. It is so ingrained in the social narrative that his presence or absence is considered irrelevant to the story.
Without a husband, or a father demoted to a disposable sperm-donor, means she not only lost out on the irreplaceable support he could offer but also that of his mother, sisters or grandmothers. The circles of support God put in place for a new mother are older generations of women.
The woman in the story was not a victim of a failed medical system or inept government agency. It was the tragic result of a breakdown of generations of families living under a cultural siege. This devastated mother was the victim of a culture that has left her, and so many others, utterly stripped of a family designed by God to protect and nurture her and a newborn baby.
She was the end of the broken link in the maternal chain. When the chain of mothering is broken, it’s a crisis that impacts generations.
The best hospital staff in the world can’t replace a loving grandmother’s eyes. A mother with her baby in her arms can’t always see the subtle changes within the first few days of caring for her newborn. First-time mothers have no idea what normal behavior or growth looks like.
Her mother does.
It’s easy to talk about what-should-have-been in a tragedy. Just as the so-called experts did in the interview. Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder, had the young woman in our story had the benefit of her own mother, or other women invested in her life, made a difference?
Just an experienced nursing mother, sitting next to her as she nursed in her living room, could have altered her fate. She would listen instinctively for the familiar gulping sounds. Wait expectantly for that “pop off” of a peaceful, sleepy newborn intoxicated with contentment. Smile at the round full tummy and milk dripping from the corners of tiny lips.
Anything less would bring questions of concern. “Do you feel your milk fill your breasts when the baby nurses? Can you hear the baby gulp? How many diapers are you changing?” The first line of defense against tragedy is an older woman in a new mother’s life.
The maternal chain of mothering will never be replaced or duplicated by an institution.
You may not have had the mother you needed. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be the mother, or friend, someone else needs.