Folk singer Ruth Ungar Merenda’s “Intimate” Nursing Story

Guest blogger Nikki Lee (  chats with Ruth Ungar Merenda, a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist about her breastfeeding story.  Ruth is married to Mike (also a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist) and has 2 children (William Puck aged 4 1/2 and Opal June, 6 months). She has made more than 10 recordings over the past decade with the contemporary folk rock band The Mammals, her husband-wife duo Mike + Ruthy and a wonderful female trio, Sometymes Why. Ruth and Mike are also part of a family band, with Ruth’s dad and stepmom Jay Ungar and Molly Mason.  Nikki interviews Ruth about formative experiences that influenced her mothering and about integrating breastfeeding into her life as a touring musician.

NL: Hi Ruth. Thank you for finding time in your busy day to chat.  Have you looked at the Best for Babes website?

RUM: Sure, Nikki. I am happy to talk with you. I did look at the Best for Babes website and liked it very much.

NL: BfB has given me a list of questions to start our discussion.  Are you ready to chat for a while? What is Opal doing? I hear her in the background.

RUM: Opal likes to talk. I guess she’s making comments about the world.  We can talk now; Mike can take her if need be. What’s your first question?

NL: What drew you to breastfeeding?

RUM: It’s so incredibly convenient!  You never have to remember to bring it, to warm it, to cool it, or to buy it.  When you’re a mom there are so many things to remember and prepare.  Breastfeeding is so simple and uncluttered. I have a few friends who don’t breastfeed and they all want to bottle feed so the dad can help.  I definitely understand the urge to be supported by your partner, but I wonder to myself, ”Couldn’t he do all the dishes or all the laundry or something?”  There are definitely a lot of important tasks that need doing when you have a baby.  (Read:  14 Ways for Dads to Be Engaged With Their Breastfed Babies)

NL: Those are all benefits to breastfeeding for sure, and I enjoy hearing how you say them. However, BfB readers are interested in learning specifically what about breastfeeding caught your attention and drew you in; we want the story of Ruth. Did you always know you would breastfeed?

RUM:  There’s a photo I grew up with, photos do stick on your mind, it’s a picture of my mom in the 70’s with enormous boobs and a big grin breastfeeding me and another baby at the same time. My mom always seemed so proud of that shot, “look how much milk I had”. It’s a fun photo and it makes me laugh.  Maybe some people grow up with a photo album with no breastfeeding pictures?  (Read: The Broken Circle of Breastfeeding–Helping Our Mothers Heal)

When I played with dolls, I gave them bottles.  I don’t remember nursing my dolls. What draws you in is what you are raised to accept, what your friends are doing, and what you learn about when you are older. Breastfeeding drew me that way. I always knew I would breastfeed if I had babies.

I believe that we don’t even know all of the benefits of breastfeeding or if anyone can even put all the benefits into words. I know breastmilk has been shown to have the perfect nutrition, antibacterial qualities, immunities, and one thing after another. And then there’s the bonding, making your babies feel loved as they are nursed. You can read about all of this.  But there’s also something harder for me to measure or describe. I’m part of the beauty of nature – just like any other mammal. I know there are some people who can’t breastfeed. I don’t judge anybody’s choice. I am grateful I have a lifestyle and a support system that make it easy for me.

NL: How has breastfeeding influenced your parenting?

RUM: When you are a new parent, you come up with all sorts of first time ultimatums about parenting like, oh, “I will never use a pacifier”…but trial and error helps you figure out how to parent in a way that you couldn’t predict before having a baby. People will always give you advice whether you want it or not. You figure out which suggestions are good and which ones to ignore.

The second time is easier. I try to keep alive in my mind a memory of a time when breastfeeding was really hard so I don’t talk about how wonderful it is all the time. Breastfeeding isn’t always easy.

NL: Yes, I remember that you make a lot of milk, like your mom!

RUM:  Yeah, in the first few weeks Willy was always popping on and off because the flow was too intense. And at one point I got a blocked duct that was really painful.   When Opal was a newborn she had reflux symptoms whenever I laid her down so sleeping was really difficult. I knew what was happening, but I couldn’t keep her vertical 24/7. Eventually I figured out I had to feed her frequently but only a few minutes at a time, and I had to be more patient and clever with burping her in different positions. And then she grew out of that phase.  (Read:  Forceful Let-down & Oversupply)

NL: Did you have any breastfeeding role models?

