CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA— I was first exposed to the intricacies of South African women’s birth and breastfeeding experiences when I interned at a public hospital in Cape Town in the fall of 2016. Intrigued and inspired by what I learned, I returned to Cape Town during the summer of 2017 to research the structural barriers to breastfeeding, birth justice and health equity as experienced by women accessing public health facilities in Cape Town.
As a part of my research I planned to interview pregnant women, new mothers and health professionals who provide care to women in Cape Town’s public hospitals. However, what I did not plan for was how difficult it would be to discuss such intimate things as birth and breastfeeding with women who I had never met.
I am an American, solely English-speaking, 20-year-old who has never had a child and consequently never breastfed. In addition, I do not have any health professional licensing and I was not in an official capacity to provide new and expecting mothers with medical care or advice. For these reasons I felt as though I had nothing to give these women in exchange for the time, energy and vulnerability that they devoted to telling me their stories.
Within a week of arriving in Cape Town my feelings of inadequacy made me question whether I would actually be able to carry out my research as planned. It was just days later when I met a woman named Maryam who positively changed the trajectory of my entire project.
Maryam is a certified lactation counselor through the Cape Town chapter of the Le Leche League. She is the type of woman who, when walking through the hospital, greets every person she sees regardless of whether she knows them—but she knows just about everyone. She is equal parts comforting and heavy-handed, a combination that allows her to tell new mothers what they need to do while also acknowledging how difficult mothering can be.
On the first day I met Maryam, she offered to let me shadow her breastfeeding education and counseling sessions. I originally thought this would be a one-time experience and I would then revert back to my independent interview schedule. As it turns out, I ended up spending almost every day of those seven weeks alongside Maryam.
Over the course of the summer, Maryam introduced me to dozens of mothers, pregnant women, doctors, lactation consultants, midwives, nurses and social workers. By introducing me as someone they could trust, Maryam gave mothers a reason to be comfortable sharing their experiences with me, and health professionals a reason to be comfortable speaking honestly about the limitations of public hospitals in South Africa. As a result, I not only gained better data but also, more importantly, I learned about the power of a meaningful connection.
When has a meaningful connection changed the trajectory of your life? What did this connection give you?