Each woman has her own complications and emotions surrounding breastfeeding. On top of that there are many players, pressures, and policies from the outside regarding exclusive breastfeeding, which according to the WHO means only feeding breastmilk for the first six months of a bay's life. After six months food can be added into their diet, but breastfeeding should, they say, continue until 2 years old.
According to two health and nutrition surveys in Mexico, the national rate of exclusive breastfeeding is somewhere between 14-25%. It should be at least twice that. UNICEF conducted one of those surveys and when meeting with them I was intrigued by but mostly questioning of the use of quantitative data to drive breastfeeding policies, campaigns and definitions of where the problem exists regarding exclusive breastfeeding in Mexico.
The quantitative numbers and survey responses can reveal quite a bit, but as the first step into this investigation, I wanted to connect those numbers with real life stories of women who breastfeed as a way to better understand, even just a tiny bit, the impacts on why a woman decides to exclusively breastfeed or not. In a space driven by quantitative data, what are women's stories about breastfeeding in Mexico that can help us to understand the low rates of exclusive breastfeeding?
Rebozos as a Conversation + Design Tool
In Mexican culture, rebozos are decorated shawls that originally played a central part in the China Poblana, the traditional costume adopted by Mexican women. It represents the journey from birth to death – playing its part as baby carrier, a covering for those who have passed away, and many other uses in between. There is an inherent sense of warmth and security to it that could be for one person or many.
According to a doula that I spoke with, a rebozo is a great tool for pregnant women and mothers. I found that it can also be a great tool for doing research about the personal and intimate topic of breastfeeding.
I created a 60 foot long version of rebozos para bebes or baby wrap that could be used to wrap up to 8 women together. I also made a version which could be worn by two or more people at once. By literally connecting people to each other quickly created an intimate space to have these personal conversations and moments. There was something about being face-to-face that lead to sometimes rather deep conversations with the person across from them.
Mexico City : Luperca Maternity Center
I started my research in Mexico City, which has the most populous metropolitan area in the Western Hemisphere with 21.2 million people. In such a large city it was pretty daunting to think about where to start. In addition to having individual conversations in public parks and over Skype, I came across Luperca Maternity Center. After talking to the owner, doula, and lactation consultant invited me to attend her birth preparation class for a few weeks along with 4 pregnant women and their partners.
During one of those classes we read a short essay about the important role of partners in supporting breastfeeding. Then the expectant mothers and their partners connected with each other. After slight chaos of learning how to tie a rebozo, the room became relatively silent. Whispers were hardly audible and I did not know what words were being exchanged, but their looks and sometimes tears said so much.
San Francisco Tetlanhocan : Asamblea Popular de Familias Migrantes
The second site for research was San Francisco Tetlanhocan, a town 2 hours away from Mexico City in the state of Tlaxcala.
Like much of the rest of the state, a lot of people (mostly men) immigrate to the U.S. and support their families from there. This means there are a lot of women and kids and the community is economically dependent on remittences from the U.S. At the same time, the hub of sex trafficking is in this state. During our first trip we were introduced to a group of 25 women called La Asamblea Popular de Familias Migrantes (APOFAM) that focuses on projects regarding political, social, and economic power in their community.
I lead a two-hour workshop with a group of 8 women from the organization to find out more starting with the larger picture of reproductive health in the community using the very long fabric. I asked about the support in the community regarding reproductive health. As each person answered they would wrap themselves with the fabric however they wanted. At first it was awkward and the fabric got wrapped around wrists or shoulders, which could be signs of slight discomfort. But as multiple women spoke it started getting easier.
As the conversations became more more intimate we used the one-on-one rebozos to talk about what it means to breastfeed. It only took minutes after standing face-to-face for tears to accompany the very personal conversations. Angel said that she feels like all she has are her children; Jessica talked about how she is alone with her two kids while her husband is in the United States; Maria mentioned for the need of specialist beyond APOFAM and family members.
From the conversations with roughly 25 women in both Mexico City and San Francisco Tetlanohcan, I identified a few common threads:
1. Feeling alone
2. The role of specialists
3. Individual decision-making in a space which there are supposed norms and "shoulds"
For this particular topic, a lot of the information, books, apps, articles seem to already be based off a very general idealized version of what breastfeeding is or should be like for women. Sitting in a postpartum depression workshop I had wished that everyone could hear how detrimental the generalized statements can be. Women feel alone but don’t want to talk about it because there is a lot of shame. What breastfeeding actually is and looks like is much different than what the outside wants it to be—easy, painless, beautiful. So the generalized personas can’t begin to carry and honor the weight and texture that I was told people need to hear in order to empathize then hopefully make some shifts in policy and prejudices.
The intervention is specifically aimed at women in their first six-months of breastfeeding who are in the middle to upper economic level in Mexico City and feel alone. When you think of development this is not the typical group one would think of, but the low rate of exclusive breastfeeding is a problem born at a specific level of affluence. They have the option not to breastfeed and to buy formula. Beyond the economics of it all, many spoke about the intense expectations within this group to not only do it all like work and breastfeed and be a good mother, but to do it beautifully and without pain.
The idea was to create a voice messaging system where they could listen to a repository of stories online other women's stories about breastfeeding and/or record their own to share with each other. These postcards are one piece of the project that were posted around Mexico city--in changing rooms, on public bulletin boards, and in office spaces. There are 8 different scenarios based off what I heard such as “To the mother who has had to use a breast pump in a public bathroom. You are not alone.”