How my advocacy work became personal

How my advocacy work became personal

By HealthConnect Fellow Mary Nelle Trefz, Health Policy Associate at Child and Family Policy Center

The 2020 legislative session will be my eighth legislative session as a child advocate. The eighth year I will go to the state capitol and work to ensure that children are a top priority for Iowa policymakers. The eighth year I will work with my colleagues to advocate for policies that improve the health outcomes for young children and their families.

I have learned a lot over the previous seven sessions—how to build relationships with legislators, the importance of developing common messaging with my fellow advocates, and how make compromises that help us get closer to reaching our goals. But this eighth year at the capitol will be different.

This year is the first year that my advocacy efforts have transitioned from ideological to personal.

In 2019 I was pregnant with my first child. I was fortunate to have a supportive employer, good health insurance, and the best network of friends and family to provide support and reassurance as my husband and I embarked on this new path toward parenthood. Our daughter Grace was born in August and we were fortunate to have an uncomplicated delivery and a healthy baby. Yet, those first two months of Grace’s life were harder than I ever could have anticipated.

At Grace’s first doctor’s appointment we learned that she had lost a concerning amount of weight since she was born. We would later learn that Grace has laryngomalacia (a congenital softening of the tissues of the larynx), which made it very difficult for her to breastfeed.  Breastfeeding is based on supply and demand—the more milk your baby consumes, the more milk your body produces. Since Grace’s laryngomalacia made it difficult for her to get milk, my supply decreased, causing her to continue to lose weight.

Since Grace wasn’t able to nurse very well, she was constantly hungry and nursed virtually around the clock, leaving me no time to eat, drink, or sleep (all of which are necessary to support your milk production). I was mentally and physically exhausted.  My sleep deprivation left me so nauseous I could barely force myself to eat. I was anxious and worried and completely overwhelmed. I remember telling my husband through tears, “I don’t know if I can do this.”

Our network of support and resources were critical during the first few months of Grace’s life. They demonstrated that I didn’t have to do this alone. We would do it together.

My mom and dad virtually moved in with us—preparing meals, giving bottles, walking our dog, and giving lots of hugs and shoulders to cry on (I think I cried just about as much as Grace during those first few weeks). My husband suspected that I was experiencing more than the usual “baby blues” and encouraged me to reach out to my health care provider who diagnosed me with postpartum depression. His encouragement for me to seek help led to an early diagnosis, and therefore, I could begin treatment earlier as well.  

I attended a breastfeeding support group where I met other new moms who shared their experiences with similar struggles—one mom even gave me her number and would text me every few days to check in and provide encouragement. A co-worker, turned friend, came to my house at a moment’s notice to help me figure out how to use a baby wrap to carry Grace (that my sleep-deprived mind could not seem to figure out without her help). A neighbor who I had only spoken with casually once or twice showed up at my doorstep with homemade soup. Everyone assured me that it would get easier.

For the first time I really understood the phrase, “it takes a village.” Surrounded by this network of support—family and friends and neighbors and fortunate to have a foundation of resources to rely on, we were able to navigate these challenges.

I have always strongly believed in the importance of making sure all children have access to high-quality health care, of investing in our children to help put them on a healthy trajectory, of supporting families and ensuring the health and mental well-being of parents. These beliefs have served as the foundation for my advocacy—guiding my work and shaping my voice at the capitol over the past seven legislative sessions. However, now I have experienced those issues and services firsthand. 

With my parenting experiences fresh in my mind as I prepare for the 2020 session I am faced with a new challenge. We all know the importance of storytelling—how personal stories can make data come alive. How they can make the issue become “more real” and help the audience better connect with the issue.

But now I ask:

  • How do I incorporate my own personal story into my advocacy?
  • How do I share my story and my experiences in an authentic way that does not divert the focus from the issue itself to me?

Often individuals are drawn to advocate on an issue due to a personal experience, so personal advocacy is not something new or unique. I look forward to finding a way to bring my story to light in a way that will help strengthen my advocacy on behalf of all Iowa’s children and families.