Guest Post by Helen Hancock of Breastbowl.com
I never really knew what nurturing parenting was. I certainly never thought it would be me, and although I fail often, I win a lot.
I graduated from NCAD in Dublin in 1998 with my BDes in Craft Design specialising in glass. I was nervous about what was ahead. I was 23 yrs old and had already spent a summer observing some of the world’s most famous glassblowers in Seattle. Dale Chihuly, Lino Tagliapietra, Dante Marioni, Nancy Callan, Bruce Greek.
How could I ever compete with these giants of the glass world? I already felt like a small fish in Dublin. But, I was up for the adventure of trying. So I headed back to Seattle.
Bruce Greek gave me a start and I worked all summer for him. We would travel by ferry to Vashon Island to hire a studio from Brian Brenno and there we made spectacular glass vessels. It was a whole other world.
Vashon Island is a little place. It is the type of place you envisage when you think of a small town nestled amongst large trees surrounded by water and has a strong community feel that seems to be captured in a time gone by. It has young families who are living with basic facilities and thriving. Raising children in a way that I would never have expected to see in Northwest USA.
I was intrigued but not totally sold on this simple lifestyle. I liked the bright lights of the cities.
Roll on a few years and in 2007 I met someone that seemed to have a vision similar to mine.
Somehow that Back to Basics lifestyle I had seen in Vashon Island had made an impact and I wanted to recreate that in Donegal.
We found a 400 year old thatched long house for sale and bought it.
Here began a 10 year journey of discovery into motherhood which brought me back full circle to glassblowing.
The restoration (documented here) was tiring. We believed we could do it all with just our own fair hands and a little help from some willing volunteers from various parts of the world. Each one gladly offered up their time to spend their summer in Donegal.
In 2009 my daughter Lily arrived. I was living in a touring caravan with no running water and very basic facilities. Even if I had wanted to bottle feed, it was never really going to be an option. We had a very difficult birth and feeding was horrendous. I was infected and angry and in agony. My idyllic bubble of mothering I had envisaged was bursting and I felt like I had failed miserably. My old thoughts had come back to haunt me and taunt me. I wasn’t exactly sold on the prospect of parenting. I never really believed it was my thing. Now it seemed I was right all along. I wasn’t really cut out for it.
I look back now and remember how sad a time that was. It hurts to remember it this way. We did get through our terrible beginning and feeding did eventually become established. It was never easy and I felt completely isolated in my feelings. My body had let me down and I was so hung up on that.
In 2010 I was pregnant twice. That is something that only recently struck me. I was pregnant twice.
Isla was conceived in May and delivered at 26 weeks in October. She had a very rare condition called Triploidy. Life will never be the same again.
Somehow George was conceived in November that year. He arrived safely in September 2011- again, the birth and feeding were horrendous.
Around this time I decided I wanted to learn more about breastfeeding. I became a breastfeeding peer support and then continued on to become a Cuidiu Breastfeeding Counsellor.
In the two years while I was training to become a Cuidiu BFC I also trained to be an IAIM Infant Massage Instructor, a Birthlight Baby and Toddler yoga teacher and then a Birth Know How Doula.
I was all in. This was my world. Each time I would see a new mother I would think back to my horrendous births and feeding experiences and I would travel to her because I could not see her go through that too. The passion I feel for these stories of birth and breastfeeding are powerful. I feel the pain and the joy. I was healing my own hurts and traumas through offering the support to others.
In 2016 my children and I left Donegal to start a new life in Northern Ireland. I had not made glass since 2003. My dream of making glass in Donegal had not happened. I had put the tools away and left it for good. Or so I thought.
Fiona Rea (IBCLC) in Dublin had sent me a link to a lady in Canada who makes gorgeous little hand held glass bowls called Breastbowls for hand expression. Her name is Mel. I emailed her to say that I loved what she was doing and that I once too made glass and now work with families in my community. I told her of my passion for breastfeeding and that I would share her website with mothers I saw.
Mel replied. I was not expecting her to suggest I make the glass here. Nobody had asked me about glass for years. I was a Cuidiu Breastfeeding Counsellor now and a doula. Glass was in my past. It wasn’t part of my future plan.
I thought about it and replied that although it was a lovely idea, I would pass on the offer to join her business. I was just coming through a rough time in my life and was healing and minding my children.
Then an old college friend from NCAD made contact and asked if I was interested in making glass again. It was all too much of a coincidence. I had to give it a try. What better way to show my children that no matter what shit we endure we can get back up again and be who we want to be. That despite the huge changes in our life, I felt broken inside and I wasn’t giving up.
In June I walked back into the glass hotshop and we made breastbowls. After so many years I still had the skills and I was in my happy place. I was combining my two great passions, breastfeeding and glassblowing, into one. As well as this being the most awesome experience for me, I felt clear in my conscience that I was actually offering something to mothers that was going to enhance their breastfeeding journey. You can use a cup or a glass you buy in any shop but these little bowls are unique. They are unique to you and when you hold a handmade breastbowl it is smooth, it warms to your own body temperature. It is sterile. It feels and looks beautiful helping you release oxytocin and that is the key to releasing milk. It is a positive little thing and through using the breastbowl you are also establishing the skill of hand expression, which we know can produce very different milk from pumping- see here.
Buzzing with my new found love of glass, I took my little breastbowls to Breastival in Belfast in late July and to Stendhal Festival of Art here in Limavady, where I now live. I have been offering breastfeeding support from my little retro caravan at the festival for three years now and it’s always busy. The response to the glass has been so positive.
Mel had told me that she had tried encasing her breast milk in glass a few times and that the results were that the milk turned white. I would have expected it to turn black or disintegrate. How could it possibly withstand temperatures so high?
I asked a few of the mums I was supporting if they would be willing to let me experiment with their milk. I was amazed by how many happily offered up their milk.
So began the Glass Milk process!
But what is so special about this glass?
Well, I can only say that it is true art! That moment when a mother sees her milk infused in glass. That is it. The Stendhal moment. That is what every artist wants to see. That look of complete joy and awe!
The difference with this is that I feel it too. I know the joy of offering something so precious. This is life-giving milk. It means something more than just food. The glass is capturing a moment in time- that moment when you were nurturing your baby.
The glass is not only for a mother. The glass is for you all. We know of stories of mothers who lost their fight for life and their milk is in the freezer. The milk that was for a very sick baby who is no longer here. The woman who used donated milk to help her heal from an illness and wanted something made to remember how precious that donation was. The family who wanted to share the joy of natural feeding and just how amazing breast milk is. I know their stories and I channel them into the glass when I am making it. The designs are simple. It’s the milk that we want to see captured forever in this way.
We are now taking orders for the glass that I am officially making- something I never thought would happen again! I make the glass using breast milk. I do not consider it "great art" or skill like the great artists I mentioned above. I won’t ever make glass like that but I do understand the process, the highs and lows of breastfeeding and I know that every little drop is precious!
I will be closing the orders for my next glass blowing session on the 1st January 2018. The milk needs to be with me no later than the 10th Jan. All details on how to pack and post your milk is sent when you complete your order online. The glass will be made at the start of February and shipped off to you to arrive by Valentine’s Day / Mid February. To place your order and see examples of the glass, please see here!
My long term plan is to build my own studio in the next two years and be able to make glass when I want. For now I will be making the glass in block sessions. If you miss out on this time, don’t worry, there will always be next time! See my Facebook page here for more information!
The children and I are travelling to Seattle in July 2018 to visit friends and maybe make glass too. I hope to take them to Vashon Island.