by Jessica Martin-Weber
I first noticed her as I knelt to read what one of the little students in my workshop had scratched into the dirt. Exploring language together, we were using the immediate tools available to us and writing our favorite words in the earth around us, this particular boy had written love. English isn’t his first language, he’s spoken Telegu for most of his life, only being introduced to English a few months before. But he knew this word and he knew it well.
“Love?” I asked him.
“Yes miss” with the head bobble I was still getting accustomed to instead of nodding indicating he heard me.
I looked around for Shamma, the interpreter helping me but he was busy with another student.
“What is love?” I wasn’t sure he would understand me. While many of the students were already quite competent with English, there were many that only understood and spoke a few words, love often being one of them. A good number of the 83 students attending this rural school in South Eastern India had only been there a couple months.
He smiled shyly and looked away, whether to think about an answer or because he didn’t understand what I asked I couldn’t be sure. After giving him some time I asked him if he understood me, again the head bobble. I smiled and shifted to sit next to him on the ground and repeated my question. Another shy smile as he looked away and thoughtfully said “love…” questioningly. He didn’t have the words to say. His voice trailed off and then, suddenly, his face lit up with a bright and confident smile.
“Love!” His eyes were no longer searching and I followed his gaze.
Two women seated on the dirt quietly observing our little group. Their colorful saris created a beautiful contrast against the dusty ground and trees around us and the women seemed perfectly comfortable. From the lap of one, tiny legs kicked and a little arm waved absently. I smiled. Yes, love; a mother and her baby. He knew exactly what the word meant. The mother looked down at the infant in her lap and I noticed the baby was feeding.
Yes, this was love. Not the only expression of love available to mothers but one the little boy next to me understood. A mother feeding her child, a parent meeting their child’s needs. Love.
I couldn’t wait for break time when the kids would scamper off to play. This woman, sitting there in the dirt feeding her baby, drew me and she didn’t know it. Her baby was younger than my nursling but she was the first woman I had seen breastfeeding since before we had arrived in India and I was ready to sit with her and just be. When my students were occupied writing their words this time in bright colors in our sketch book, I braved the few steps away to say hi but as soon as she saw me approaching, she took her child off her breast and sat her up. The baby cried, understandably upset that her meal had been interrupted. The mother comforted her and I apologized, excusing myself. Never wanting to get in the way of a child and their food, I headed back to my small workshop.
The women were stunning, completely comfortable sitting there in the dirt under the shade of a tree just feet away from the extra large pot over an open flame cooking the rice for lunch for the entire school. Nobody was phased by their presence or the baby being fed. When the break came, Sugarbaby had already joined me hanging out with my group of students and as soon as the students were released to escape their swarm of attention, she wanted to nurse. Scooping her up, I headed back over to where the mom was still seated breastfeeding now chatting with her companion. Once again, she went to remove her daughter from her breast as I approached but I indicated that I didn’t want to disrupt her baby’s meal, I just wanted to sit with her while I breastfed my nursling too. She smiled and bobbled her head with a somewhat nervous expression. Sugarbaby and I got comfortable on the ground and she hungrily latched quickly and sighed with contentment. When I looked up from my contented toddler, the other mother was staring at me with a small smile and her friend seemed to approve.
At first we just sat there quietly feeding our children. Then we sat smiling and taking in the children playing around us. After a moment she reached over and lightly brushed Sugarbaby’s arm and patted her head. Following her cues, I reached out and gently stroked her daughter’s silky ebony hair. I wanted to ask questions but had been teaching and was grateful for the break from talking. Plus I strongly suspected neither of the women spoke any English and I certainly didn’t speak Telegu. Finally breaking our silence, I ventured to ask if they spoke English and though they were friendly, it was clear they didn’t understand me. So we sat for a bit smiling and occasionally affectionally touching each other’s baby.
Our moment together was brief and I did eventually ask an interpreter to join us so we could communicate but just being there in the dirt together was powerful. In spite of a lack of words, we understood some things about each other. Our tongues couldn’t form words the other would understand yet we spoke the language of motherhood. The challenges we each faced may be different and in many ways we couldn’t imagine each others’ struggles but still, we care for our children, feed them, sacrificed for them, and seek education and opportunity for them. Outside of my usual cultural context, even as experienced as I am in breastfeeding, I found comfort in their presence. A simple support of understanding in the dirt.
Without even saying a word, these women reminded me that support, breastfeeding or otherwise, isn’t always about sharing all the same experiences, speaking the same language, or even being able to help each other with information and answers. Sometimes, it’s just about sitting together in the dirt, as we live our own realities of the mundane but important. Sometimes, it’s that we’re not alone.
If you are interested in ways you can sit in the dirt with other parents in India through a financial donation, consider sponsoring a child with a school scholarship at $40/month. More information on child sponsorship can be found here.