Habiba is a Morroccan immigrant mother in Madrid, Spain who sought shelter in the Minor and Family Institute (IMMF) after leaving an abusive family situation. On May 30, 2011, her 15 month old breastfeeding daughter, Alma, was taken from her on the basis that Habiba was providing inadequate, “chaotic,” and harmful care to her.
The shelter’s report about Habiba specifically mentioned that she was
-offering the breast any time and anywhere (breastfeeding on-cue), and refusing to wean and take medicine to dry up her milk when stipulated to do so.
-using breastfeeding as a pacifier and a toy
-sharing table food with her daughter or breastfeeding her at times in lieu of feeding her pureed food provided by the shelter
-sleeping in the same bed as her daughter
-through affectionate physical contact and verbal expression and not regularizing or limiting breastfeeding or sleep patterns, raising a child who felt anxious about separation.
There was no medical report in Habiba’s case file as no such examination had taken place while Habiba and Alma were in the shelter. Spanish laws do not require any medical report or court order to remove children from a home, and give institutions such as the IMMF broad leeway to define “situations of risk” to a child.
What distressed me, and led over 15,000 mothers all over the world to rally together to support Habiba and help raise awareness of her plight, was the way that common, normal, and seemingly healthy maternal behaviors and attachment practices were pathologized and cited to justify the separation of a mother and child. I could not understand how this could be, and so I turned to Jesusa Ricoy, a Spanish mother of two and childbirth educator living in the UK who has worked tirelessly (despite being 35 weeks pregnant!) to help Habiba reunite with her baby. I asked Jesusa why she thinks this case has touched so many mothers so deeply.
I am a true believer that until we care about how we care for life in its beginnings and for our children, there is little we can do to improve what happens after that. Due to my work as a childbirth educator and doula, I’m in touch professionally with my old country and with pretty much everyone there who cares about motherhood in similar ways as I do. It was through Facebook that Dr. Ibone Olza, a children’s psychiatrist, author, and birth activist, shared her worries about Habiba’s situation, a case that chance or fate had brought to her.
In Habiba (whose name, an alias, means “The Beloved One” in Arabic),we saw a mother in a situation of extreme vulnerability, in a foreign country with a foreign language and a very different culture. In the shelter, Habiba was subject to the supervision of an institution with its rules and structures, while sharing her living space with all sorts of women and children.
Habiba was told to enroll in a program of “maternal abilities.” Such a name sounds to me quite disempowering. I don’t know how I would feel if I were told I had to enroll in classes to learn how to be a mum. It happened that, as part of this program, mothers are requested to stop breastfeeding, and medication is provided for this purpose. Habiba was breastfeeding her daughter Alma (an alias as well; this word means “soul” in Spanish). She refused to wean her,and so her daughter was taken away, with no opportunity to say goodbye, no explanation, and no information about where she was taken. After this, Habiba was evicted from the shelter, since she no longer had a child with her. With breasts bursting with milk, and full of love for the daughter who had been taken away, Habiba went to Fundacion Raices, another charity, asking for support. Fundacion Raices contacted Dr. Olza, who evaluated Habiba and found no worrisome signs in Habiba besides the most obvious one: she was a mother without her daughter, desperate and broken.
The IMMF’s first response was to defend their actions based on Habiba’s way of feeding her daughter in a way that they deemed damaging. It’s when I first read this and saw they were condemning normal, healthy maternal behaviors that I knew I had to get involved! Eventually, we formed into an online support group of over 15,000 people, all dreaming of their reunion. As I write this, the nightmare has been going on for 22 days….
Why I personally find this case so important is of course specifically because of Habiba’s situation. But also, on a larger scale, I’m seeing the manifestation of a fear that has been building inside of me: an awareness that there is widespread misunderstanding in our society about motherhood. This fear had long been building up in little ways, but never before had I been faced with a report talking about how dangerous and wrong simple maternal love and breastfeeding could be. Habiba represented much to me and to so many: she is an icon of the maternal love that survives like a plant amongst rocks, her love is what kept Alma’s world together in spite of economic hardships, cultural differences, pain and abuse. What Habiba, the beloved, and Alma, her soul, had, took on the simple shape of milk, cuddles, and cosleeping. Yet even this was to be taken away, and why? because of its inconvenience to institutions, and timetables, and structures, and – if we look deeper – to society.
And there you have it, in big letters: maternal love is a big inconvenience to our society. Looking after 42 kids aged 0-6 while sorting out how to respect their physical and emotional needs costs money. Accepting breastfeeding for two years, love, and a side of women that doesn’t sell formula, costs money.
I also think it means reconsidering everything we have known until now, and then accepting that perhaps those of us who have made it here are incomplete on many levels; perhaps we are hurting, or are ourselves the product of a loveless society. Can we face this?
So yes, Habiba and Alma’s separation is a specific and tragic case pitting a mother and daughter against bureaucratic institutional care, but I also see them as a battle flag of sorts, around which so many people have rallied – a flag for a large-scale maternal revolution.
Jesusa also helped arrange for me to interview Dr. Adolfo Gomez Papi of the University of Tarragona and a member of the Breastfeeding Committe of the Spanish Association of Pediatrics. Dr. Gomez Papi was one of three senior Spanish pediatricians who responded to the IMMF’s report about Habiba (read their response here)
CGL: Habiba’s case has been quite distressing for mothers all over the world. It personally disturbed me greatly because everything that Habiba is accused of are the exact behaviors and childrearing practices I engage in with my own 18 month old daughter. How can it be the case that this can have been the basis for a separation in this way?
AGP: This is exactly what we have asked ourselves. I imagine that in these institutions there are still people in favor of behavioral methods – rigid schedules and babies who learn quickly not to be demanding. In short, supporters of raising separation. In our country, programs like Supernanny, a “governness” or “babysitter” who is said to be a psychologist and who advocates these sorts of behavioral methods is quite successful (popular). It’s a trend that should be eradicated from public institutions such as hospitals, nurseries, schools, and child protection centers.
CGL: Can you summarize how normal and healthy it is for Habiba to raise her baby in the way that has been described in this report?
AGP: For several years I have been interested in the topic of the bond between mother and child and the baby’s attachment relationship with his mother. These are issues that mothers frequently ask us, their pediatricians, and interestingly enough, these are topics in which we have not been trained. And yet, they are so important. A girl like Alma, 15 months old, who is breastfed on cue (for food, comfort, to relieve pain, to calm), and who has her mother close at hand, who sleeps with her and therefore does not have to suffer everyday fears, is developing and enjoying a secure attachment relationship with her mother. The perfect result is the intimate, secure attached relationship. Alma has learned to love as she is being loved, to trust in reliance on others, to empathize, and to comfort.
Until now, that is. Because the roots of this idyllic, essential, and necessary relationship were cut off abruptly and too soon for both mother and daughter.
For what purpose? Who can better care for Alma than her mother?
Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. On June 22 Habiba and Alma were happily, joyfully reunited. On that same day, Jesusa and her international co-coordinators decided to form an organization called A.L.M.A: All Loving Mothers Association, to protect families’ rights to breastfeed, to be together, and to practice attachment parenting.
About Christine Gross-Loh