Saturday, May 23, 2015

An Ordinary Mother

The writer interview with World Moms Blog asked what made me unique as a mother.

I could not answer the question, for I am not unique. I am an ordinary mother with a child, a husband, a job, and a station wagon.

But, still, every ordinary mother has a story. This is mine.

I got married young—my husband and I were married right after school. He is a computer engineer and I am a journalist specialized in criminal and disaster stories. He lived in San Diego and I lived in Los Angeles. We only saw each other on weekends. We both enjoyed our career and the plan was not to have a child.

But I found myself knocked up five years after we tied the knot.

I had no plan for the child—no birth plan, no nursing plan, no education plan. For my whole life I had been the girl with a plan, and now, suddenly, I was plan-less. I was sitting in my then future pediatrician’s office with a blank mind when he asked me if I planned to breastfeed.

“I don’t know,” I said, “I mean, I’ll think about it if I have milk.”

“Virtually every woman has milk,” he told me.

“Okay, okay, I’ll think about it.” I walked out of his office.

Then I went through a very unpleasant delivery. I was in labor for more than 20 hours and ended up with an emergency C-section. I seriously thought I was going to die. When all was over and the nurse handed me the crying newborn, I barely had the strength to take him. And when I finally held him in my arms, I felt nothing..not the “love at the first sight” that everybody talked about…but exhausted.

But everything changed in two hours, when the baby first cried for food. A nurse showed me how to latch the baby. Soon as I brought him onto my breast, he widely opened his mouth and latched on. It was just amazing. I truly felt like I belonged to my baby and he belonged to me.

That was the moment I became a mother.

And I became a mother with an exclusively breastfed baby. We had three great months together. I returned to work when he turned 3 month old. I was writing for World Journal, the largest Chinese-language newspaper serving North America.

Two months later, the newspaper published an article titled “Breastfeeding Photos Embarrass Chinese-American to death,” describing breastfeeding in public and/or sharing breastfeeding photos on social media as “disturbing” and “disgusting.”

As a nursing mother, I was shocked and offended. I talked to my editor, but he didn’t think there was any problem with that article. The newspaper received complaints from readers, but had no responses.

I was very, very disappointed. The truth is, the company wasn’t friendly to breastfeeding mothers. We didn’t have a nursing room, even though California law requires appropriate reasonable space for pumping. I had to pump in the restroom. When I washed my pump parts in the kitchen, some of my colleagues would say, “don’t wash your dirty panties in the office.” I reported this to Human Resources, but they never dealt with it.

Later they published another article claiming that it is impractical for employers to provide lactation accommodations. I spoke with my editor, a news person I once admired. We sat down for a 3-hour-long conversation and my editor insisted that there was nothing wrong with the article, that I was overreacting, and that I had a personal issue.

So I quit, ending a 10-year-long relationship with them. I sued the company for sex discrimination.

The suit was settled and one thing I didn’t agree was confidentiality. They wanted to pay for my silence which I refused. Other than that I’m happy about the agreement, it requires the company to change its policies regarding lactation accommodations and to share these policies with staff in multiple languages. Moreover, all supervisors will be trained on the policy and how to respond to requests for lactation accommodations.

Ten years is a long time to devote to a career. When I quit, once again, I found myself completely plan-less. I decided to follow my heart. I tuned down the financial compensation in my lawsuit, so that I could speak out about this type of discrimination. My hope is to use my example to encourage other Chinese-American mothers. I’m comforted whenever my Chinese blog gets positive responses.

And the blog led me to new opportunities. My still-being-breastfed little one turned two this past Mother’s Day, and I’m ready to publish my second children’s book.

Every ordinary mother has a story. This is mine – from a criminal reporter to a parenting columnist and a children’s book writer. What’s your story?

This is an original post for World Moms Blog by To-wen Tseng. Photo credit to Mu-huan Chiang.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

When Breast Milk Goes Big Business

This past weekend I joined a dozen of local mothers (and fathers) for a stroll walk, raising funds and awareness for the importance of human donor milk.

Why donor milk?

Well, much has been said about the benefits of breast milk for babies. It is the feeding method recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics(AAP) and the World Health Organization(WHO). And for the 500 premature babies born each year who contract a potentially deadly disease called necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), breast milk is more than the recommended feeding method. It can mean the difference between life and death.

NEC is an inflammation of the bowels that can require multiple surgeries to remove dead tissues, may result in organ failure, months-long neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) stays, and lifelong complications and treatment. It can cost up to $1 million to treat per case and the anguish it causes parents is indescribable.

According to Best for Babes, a non-profit organization that focuses on education and support for parents making feeding choices for their babies, feeding fragile and compromised babies human breast milk, whether from the mother or a donor, has been shown to reduce the risk of NEC by 79%.

In its most recent policy statement on breastfeeding and human milk, the AAP states unequivocally that “The potent benefits of human milk are such that all preterm infants should receive human milk…If mother’s own milk is unavailable despite significant lactation support, pasteurized donor milk should be used.”