RUM: My mom. My cousin who lives close by. She had two babies before I did and I know she nursed them both and also pumped and froze her milk. When my breasts were painfully engorged in the beginning stages she told me to try cabbage leaves and frozen wet washcloths. That felt good.  It was also great knowing you, Nikki, and also another mother of a friend who is also a lactation consultant who offered to call anytime. It is so nice to have number to call of someone who has worked with lots of different mothers and babies, even when I don’t use it.

I did go to a breastfeeding mother’s group at the birth center where Willy was born, for four or five weeks at the beginning. I remember feeling that all the moms were a little uncomfortable and awkward; maybe that’s par for the course. But I heard a great story there from a woman who used a vibrator to loosen a blocked duct and avoided getting a full-blown mastitis; I was having that same problem so I went to the local sex toy store. I have this memory of me in a warm bath when I got home, holding this huge purple waterproof vibrator against my left breast.  Hilarious.  That was one piece of gold I got from the group.  It totally worked.

NL: (Laughing). Oh, those Hallmark moments of motherhood!!

RUM: Yes. (Laughing). Nobody could prepare you for anything like that!

NL: Did you encounter any booby traps?  (Read:  What are the Booby Traps?)

RUM: Sometimes you are made to feel awkward breastfeeding in public; or is it a projection of your own insecurity? Did you choose the wrong clothes to do it easily? Do you want your breast up and over what you are wearing, or do you want it down and under?  If you can breastfeed totally confidently, then doing it in public is a breeze. As soon as you are uncomfortable, then it isn’t. When people look at you in a certain way, you can suddenly feel “Maybe I will just wait.” This hasn’t stopped me from nursing in public for the most part, just maybe in certain places.  Some places I want to breastfeed because the vibe is so accepting; like at a concert where a woman was sitting in front row nursing. I was on stage, not playing every song, just sitting and waiting my turn.  At that point I realized I am a more down under style, instead of over the top like that woman. Does that mean I’m more inhibited? To me, you look more naked when your breast is coming up over the top.  But ever since that concert I’ve been more confident about choosing to wear a one-piece dress sometimes where I have to nurse out the top.  Ultimately, though, I have a really short torso so when my baby is in my lap, my nipple is already close to the baby.  Everybody is made differently.

My favorite shirt, brand Boob, given by my friend Amy Helm has a horizontal opening across the front. This is so great. If I am wearing Opal on the front, it is easy to nurse, because my clothes aren’t yanked up or down.

NL: Tell us more about breastfeeding and performing.

RUM: There are definitely hurdles as a touring musician with kids in the car but none of them have gotten in the way of breastfeeding; actually that’s the time when I am most grateful for it. I have a little hand pump that I used a few times so that when somebody had Opal during a show, they could feed her. But it was more trouble than it was worth. It so much easier to nurse before the show starts, nurse at the break, and nurse after the show ends.  All the help I get at shows is the opposite of a booby trap.

My babies are with me all the time. It’s a challenge, but I can’t imagine any other way. I frequently wear Opal on my back when I perform these days. She gets really upset when she doesn’t know where I am. Willy rode on my back from about 8 until about 13 months old when he got too heavy and talkative. Mike does all of the loading and unloading the car, because I am nursing the baby.

There was one recent Family Band show where I didn’t know where the stage was at first, because I ran from the car to the dressing room, nursed thru the sound check, got dressed, strapped the baby on, got a DVD on for Willy…and then, where is the stage? Mike led me out there, my instruments were all set up and I played the show. I felt like a rock star! My dad had even tuned my fiddle. There is a big advantage in a family band because everyone helps out.

A musician’s life is largely made up of being on the phone or email, communicating, publicizing, designing posters, mailing packages, and working out lodging and logistics. Then there is a whole lot of driving, and carrying, and sound checking. There is also a lot of socializing, which is good for kids to grow up in. Breastfeeding fits right in with all of this.

NL: What is the best thing so far about breastfeeding? What memories stand out for you?

RUM: There are too many to pick one. Let me think some more. (Pauses)

Here’s one. We were camping out at a folk festival. It was a hot dry day and there were sprinklers all over the campsite. Willy was 2; he ran up to a sprinkler, he loved playing in the water. But there was a 4-year old there who grabbed the sprinkler and sprayed Willy in the face. He ran to me, crying for “nana”. (His special word for breastfeeding.) He had this look on his face, “how could someone be so cruel?” All he wanted to do was nurse, and then he was fine.  Once he was weaned, he loved hearing that story over and over. The best part for him is that he got to have some nana and that made it all better.

I just thought of another story. One winter we were ice-skating on a little pond. As soon as I got on the ice, I fell instantly, on my butt. He cried out “Nana!” He was obviously thinking that maybe if I nursed him, I would feel better.

