Kate Tuttle: Last week, the Washington Post reported on a Virginia woman who had recently come forward with her tale of postpartum woe. Back in January of 2010, when Suzanne Libby's son, Spencer, was a newborn, a nurse in the Virginia Hospital Center mistakenly delivered the baby to another new mother, who breastfed him.
Upsetting, right? I mean, naturally we all want our babies to be safe, and we want to be the ones to feed them -- especially when they're brand new. That said, no harm, no foul. The baby boy, now 8 months old, is perfectly healthy. And although it's technically possible for diseases such as HIV and hepatitis to be transmitted via breast milk, the risk of that happening in a single nursing episode is infinitesimally low.
So why, then, does Libby describe the situation as "the worst moment of my entire life"? She goes on to tell the Post that "to find that another mother breastfed him, without my knowledge, without my consent, was horrid .... He was exposed to someone else's body fluid."
According to the hospital, the nurse's aide responsible for the error has been fired, but that doesn't mean the family is satisfied. They are "looking into legal options," says the Post article.
This is where I have a hard time. The really terrifying part of the story is that the various systems in place to properly indentify a child evidently failed. The worst possible outcome of such a failure, it seems to me, would have been a complete switcheroo of babies, as happened to two families in Virginia. But that didn't happen in this case, nor in a similar case from 2009 that took place in New Hampshire, nor in the case of an Illinois woman who went public after she mistakenly nursed another couple's child.
What happened was that, for some tiny amount of time, another mother lovingly nursed a baby not her own. And then the baby was brought back to its proper mother, and life went on. And yet, in nearly all of these cases, lawsuits followed. Why is it that the idea of another woman breastfeeding one's own baby is the event that tips the scales, that turns a medical mistake into something "horrid," indecent, despicable?
As we celebrate World Breastfeeding Week, it's a question to ponder. We've seen centuries of wet-nursing (which may be making a comeback), millennia of women occasionally pinch-hitting for a friend or sister and even the rise of milk banking -- so what is it that makes this one-time, accidental "other-mothering" so terrifying?