My Family Nursing History

I mentioned last week that my grandmothers are ill. As we tend to do when we gather together, my family has been sharing stories about my grandmothers. I learned just last week that my Gommy had nursed her five children. This surprised me, because I thought I had remembered her being surprised at my nursing my kids.

I also swear she used to talk about having tried nursing, but then my aunt “bit her open,” and so she stopped. My mother corrected this mythology for me–it was Mom who bit, and despite the sore nipples, she and all her siblings were breastfed.

I was sharing this with my paternal grandmother, Nanny, as we talked about what’s harder: staying home with the kids or working while we have young kids. She did some of each, by the way. ¬†Anyway, she told me a rather heartbreaking story about nursing.

She wanted to nurse her three kids, but her doctor told her she was too anxious, that only calm women could nurse babies. Oh, how my soul aches for her! I very much relate to the way an authority figure like a doctor can just say something about our bodies and have it settle in as definitive. Nanny’s doctor gave her a recipe for infant formula to make at home, and so my father and his siblings drank a mixture of powdered milk, vitamins, and Karo syrup. Yes–the corn syrup.

And once I got Nanny talking, she had so much more to say! Her own grandmother, another Katie, evidently had enough milk for the whole block. And so she worked as a wet nurse for years. As women were taking jobs in factories during WWII, my great-great-grandmother Katie was taking in their babies and expressing milk to send home with them afterward.

These were not the days of the Affordable Care Act, or svelte nursing tops or even double-electric breastpumps. My goodness! I can’t begin to imagine what that Katie was wearing or using to pump milk. Or, really, how she was managing to pump while taking care of all those kids during the day.

I always love learning slivers of my family history. The story Nanny told me of my grandfather walking in the front door from work as she went out the back for her evening job–I cling to these images and feel so much closer to my relatives as I share the same experience sixty years later.

But as I spend the day with my nursling, I particularly love learning stories of my ancestors sharing in this special sort of relationship. It’s such a fleeting time, especially when I look at my 82-year-old Gommy and realize she hasn’t nursed a baby for fifty years. I think knowing these new stories about the women who came before me helps me to both get through the tough times of nursing and also cherish the sweet moments of baby cuddles. Before I know it, I’ll be reminiscing about it with their children’s children.

Do you know whether your mother and grandmother nursed your relatives? Leave a comment to share some family nursing stories you learned!

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