The High Life of a WIC Breastfeeding Peer Counselor

Yesterday, The Huffington Post ran the story “Virginia Foxx Proposes To Cut Breastfeeding Support Funds.” In light of the news regarding a proposal to cut funding to the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) for the breastfeeding peer counselor program in the USA, my friend (and helping admin. on TLB Facebook) Star shares her perspective as a peer counselor.  Star, like almost all peer counselor in the WIC program, works part time supporting women in breastfeeding meaning she receives no benefits.  Her response to the proposition of Rep. Foxx indirectly addresses the very serious implications of such a proposal: we do not value breastfeeding as a culture.  We claim we do but then, as Star says, we do not walk the walk. Additionally an action such as this demonstrates that we don’t understand the very nature of breastfeeding education and support which is a major contributing factor in why so many women that start out breastfeeding are no longer breastfeeding within a few weeks or months.  We should be examining how to make support for breastfeeding more available to women, not less so.  I’m proud to present this guest post from Star.

Hi. I’m Star, and I’m a breastfeeding peer counselor for WIC.

However, if Representative Virginia Foxx from North Carolina has her way, I won’t be able to say that for much longer. “All this money is being spent on salaries, benefits and cell phones for a program the federal government has no business doing,” Foxx was quoted as saying on Wednesday.

You caught me, Virginia Foxx. I am living the high life on government money while performing a totally unneeded job. I’m so glad you exposed my career as the farce that it is. Thank you.

All sarcasm aside, let’s talk about what I do.

First of all, let’s have a (really brief and as non-boring as possible) history of the peer counselor program. WIC used to be seen as “that formula distribution center for poor people.” WIC decided, in the early 2000s, that they needed to get serious about promoting the normal way of feeding a child – breastfeeding. So they initiated a pilot program of peer counseling. After all, their research showed that mother to mother support made a huge difference in breastfeeding. They would hire women – women who were or had been on WIC that the other moms could relate to, who had successfully nursed babies. They would provide training and education and these peers would give support and advice. They would also, they hoped, get more mothers to breastfeed.

It worked. It worked so well that WIC decided to roll it out around the nation.

So what do I do, exactly?

Well, it’s not as glamorous as Virginia Foxx makes it out to be. First of all, my salary is a pittance. Most peer counselors make between $8 to $10 per hour. I get no sick days, no health insurance, no paid vacation time, no 401k. I run a Facebook group that is only peer counselors, and I have never heard one of them discuss the awesome benefits or salary of the job, so I’m pretty sure that this is country wide. I get to bring my child to work with me until she’s two, but that’s my office and not reflective of every WIC everywhere. Sometimes my boss buys cookies. I once got a t-shirt.

I know, I know. Try not to die of jealousy, everyone.

Now let’s look at a typical day in the life of me. I get to work, check voicemail, counsel prenatal moms about the benefits of breastfeeding, what to expect, and what to do when they go back to work. I rent our breastpumps. I do feeding assessments if moms are concerned about baby not getting enough. I call clients. I evaluate latches. I teach classes. I leave notes in the files so that other staff knows what is going on with the client. I do everything an IBCLC through a private practice or hospital might do, I just do it much cheaper. (Please note: not all WIC counselors are IBCLCs. I am not, although I am taking the exam this summer. I am not trying to say that I currently should or could make the same amount of money as one. I will say that IBLCE had very stringent requirements for the counseling hours that you need before you sit the exam, though, and currently WIC and LLLI are the only two ways to get that experience that don’t require a career in medicine or a mentorship, though, so we must have pretty awesome training.)

At four, I go home and leave all my work behind me.

*bursts into hysterical laughter*

At four, I do clock out. Then I turn on my cell phone – MY cell phone, Representative Foxx, the one that is not paid for by the company, thank you very much – and I run my own warmline for my clients. Sometimes, I don’t get a lot of calls. Sometimes I do. I have taken calls that have lasted hours. I have taken middle of the night calls. I have taken texts. I have taken calls on major holidays, most notably Christmas Eve. I took a call when my daughter was in the hospital and I was frazzled and upset and kind of really wanted to let it just go to voicemail.

I have been paid for zero of those calls.

I also make calls, from home, from the road (when someone else is driving.) I stuff envelopes with breastfeeding information. I ask local businesses to donate prizes to the mom’s group. I advocate at businesses. I talk to the media.

I rarely get paid for any of that, either. I probably could, but I have never asked. I have never asked because I’d rather have the extra money in the budget go to helping my moms breastfeed. I would rather we buy a pump for an exclusively breastfeeding mom who is returning to work at 4 weeks postpartum doing 12 hour days than line my pocket.

I didn’t take this job for the money. I took it because I have a passion for breastfeeding and helping families. I took it because helping low income mothers who can’t get help elsewhere fulfills me in a way that working in a large clinic or hospital (and, yes, I’ve had offers for once I get my board certified status) would.

I took this job for the clients I have. Man, they are amazing. I have students, and full time workers. I have moms who have babies in the NICU who are totally committed to breastfeeding, despite the challenges. I have moms whose babies never latched who have pumped and struggled for months on end because this is that important to them. I have moms with breast injuries that keep them from producing enough milk who still do as much as they can.. I have mothers who have lost their babies and are still pumping, donating milk, for other babies. My clients are diverse and wonderful. They are black and white and Asian and Hispanic. They are lesbian and straight. They are teen moms and forty somethings. They are incredible parents and they humble me every single day.

I took this job because I care.

But why should you? Maybe you’re not a breastfeeding advocate, or maybe you do think that WIC should have their funds cut. After all, we’re in a bleak economy, right?

Let’s look at what happens if the peer counselors no longer have funding. Well, clearly, we all lose our jobs. So there’s that burden on the economy. Some of us will go on assistance programs ourselves. Some of us will just spend less, negatively impacting our local economies.

In many WIC offices, the peer counselor is the knowledgeable one about breastfeeding. So when she’s not there to answer a phone or see a mom, the breastfeeding rates drop. The money WIC spends on formula increases. Let’s not forget, either, that many a baby has issues with formula.. WIC pays for more costly formulas if you have a doctor’s note. Some of those formulas are $40-$50 a can. Cans last roughly two days to a week. Nice little burden for us taxpayers there.

But wait. There’s more.

Research shows that statistically breastfed babies are healthier than formula fed babies. They have less chance of a number of serious illnesses. They also have immune protection specifically tailored to their environment, so when the other kid at daycare has the flu, they may not get it. So more people on WIC formula feeding = more children that are on WIC getting sicker. Know how many kids on WIC are also on Medicaid? A lot. Medicaid is getting ready to expand in 2014 under health care reform, too. Sick kids = higher taxpayer burden.

And let’s not forget the cost that illness has on the workforce. A sick kid has to go somewhere, and it can’t be daycare. Who stays home with that kid? Mom or Dad, right? So that leaves a business short staffed. Many WIC participants are working jobs with pretty stringent attendance requirements, too. So Mom or Dad loses the job. Suddenly, they need more assistance and contribute to the economy less.

It’s a snowball effect that winds up spending more taxpayer dollars… All because I lost my job.  All because the peer counselor program was cancelled and moms didn’t receive the support they needed to breastfeed.

This idea was struck down yesterday. However, these are tough economic times, and the idea of cutting funds for this may emerge again. You can see how your representative voted here (http://clerk.house.gov/evs/2011/roll431.xml) and then you can send them a letter, e-mail, or even call them to congratulate them or condone them for their vote. You can also send Representative Foxx a note telling her how you feel about cutting breastfeeding support. And if you’re not sure who your representative is, look here (http://www.house.gov/zip/ZIP2Rep.html)

Finally, you can share this with your friends. You can post it to Facebook, or just talk to them about it. Advocating doesn’t have to be hard, but it will absolutely make a difference.

On behalf of those of us working for moms, I thank you.