When I became pregnant with my son, Noah, I initially planned to breastfeed for no longer than six months. In my naivety, I assumed I would pump and freeze enough milk for him to last through his first year of life. At the time, I had no clue how exhausting and time consuming pumping would be for me (not to mention my lack of freezer space). And then, on top of it all, my son refused my pumped milk! He refused all bottles and would only breast feed directly, which he’s still doing today at 18 months.
But it soon became clear that I was naturally producing an abundance of milk, so I made the decision to continue pumping when I could in order to donate my labor of love to infants in need. To date, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to share more than 1,000 ounces of my breast milk with three infants in need. But this was a conscious decision on my part, and for me that distinction can’t be emphasized enough; it’s one of the reasons I am vegan.
Unlike myself and other human mothers, cows exploited for dairy products do not get the option to decide when or if they want to pump, or whether (and with whom) they want to share their milk. Instead, the natural recipients— their calves— are taken away, forced into a motherless existence and deprived of their mothers’ milk in order to serve the selfish palate pleasure of the masses.
The violent and unnecessary use of these mothers and their young is absolutely deplorable. These beautiful animal mothers are forced to be manually or mechanically milked for hours on end, day after day, most of them literally tortured until their bodies can no longer produce at optimally profitable levels, and then they are slaughtered. All of their years of unimaginable pain and loss to satisfy another’s momentary happiness.
I am brought to tears as I picture these mothers being robbed of the bond that they anticipated for 9 months, and that I have been able to experience for eighteen months of beautiful days. And their helpless infants deprived of the maternal love, connection and nourishment they so desperately need and crave. Where is the compassion for this mother-infant bond?
I am saddened beyond words that something that has filled me with so much joy, and that has provided my precious son with the nourishment and comfort he needs, is for mothers trapped in the dairy industry a source of torture, deprivation, exploitation and ultimately death.
In all its forms, dairy farming is fundamentally an invasion of motherhood, perpetuated through senseless attacks on innocent creatures based on selfish desires; and all of which can be avoided by opening our hearts and truly learning to value life and equality.
I have remained a strong proponent of breastfeeding over the years. But recently something happened that made me wonder if my advocacy has been too limited and prejudiced. It began when I read a book that was set as my son’s freshman reading when he was admitted to Duke University— Eating Animals, by Jonathan Foer. This book led me to question whether it is right to be taking the mother’s milk that belongs to another baby — in this case, a calf.
Dairy cows do not make milk for humans — they make milk to feed their own babies. A female only makes milk when she has a baby — whether it is a human female or a bovine female. In the dairy industry, female cows are forcibly impregnated so that they will lactate when their calves are born. So in this process, the baby calf is a by-product of the dairy industry. But to the mother cow, her calf is everything. To the calf, the mother is the center of the universe. They want to be together, just like we want to be with our babies.
But because the industry does not need the calves, especially the male calves, they are separated from their mothers and killed immediately, or confined alone for a few more months to be killed for veal. The calf is given formula so that his mother’s milk can be sold in supermarkets.
Over some months, I began to figure out that what I was doing when I ate yogurt, cheese or ice cream was taking the milk that belongs to other babies. I had been fixated with my own nursing relationship with my babies, but I did not spend a moment’s thought on other nursing relationships that I was disrupting every day when I ate my meals.
Soon after I read that book, I became a vegan and an advocate for animal rights. The animals whose bodies and secretions that we eat, be they cows or pigs or chickens, feel emotions as strongly as we do, and perhaps they feel them even more strongly. They feel the strong bonds of family; they become attached and love each other. I am grateful for my children for allowing me to understand this, and I look forward to the day when all nonhuman families are given the respect they deserve.
Although I was vegan before becoming a mother, the entire basis of the dairy industry became particularly disturbing to me after I had my first child. Pregnancy and labour are hard, both mentally and physically. It takes months, even years to fully recover. They’re worth it, though, for the gift of a child.
Like humans, cows excrete oxytocin— the bonding hormone— at birth. Human mothers can express what this feels like: we say we would die for our child, we’re deliriously in love, we can’t believe such a love exists. This is the oxytocin talking.