However, the use of donor breast milk is not a common practice in American hospitals. According to NECSociety, the AAP’s call for all preterm babies to have pasteurized donor milk when mother’s own milk is unavailable is being ignored. Less than 40% of the nation’s NICUs use donor milk. “It’s a tragedy that more parents, health care providers, medical directors, and hospitals administrators don’t know about donor milk’s existence, accessibility, safety and lifesaving powers for babies in the NICU,” said Jennifer Canvasser, the founder of NECSociety, in a statement.

On the other hand, buying and selling breast milk has become popular over the past couple of years. Prolacta Bioscience, for example, has raised $46 million from investors. The company buys, pasteurizes, and resells breast milk. In hospitals, extremely premature babies are treated with the concentrated, high-protein, and super expensive formula. With its new funds, Prolacta now has the resources for research into possible new therapeutic uses for breast milk.

But I found I cannot be thrilled about the entrance of big business into what's largely been community-based, nonprofit work.

Though Prolacta’s product helps sick babies and gives breastfeeding mothers a way to earn money for their milk, it can draw donors from nonprofit milk banks with cash incentives, threatening the health of preemies whose parents lack money or insurance for the super expensive breast milk based baby formula.

Currently there are 15 milk banks nationwide that exist to provide donor breast milk to mothers who aren’t able to provide enough breast milk to their babies. These nonprofit milk banks have a long history of providing milk to the sickest babies, and provide based on medical need and not on insurance reimbursement or financial resources. And they were struggling to meet demand when breast milk went big business. Time reported that the rise of online milk selling had led to “critically low” levels of donor breast milk and “urgent calls” for donations.

Breast milk is love. Love is not for sale; it is for sharing. Mothers, if you are blessed with more breast milk than your child needs, please consider donating your milk to save another baby’s life. More information can be found at Human Milk Banking Association of North America.

Stroll walk to raise awareness for human donor milk.
This is an original post to by To-wen Tseng. Photo credit to Mu-huan Chiang. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

California hospitals fight “maternity tourism” to promote breastfeeding

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to speak at a staff meeting at AHMC, a medical group that owns and runs six hospitals in Los Angeles area. According to the medical director, they have seen a large increase in their Chinese patient population. The patients come to the United States to deliver their babies and then return to China.

At Monterey Park Community Hospital, one of the hospitals operated by AHMC, 97% of the obstetrics patients are these Chinese women. While the hospital is promoting breastfeeding, it is reported that the Chinese mothers ask for several bottles of infant formula at a time, and appear upset if the staff don’t accommodate them. It frustrates the staff.

Maternity tourism has long been a problem in Los Angeles. After federal agents raided maternity tourism business in Los Angeles last month, some of the business moved down to San Diego. The business challenges the work of breastfeeding promotion.

Currently in China, less than 30% of newborns are breastfed. Breastfeeding is simply not a common practice in the country. It’s hard for the American medical experts to change Chinese women’s life-long beliefs in a two-day hospital stay.

To promote breastfeeding among those mothers who come to the States to give birth is even harder. Maternity tourism is a huge business in Southern California. According to the Chinese government, each year more than 3,000 Chinese women come to the U.S. to give birth, and half of them come to Southern California. To lure potential customers, the maternity travel agencies often tell the mothers, “You can ask for as much baby formula as you want at an American hospital.” Just “Baidu” (the Chinese “Google”) the key words “giving birth in America” and tons of advertisements pop up. Most of them list “free infant formula” as an advantage of giving birth in the States.

A townhouse in San Gabriel that has been converted to "maternity hotel."
My advice for staff is, first, to have Chinese-language breastfeeding education material available. Then distribute it to the Chinese patients when they come to the hospital for the prenatal tour, not when they are in the delivery room.

I also recommend working with the doctors who work and care for these patients. There are Chinese-speaking doctors who enjoy working with maternity travel agencies and particularly receive these Chinese patients. When thousands of miles away from home, it’s much easier for Chinese women to trust these Chinese-speaking doctors than English-speaking hospital staff.

The hospital staff told me that some doctors are part of the maternity tourism industry, and tend to work with the maternity travel agency instead of the hospital. This is discouraging. But still, I insist that we put breastfeeding-promotion brochures and hang posters in the doctors’ offices.

Chinese mothers often become upset when their requests for formula are not accommodated. My suggestion is to give them samples that promote breastfeeding, such as lanolin or hydrogel pads, instead of formula. These women pay a fortune just to give birth in the U.S. It is understandable that they want to get something free.

Finally, I think the hospital staff should set a reasonable expectation for their work of promoting breastfeeding to these Chinese mothers. Again, it is indeed hard for American medical experts to change a long-time cultural belief in a short period of time. Also, Chinese mothers often need more encouragement than American mothers to breastfeed, considering the low breastfeeding rate and baby-unfriendly atmosphere in that country.

The good news is, things are changing. Young and well-educated Chinese mothers are now more aware of the benefits of breastfeeding and are often willing to give it a try. It is our hope that one day they’ll all understand that breast milk is the best gift a mother can offer her baby—even better than American citizenship.

A feature story on maternity tourism I did for KSCI three years ago: