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Rebeka Tabobundung discusses feeding, nurturing, and motherhood.

As a mother, feeding your child – providing life-sustaining nourishment, is one of the first teachings you share. As mothers that is our role; it’s why we have breasts, to feed and nurture our children. Faith Pegahmagabow, a traditional teacher in my home community of Wasauksing First Nation, shared with me, “it’s one of the first gifts that we give our children.” She explained that, “breastfeeding can be challenging and requires commitment just as raising a child does.” Faith elaborated that breastfeeding often “takes a long time until you get it, and your routine, established…it’s a lot of quality time that you spend with your baby.” Faith explained that during the time a mother is breastfeeding, she is also imparting the teaching that, “as its mother you will nurture and take care of it at all times.”

I relate to Faith’s teachings because my personal experience of breastfeeding was, at first, extremely challenging. As I recall, it was even harder than having a natural homebirth! My son and I couldn’t get the latch right and as we struggled with every feed my anxiety levels would soar – I absolutely had to ensure that my baby was fed! I really wanted to experience breastfeeding for the bonding and health benefits that I hoped would result. After many tears shed, numerous phone calls to my midwives and La Leche League (a breastfeeding support group), attending a humiliating hospital breastfeeding workshop, and spending hundreds of dollars on a private breastfeeding consultant we still struggled. My milk flow was not the problem; for us it was the latch and it wasn’t until my son was three months old that we finally nursed without a hitch!

After that point you’d never guess there was ever a problem to begin with. In fact, my son loved nursing so much that at two years of age, I decided to keep nursing for another year. As he grew bigger and his legs grew longer I became sensitive to the disapproving looks of passersby and we limited our feedings to before bed and in the mornings. Finally the day came when just after nursing my son looked up at me with fulfillment in his eyes and said, “mmmmm mommy, this is delicious!” He was three and a half years old and it wasn’t long after that the two of us decided that when he turned four, he would be big enough to no longer have doodoosh (the Ojibway word for breasts and what we lovingly referred to as breastfeeding). The evening of my son’s fourth birthday he went to bed beaming with the pride of a “big boy” and fell asleep without doodoosh.

While I had nursed him for longer than I originally intended I felt happy that he and I reaped the health and bonding benefits for an extended period. The timing for our weaning was late according to the mainstream practice of six months to a year, but it was right for us. Historically women of many cultures, including Indigenous women, have breastfed for up to six years!

My son, Zeegwon (Zee), is now six years old and while the nursing stage of my nurturing role is over, I’m still in control (for the most part) of what I choose to feed him. When he was a toddler I enjoyed introducing new foods to him – I was curious to explore what he might like or not like; babies and toddlers will often try anything you give them to eat. While I have never been a fan of avocados (out side of guacamole) I bought them for Zeegwon to eat because I knew of their health benefits. It turns out his tastes are similar to his mother’s on this one.

Zeegwon’s personal tastes, independence, and character are now much more developed. Many foods have become a challenge to get him to eat and meals often involve negotiations like: Eat six bites because you’re six years old; Eat up or no dessert; Eat supper now or no food later…etc. If Zeegwon could buy his own supper out on the town, I think he’d order a cheeseburger, pop, and fries with the hope of getting some kind of toy with it. The times that I have observed him drink pop, his personality shifts almost immediately. He morphs like “Jekyll and Hyde”, and the once good-natured boy transforms into a ‘trickster’ akin to Dr. Suess’ “Thing 1 and Thing 2”. Thankfully, the purchase of a cheeseburger meal deal is a fantasy that is rarely fulfilled, because I control the jonia (Ojibway word for money) and I refuse to subject myself to the challenges of parenting a child on sugar; not to mention the low quality ingredients in most fast food.

My friend John Croutch, who is featured in this issue of MUSKRAT, pointed out how the intense marketing of unhealthy foods is geared towards children, “If you look at cereals everything has a cartoon on it or a prize in it.” The large-scale marketing of processed and sugar rich foods to children is immense but the negative health repercussions of raising a child on sugar is reason enough to stick to your guns and not give in to a lifestyle of unhealthy food choices.

If Zee controlled what he ate for supper at home, he’d go to the fridge and eat half a tub of yogurt, some hummus and rice cakes, and a pint of blueberries. While these are all healthy foods and I am grateful for introducing them to him early in his life and that he enjoys them, I want him to expand his palette and eat the meals that I prepare for the family. I want to avoid a slippery slope of spoiling him by making him a separate meal, which he may grow to expect. And I want him to develop a taste for a variety of foods. John reminded me I was on the right path and offered some good advice, “We teach our kids what they like…why not cook with your children? They will be so proud of themselves they will eat it. And you will instill a positive relationship to food in them for life.” So we’re starting cooking nights at our place and Zeegwon gets to decide on the menu and helps to cook at least one night a week.

Feeding a child is one of the first teachings there is and of course the challenges of providing life-sustaining nourishment for our children doesn’t end after weaning. Providing a healthy diet often means changing our own eating behaviours and facing off against mainstream corporate marketers and a nagging child that wants immediate satisfaction. As an Anishnabekwe (Oijbway woman), the idea of imparting teachings to children extends into the ways we nurture and feed them (whether healthy or not). While we certainly have the occasional pig out on fries and gravy, in the past year Zeegwon and I have gardened together, grown some sprouts, and baked our favorite muffins. Zeegwon caught and killed his first fish, and we recently involved him in a partridge hunt. I hope these experiences impart teachings to him about respecting food and life so that he grows to be in control of his own healthy choices based on his relationship and connection to the land and the sustenance she provides.

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About The Author

Rebeka Tabobondung

Media and story creator Rebeka Tabobondung is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of a leading on-line Indigenous arts and culture magazine. Rebeka is also a filmmaker, writer, poet, and Indigenous knowledge researcher. In 2015, Rebeka co-founded the Gchi Dewin Indigenous Storytellers Festival in Wasauksing First Nation, along the beautiful shores of Georgian Bay where she is also a community member.

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