Marah Malleck would often look into her daughter’s eyes while sitting in class, finding comfort in the baby she brought to campus at just 2 weeks old.
In those moments, she found the courage to ward off her peers’ judgment.
For some moms, the breastfeeding experience is anything but private. Roughly 2.7 million mothers are attending college while they raise their children, according to a 2019 study from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
Although professors and classmates created a supportive environment for the 24-year-old UF political science doctoral student, Malleck, a first-time mother, said her mind was overflowing with questions and concerns.
“I had a lot of moments where I thought, ‘If she starts getting fussy, I need to somehow get a nipple in her mouth before she actually cries because that would be embarrassing, but I have to do it without squirting milk everywhere,’” she said. “I don’t really know what I’m doing yet.”
While her daughter, Josephine, was a happy surprise, Malleck was determined to breastfeed despite being in school. Between the endorphins released and the emotional connection, breastfeeding eventually helped Malleck stay calm and collected when she played the roles of parent and student simultaneously.
With time, she said she became more comfortable with breastfeeding among classmates and professors, reminding herself that it was natural. Josephine didn’t want to be covered, and Malleck was alright with that.
“I wanted to be courageous and normalize this...” Malleck said. “The more confident I became, I didn’t really care who was watching or who had an opinion because I was going to nurse her — that was just the end of it.”
Many graduate students have families, so she did not feel as much in the spotlight as she thought she would, she said. But with a baby at her side, Malleck sometimes found it difficult to focus on classroom discussions.
“It’s unrealistic to expect anybody to nurse and not be at all distracted with what they’re doing otherwise,” she said.
Malleck, now in the dissertation phase of her political science Ph.D. program, breastfed Josephine for 17 months, growing as a mother throughout classes, meetings and tests.
Josephine turned 2 in September, and the two ended their breastfeeding adventure after Malleck’s second comprehensive exam.
“I just told her, ‘OK, Josephine, tonight is the very last time that Mama’s going to have any milk, and after that, it’s all gone,’” she said.
While breastfeeding, Malleck found it refreshing to connect with other breastfeeding moms, she said. She attended La Leche League meetings before giving birth so she could confront her worries in an uplifting environment.
La Leche League USA helps parents and communities learn about breastfeeding through parent-to-parent support, and there are local groups in every state.
The Gainesville La Leche League group hosts two meetings each month in which mothers discuss experiences, ask questions and build relationships.
Justine Hirsch, the 35-year-old leader of the Gainesville La Leche League group, said meetings provide a safe and welcoming learning environment. Hirsch said members often ask how they can help group members who are struggling and need extra encouragement.
Hirsch, who is a mother of two, said she thinks it is wonderful when moms consider bringing breastfeeding babies to campus, and she empathizes with the challenges.
“Little babies are so portable,” she said. “When they’re nursing, it’s almost easier than trying to pump and leave bottles because when a baby’s happily nursing, they’re quiet and they’re not bothering anyone.”
Biologically, the hormones released while nursing makes the baby feel sleepy, and they’ll often nap after a breastfeeding session, Hirsch said.
Everyone’s breastfeeding story is different, but it was important for Malleck to own the space and not let others dictate her journey, she said.
“If you are in the classroom and you’re breastfeeding your baby, you are a superstar — you are a rockstar,” Malleck said. “You are crushing this motherhood thing.”