Parenting a new baby can be a stressful, isolating time marked by sleep deprivation, diaper blowouts, and the sometimes-challenging experience of breastfeeding.
And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic knocked every aspect of life on its ear. Just ask Kylie Martens, who was expecting her second child in early 2020.
“I’m a learn-from-my-own-mistakes kind of gal,” said Martens, who lives in Bloomer. “With my first (child), I really struggled with resources and with our breastfeeding journey and figuring it out. I did it the hard way.” But when Baby No. 2 was on the way, “I said I was going to do everything right, I was going to do all the support things.” She had lined up numerous resources for help: La Leche League, a postpartum doula, the Family Resource Center, and Mama Bear Lactation Care, an Eau Claire business operated by Jennifer Hafele.
Martens’ daughter, Lila, was born March 8, 2020. Within a week, the world shut down because of COVID-19.
“It was kind of a kick in the pants,” Martens said. “My ‘Type A’ (personality) was on point, and then everything went by the wayside.”
Fortunately for Martens and dozens of other moms in the Chippewa Valley and beyond, Hafele created the Mama Bear Online Breastfeeding Support Group that same month.
For the past year and a half, the free group has offered weekly Microsoft Teams meetings, providing a lifeline in an isolated, untethered world. Martens called the group an “incredible treasure” that’s helped her laugh and cry through supper times, bath times, and every time in between.
“At least that day of the week I could be with people going through a similar situation,” Martens said. “The rest of the week I was hanging out with my husband, and he doesn’t know how to use his nipples, so we didn’t have much to talk about.”
CREATING A ‘MAMA BEAR DEN’
Hafele, a mother of three, has been a volunteer peer breastfeeding counselor since 2011. In more recent years, she decided to became an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and to form Mama Bear Lactation Care. She opened her business in October 2019, and began making home visits and offering classes. The pandemic put a fork in her path: Would she shut down the business or would she adapt? She took the latter option.
On March 25, 2020, she started her first free online class, putting out a call on Facebook. The group grew organically from there: Some weekly meetings have drawn more than 20 participants, through the average in eight to 10. Roughly 200 people have taken part at least once, and about 90 have joined a Facebook discussion group called “Jennifer’s Mama Bear Den.”
The gatherings are different every week. Sometimes they are an open forum for discussions about topics such as the highs and lows of breastfeeding (including sore nipples, pumping, and bottle feeding), sleep, bath time, or baby wearing. Hafele sometimes prepares a topic to discuss (such as the latest milk storage guidelines), while at other times she’ll bring in guests to speak to the group about everything from maternal mental health to pelvic floor issues.
“We don’t have to pretend that everything is peachy keen all the time in Mom Land,” Hafele said. Overall, the intention is to create a supportive, nonjudgmental space.
Hafele said she suffered from postpartum depression herself after the birth of her third child. However, she didn’t recognize it until nine months later.
“That’s a big driver for me – making sure community is available for all of us,” she said.
And that community has helped participants make in through the past 18 months.
After Traci Grinker gave birth to her son, Everett, in April 2020, he experienced oral functioning issues that made it difficult for him to breastfeed. Hafele was part of a team, which included a pediatric dentist, who helped make Grinker’s breastfeeding journey successful. The online group also has helped Grinker form lasting friendships.
“Through this group we found the support we needed when we couldn’t go out in public and meet with people and meet with mom groups,” she said.
“Jennifer and the Mama Bear Den have been the most amazing support group I could have ever asked for,” Grinker added. “The core group of ladies offered endless support during issues we were facing: sleeping, breastfeeding, pumping – basically anything we needed. We would hold each other up during middle-of-the-night feedings and send each other funnies to help get through the days.”
Because it’s online, the group has been able to transcend the geographical limits of the Chippewa Valley.
Even though she lives in the eastern Wisconsin town of Omro – a three-hour drive from Eau Claire – Emily Wilson was able to take part in the virtual meetings, hoping to have a better experience breastfeeding her second child, Levi, than she had with her first. “Jennifer’s weekly group allowed me to share my struggles and get feedback and tips from others in the group in an extremely safe and convenient setting,” Wilson said. “I think it’s important to note that in my situation, I live 175 miles from Eau Claire and therefore wouldn’t have met Jennifer or the other mamas in the group had it not been for the pandemic and the support group. That being said, I feel like I know everyone like they live much closer!”
NOT ALWAYS ‘NATURAL’
Every breastfeeding experience is different, group members said, and everyone from first-time moms to experienced veterans can benefit from advice and assistance.
Rae Simmerman – who gave birth to her son, Jack, in April 2020 – said the group saved her relationship with breastfeeding. She was a first-time mom, and no one in her personal circle has breastfed successfully. “I needed women in my life who could help me,” she explained.
The group, Simmerman said, helped her avoid complete isolation. “When you have a baby in a pandemic, you’re completely alone,” she said. “You’re afraid to go anywhere.”
A mother of six – including her most recent, a pair of twins – Jenn Kilmurray of Eau Claire also found breastfeeding a challenge. “It can be hard to struggle with something like breastfeeding when it is thought of as ‘natural’ or ‘easy,’ ” she said. “I had no idea there was such a strong community of women anywhere, let alone here in the Chippewa Valley, before having children.”
“The days and nights have been long,” she added, “but we’re finally making progress. I can easily pop onto a Zoom meeting and be surrounded by people who are walking the same path I am and get tips, tricks, and a supportive cyber shoulder when I need it.”
Depending on the course of the pandemic, Hafele hopes to begin hosting more in-person support groups and classes. (She also serves expectant families through a prenatal education course series called Confident Birth & Beyond.)
“It feeds my soul and bring me a lot of joy,” Hafele said of her work with mothers and babies. “It’s valuable to me that I am helping one family at a time, but that individual family help translates into community health over time as that ripple moves out.”
As the online group reaches the 18-month mark, it has grown and change. Participants have come and gone. Some are now pregnant again, while parents of brand-new little ones have joined. Despite the passage of time, Hafele doesn’t foresee ending the group in the near future.
“I’m not going to sleep well at night if I don’t continue it,” Hafele said.
Learn more about Mama Bear Lactation Care and Jennifer Hafele at mamabearlactationcare.com, (715) 204-4060, Jennifer@MamaBearLactationCare.com, or by searching for the business on Facebook.