NL: Such wonderful logic from a toddler! Sweet.  Here’s another question. You are a passionate, creative and talented woman. Do you think that breastfeeding is at all similar to playing music?

RUM: Sure. In a way, I really like metaphor of a dance where you get to know each other’s moves and end up flowing with ease; that describes breastfeeding too. Playing music is similar in that way, like a duet. You eventually get to know each other’s way, and predict what will happen next.

I studied acting in college but I didn’t start performing as a singer until after I graduated. I’m remembering an exercise from my favorite acting teacher that was called “private in public”. We had to sit with eyes closed in a room full of people and focus on a very specific face.  She led us through the exercise like a guided meditation. We had to sit and imagine reaching out and touching that face, remembering exactly what that mouth was like, and how did the hair feel? The goal was to make you go into private space while being in a classroom. Before the exercise you would draw an imaginary protective circle around yourself.  I call on this when I am singing sometimes. It is way more interesting for an audience to watch a performer do something personal and vulnerable. When I perform, I try to connect inwardly and draw people in. I experience that same inward connection in a yoga class. I experience that in a lot of different situations, when I am being private in public. It can be small moment or 2 hour performance. I have a very similar feeling when I nurse my baby. Wherever you are, in a special corner or diner or airport, you have to create this personal space for two people.  It is a very similar feeling to that exercise in acting class and to how I feel sometimes when I sing. I feel it when my kid is older and they skin their knee and come running to me, even if it is a supermarket, they are going to scream their head off…and you create the space for that to happen. That’s what it means to be a mom; sometimes it is like an animal instinct to protect your child.

NL: Fascinating, Ruth and described so well. What advice would you give to another mother who plans to breastfeed?

RUM:  Be prepared for the shock of kids being so different. Opal looks like Willy, resembling him physically, yet she’s totally different.  Her thumb is big part of her world; it wasn’t for him. You can’t compare kids.

NL: It’s difficult not to compare them, and I remember that shock of how different they were.

RUM: The hardest part was weaning. Willy breastfed for two and half years. For another 1 year at least, he still held my nipple at nursing times.  It made me feel like he hadn’t really been ready to stop when I stopped him. I weaned for me and for my health.  I had major skin issues that were getting worse and worse at the time.  I tried to eat the very best foods and drink plenty of water, but I felt like a sieve; retaining all of the worst elements of my diet while all of the best nutrients went into the milk.  I am convinced that weaning was a major help in clearing up my skin.  But that was the hardest, the not nursing. Even this morning, when he’s four and half, I was reading him a book. He had his entire hand in his mouth, and made a comment that this was like nana. Children need comfort. You have to find the way to comfort them. Nursing is such a basic and easy way to comfort. When it is gone, you have to find another way to comfort; this is difficult. You do have to replace that nurturing activity with something else. Some kids have a thumb or a pacifier. My son never wanted any of those. We’ll see what Opal does.

NL: She already has her thumb, perhaps she will use that.

RUM: Yep. Another thing that was hard early on was the isolation. When Willy was born, I was off the road for 3 months; really weird. Not a lot of friends with babies, and it was winter. All that made for an isolating experience. I knew there were other new moms nearby but I didn’t know how to meet them yet.

Being in a new world with a baby is isolating.. It can be overwhelming to get back to the social things you did before.

NL: There are certain times in life, where one is alone, despite being surrounded with loving people. One has to experience the change and the change is, by nature, personal, unique and consequently, solitary. No one can feel what you are feeling. Death of a loved one is such an experience; do you think that birth of a baby is also? Nothing wrong with that isolation; it is, and is part of this life passage. What do you think about that?

RUM: Yes, I can totally see that comparison. After a birth your life is suddenly changed forever and I suppose you really need that privacy to find your path.  It is invaluable to have good friends or family who you can call when you need to check in.  And it’s wonderful when they know enough to bring lasagna, give you a big hug, and go home!

NL: Ruth, thank you so much for being so open and eloquent about your breastfeeding experience.  I have enjoyed working on this interview with you, and know that BfB readers will learn a lot from what you have shared.

RUM:  It was my pleasure.  Every mom has her own story and her own journey. I am grateful for this opportunity to share mine with the Best for Babes community.

Nikki Lee met Ruthy Ungar in 1978 at a square dance in Mahopac, NY. Ruthy was two and a half, Nikki’s daughter Vanessa Margolis was 3.  Thirty years later, Ruthy and Vanessa are still friends.  Nikki became close friends with Ruthy’s parents, Jay Ungar and Lyn Hardy, a friendship that has continued to this day.


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