Ada Lovelace Day: Chris Mulford

As I wrote last year, “A good way to end a blog drought is with a post for Ada Lovelace Day.”

Chris died last month. Chris was my mother-in-sin and then -in-law and before either, the mother of my high school crush then college relationship.

Chris in a mushroomy hat

Chris was an, RN, Lactation Consultant, and a breastfeeding advocate and activist. Back in the early 1990s, she raised my awareness of breastfeeding as a feminist and public health issue. I ended up reading quite a bit about it (starting with Gabrielle Palmer’s excellent “The Politics of Breastfeeding“). I ended up using this and similar reading in several of my bioethics classes in grad school.

Among so many things, I especially admire two aspects of her relationship with science. The first is science as a source of answers to deeply personal questions:

Over the next few weeks I spent lots of time reflecting on my life as a mammal. I figured if the other mammals knew how to take care of their babies without any lessons, then probably I could too, but I sure had lots of questions. Why did I get so thirsty when the baby nursed? (It was like a wind from the Sahara hitting my throat.) Why did the baby’s sucking make me sleepy? Why did my daughter smell so enticing? I had a degree from an Ivy League college, but no clue about what this small creature needed from me. I just had to go with the flow, and luckily—because mammals are designed for survival—things worked out OK.

Forty years later, I look back on thousands of hours spent sitting beside nursing mothers and babies in my career as a hospital nurse and board certified lactation consultant. The process of nurturing young mammals still enthralls me. Lactation science has answered my questions and many more that I never thought to ask, and to me it is still a marvel, the way a mother’s body, which surrounded her baby before birth, protects him afterwards…by providing warmth and touch and a soothing and soporific elixir that programs the baby’s immune system and feeds only friendly bacteria in his gut.

In response to this profound, personal experience, she changed her life and career, went back to school to be an RN, worked the night shift until she put together her own practice, and spent the rest of her life learning and sharing knowledge and love of breastfeeding. Her relationship with the science of lactation wasn’t cold, clinical, or distant, but excited, enthusiastic, and endlessly delightful. I love that.

The second was science as reality check:

During the years (most of my adult life!) that I’ve been involved in what I think of as “the Breastfeeding World,” I’ve been concerned about something I might call our “validity,” our truth. I feel as if we (at least in the USA) have been marginalised—or closeted—and our issue has been left out, overlooked, forgotten—for so long, and our struggle has been so hard, that we’re in danger of developing a skewed view of reality. You know that feeling of identity, instant understanding, acceptance that you experience when you find another lactation “nut”! “Oh, good, here’s somebody I don’t have to explain everything to—she (or sometimes it’s even a ‘he’) already understands about breastfeeding.” It feels so comfortable to be with other people who see things through the same “breastfeeding glasses” that we do.

And because of that feeling, I believe that we have to be extra careful, extra watchful, to be sure that there’s some objective corroboration for our perceptions. A peer review process is what I’m getting at, I think. We have to help each other identify deficiencies in our understanding, our presentation, or our goals and strategies. We need standards that define LCs—who we are, what we do. If we don’t do this for each other, surely our critics will, and they won’t be kind!

The rigor of the research process is one standard our profession can cherish. Another standard is a clear position on the ethics of breastfeeding supplies, equipment, infant feeding paraphernalia, and corporate sponsorship. Others might be cooperation among breastfeeding advocates of all kinds….Justice and fairness in dealing with our colleagues….A global rather than a local viewpoint….Accountability in clinical practice. And I’m sure there are others. ILCA drew up Standards of Practice about 5 years ago. That’s a start.

Her science advocacy involved a deft respect for the complex structure of diverse world views, without giving ground on rigor. I’m nowhere near as kind, yet clear, in my advocacy, though I strive for it.

Chris wrote:

If it comes down to a choice between having rights and having manners, I’ll go for rights…but I think we can aim for having both.

I’m not so good on manners, but part of my love, passion, and delight in learning, knowing, sharing, and championing is colored by her light.

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