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Wednesday, 20 February 2019 07:21 pm

Changing the world – one baby cuddle at a time

Mandi 2She greets her “students”  individually, flashing them a smile and seating them in the tepee before handing them balloons and checking they they brought along their stuffed toys. 

Mandi Lynn is teaching the art of breastfeeding to a willing audience of parents-to-be in a tepee beside her Akatarawa Valley house. 

The former United States Navy nurse says it is her role is to pass on knowledge of breastfeeding that used to be passed down the generations, but got lost along the way somewhere around her mother’s generation. 

“I love teaching and I love helping and there’s a very receptive audience in new parents,” she says. “They’re so keen to do everything they can, and it’s such a vulnerable time and such a wonderful time to actually make a difference.” 

The 37-year-old mother of one says babies are still “cave babies”. Humans have advanced, but the evolutionary nature of babies has stayed the same. Modern society has got in the way of basic mothering instincts, which allow mother and child to bond successfully. 

“I love seeing mums breastfeeding in public and educating the younger generation that it’s normal,” says Mandi. “When I grew up that wasn’t the case: mums hid to do it.” 

Mandi5One of the ways Mandi wants to rekindle those bonds is by encouraging new mothers to hold their babies against the naked breast. 

The group of 10 mums and dads at various stages of pregnancy listen intently from their fold-out wooden chairs while Mandi introduces herself and the philosophy of the class. She then hands around specially designed boob-tubes, called “tubigrips”, an idea she came up with one day in the corridor of Hutt Hospital where she worked as a lactation consultant.

 To my embarrassment, she also hands me a tubigrip and a sheep toy, and asks everyone to put their tubigrip on and put their soft toy down their shirt. 

Mandi introduced the tubigrips into Hutt Hospital’s special care unit, after becoming frustrated that staff were not consistently promoting the skin-to-skin concept. 

Keeping babies skin to skin with their mother is something she lives by. She says it improves the breastfeeding rate dramatically, and helps sick or premature babies heal faster. It is the philosophy of Boobs in the Berries, the two-hour sessions she offers every Sunday afternoon. 

Her fascination with mothers and babies began back in her Navy nursing days in the early 1990s. 

She sympathises with mothers in Boobs in the Berries who have limited maternity leave. She had her son Sam while in the Navy, receiving a scant six weeks’ leave. 

Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, Mandi spent her school years immersed in English, art and music, gaining a scholarship to study music and become a professional cellist. 

She ended up working as an electronics technician in the Navy, and showed promise as a petty officer. She was selected to go to university to become either a pilot or a nurse. She says her ego said “pilot, pilot, pilot”, but her heart said, “healing, my dear”. 

And so she became a nurse, moved to Japan with her Mexican husband, learned to deliver babies, had one of her own, and moved to New Zealand in 2001 after September 11. 

“I was disenchanted with the American government,” she says. “I just wanted a safe place to raise my kid.” 

I first met Mandi shortly after she resigned from Hutt Hospital, where had worked as a lactation consultant for seven years. She was visiting former boss Adele Sullivan at Hutt Hospital earlier this year. I waited with Adele in her office and she said, “You’ll hear her before you see her.” 

She was right. An American accent and a cheerful laugh, a sound rarely heard in the special care baby unit, resonated through the place, where premature babies are put in incubators to recover and worried mothers watch over them. 

A new mother with week-old premature twins sat wearing a tubigrip holding her sleeping babies, as they prepared for a photo. Mandi knelt on the floor next to her, stroking one of the babies’ heads softly with one finger, marvelling at their beauty.  

Gently she explained to the mum how important it is to keep her babies with her, skin to skin. 

Mandi resigned from the hospital in November last year to pursue a photography career, which started simply as a means to illustrate a book on breastfeeding. But she has not left behind her love for babies.  

She forges lasting relationships with mothers and babies through her photography, and builds up a trust with families who let her into their intimate moments.  

Her empathy and love for people make for photos that keep her clients coming back. In some instances, she photographs the pregnancy, the birth, and the newborn baby. She especially loves photographing parents interacting with their baby. 

“A dad cuddling his baby, scared that he’s going to drop it but absolutely smitten in love. That’ll never happen again – a dad will never be a first-time dad again,” she says. “And to really get the emotion of that moment, that’s cool, that’s a privilege.” 

On Sunday afternoon, after the class wrapped up, Jimmy Kershaw-North and Rebekah Gray experienced the intimacy of Mandi’s photo shoots for themselves. 

Twenty minutes chatting in her dining room was all it took for Mandi to gain the trust of her clients, and the three ventured into the 26 acres of land that serves as Mandi’s studio. 

Mandi4Out in the meadow, Rebekah shed her clothes and was wrapped in fabric to emphasise her pregnancy. Mandi doesn’t boss them, doesn’t give instructions. She turns the session into an experience the couple enjoy, by talking to them about their baby, and making the odd joke to lighten the mood. 

And the blueberries aren’t the only things that are natural on the farm. She prefers a natural look to her photography, which sometimes requires her clients to be photographed in “all their glory”, in her mission to capture real emotions.

 So when Jimmy asks if he should take his trousers off for one of the shots, she replies with the cheeky sense of humour derived from her mother, “you can keep your trousers on until I decide otherwise”. The three erupt with laughter. 

Her mother, Mandi says, has a “wicked sense of humour” and a loving nature, which help her connect with people. 

“My caring aspect, the nursing aspect has been inspired by mum and her ways,” she says.

 While she loves photographing outdoors, she photographs newborn babies in her garage studio for convenience. Her knowledge of breastfeeding comes in handy there, as she gets the babies to feed they behave themselves during the shoot. 

“If the mums are having any breastfeeding problems, then I fix it then. I’ll tweak their ‘latch’ and help to get everything working right,” she says. 

As well as breastfeeding students and photography clients, the farm attracts streams of strangers who quickly become friends. 

WWOOFers (Willing Workers on Organic Farms), young travellers from all over the world, work on the farm for free and get food and a bed to sleep in at Mandi’s place. 

Families visit the farm on sunny weekends to pick blueberries and eat organic desserts from the cafe on the farm, where children play with Puku the pukeko. 

To name a few of the resident animals, there’s Frodo Barkins the German Shepherd, Fuzzy Bottom the rabbit, black sheep Fat Boy and Slim, cats Koru and Precious, and Puku, who Mandi has raised since she found it one day in the bush. 

She did not just practise skin-to-skin contact with her son Sam when he was a baby; she also practised it when raising Puku, whom she has had for about two months.

 Despite growing up in the city with her mother Mandi learnt the tricks of organic farming from her father, who was a hunter and an organic gardener. She remembers random lessons when he taught her how to care for and respect the environment. 

“I wouldn’t say he’s a religious man, but he just has a reverence for life,” she says. 

She aspired to teach her son, and others, that natural lifestyle. , that caring for the environment for future generations. When the opportunity came up to buy the blueberry farm, she took it. 

“I used to come up here picking blueberries with my son and my previous partner and we loved it, we just thought it was the most magical place,” she says. 

Mandi says she has a “handmade”  life here and intends to continue her mission to save the world one baby cuddle and a couple of juicy blueberries at a time.

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is a Whitireia Journalism student with a keen interest in the arts, fashion, photography, and travel. She hopes to turn her passions into a sucessful writing career. She also writes a blog about fashion vs. the economy called Riches to Rags (http://richrags.wordpress.com/).
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