Written by my VBAC mama in New Orleans:
In the days following Hurricane Katrina, I saw images in the media of women stuck at the Convention Center, Superdome and on house roofs with flaccid babies in their arms, begging for something -- anything -- to feed their babies. At least one baby was born in an attic after the storm.
Having a 13 month old at the time and being evacuated from New Orleans, I connected with these women on a powerful level. I nearly cried seeing those dehydrated babies and their desperate mothers. My daughter nursed at my breast while I was watching the news coverage. That made my heart ache even more.
We were lucky. We had plenty of resources to get out of the city and to safe haven with friends. During our 12 hour drive to Birmingham (and subsequent drives of similar duration to Houston then Springfield, Louisiana), I would simply climb into the back seat and offer my breast to the baby when she needed it. I wondered what formula feeding mothers were doing, as we drove past town after town with mile-long lines at gas stations and stores closed due to the electricity being out. The stores that were open looked like wastelands, their shelves emptied of essentials like water by the thousands of other evacuees.
I wondered about the evacuees who ended up in shelters. While at a Target in Houston (the store happened to be near the Astrodome) I saw a woman wearing a shelter wristband shopping with her infant. Relief agencies had given the evacuees gift cards to the store, but I couldn't imagine where I would even begin were I in this woman's place. We had clothes for the kids. We had money. We had friends to stay with. She had nothing.
Even though we lost quite a bit in the flood waters, we were lucky. We had places to stay. My husband is a carpenter so there is no shortage of work. We were in the process of buying a house when the storm hit and are now living there (it was undamaged). We are living on the Westbank, which came through the storm better than most parts of the city. When we returned in October, stores were open, utilities up and running, essential services intact. My baby nursed through it all, weaning herself in November at the age of 16 months.
On Father's Day 2006 I gave birth to one of the many "Katrina babies" conceived shortly after the storm. She was born at one of only 3 hospitals in the area that are delivering babies right now. When the lactation nurse came to check on us the morning after my daughter's birth, our conversation turned to the storm. No matter where you are, that's where conversations invariably start -- or eventually go. Strangers in line at the grocery store ask, "how'd you make out in the storm?" as naturally as saying hello.
The nurse told me she stayed at the hospital through the hurricane and its aftermath. The day after the storm, a woman came to the hospital laboring with her 5th child. She had had epidurals for each of her other labors, but that was not an option this time -- the hospital had no electricity and had to conserve every precious bit of power being supplied by the generators. No monitors unless absolutely necessary. Mom did wonderfully birthing her baby without the epidural.
When the lactation nurse came to talk to the mother about breastfeeding, she said all of her other babies had been bottle fed. The nurse told her she needed to breastfeed this one. The hospital had a limited supply of formula and it had to be saved for the babies who absolutely had to be bottle fed. Mom was scared. She had never breastfed and wasn’t sure if she could do it.
You can do it, and you have to do it, the lactation nurse told her. The hospital didn’t have enough formula to go around. Besides, you don’t know where you are going, what kind of access you will have to grocery stores, or clean drinking water to mix formula for that matter. And if you end up in a crowded shelter, your baby will need the protection breast milk will give her.
“Every time I saw her after that,” the nurse said, smiling, “that mom was nursing her baby.” When the order came to evacuate every last person from New Orleans a week after the storm, the NICU babies went out on helicopters. All of the other babies and mothers were taken out by nurses in their personal cars. As this new mom was getting ready to go, the person in charge of the evacuation asked if she needed a supply of formula to take with her. “No,” she said, beaming. “I’m nursing my baby.” Desperate times had forced this mother to walk into unfamiliar territory, to detour far from her comfort zone -- but her journey brought her a great sense of pride, happiness and intimacy with her new baby. The nurse’s eyes glistened as she told the story.
It’s been nearly a year since the hurricane. Almost every baby I’ve seen since returning to the city has had a bottle in its mouth or at the ready in the diaper bag. I’m still one of the rare mothers here who breastfeeds her baby. I had hoped to see more of a change, a sign of lessons learned from the storm. Still, thinking about the mother who finally took a child -- her fifth -- to her breast gives me hope.
Maybe hearing her story has inspired other mothers to do the same.