Brittany Margot

A Mother’s Choice

My journey through The Senior Reflection was not a dangerous trek nor a walk in the park. It was lengthy and it was routine, in the best possible way. I never wanted class to end, and I looked forward to it every week. Whenever I walked through the door, I would breathe a sigh of relief because I knew that Andrew and Sue, our TSR instructors, were there for me, cheering me on. These were people who understood art and art-making, like chicken soup for the soul, and saw potential in building a bridge between the sciences and the arts. Moreover, they saw potential in me, and they believed in my dreams.

TSR was just what I was looking for when I returned to campus fall quarter of my senior year. I was searching for an entirely different experience than an honors thesis, a decision that I struggled with my junior year. I had been working in a lab and planning to write a thesis, but I decided against it when I realized that my heart wasn’t in it. So when I saw an email in my inbox for “The Senior Reflection,” my heart skipped a beat. Could it be? A fusion of the arts and sciences… A creative project of my own design. What a concept! I was intrigued and a little intimidated (what did that even mean??) but I vowed to give it a shot and attend the info session during the first week of the quarter. When I finally got there, I looked around at my peers, all seniors, and smiled into their nervous faces. Were they also worried about balancing their academic course loads with a capstone creative project? And what about all those bucket-list items on our senior year to-do lists? Did they have extensive backgrounds in the arts? Or were they more like me, a childhood artist turned adult workaholic? And who would I turn to for creative and scientific expertise? Who would be there to support me?

I quickly discovered that I was not alone in my thinking. It seemed like everyone had concerns. Thankfully, Andrew and Sue were there to alleviate the tension and answer all our burning questions. Most of all, they made everyone feel welcome. I remember thinking to myself, what a wonderful pair of people and what a wonderful opportunity. Surely there has never been such an unstoppable duo of instructors. After the info session, I stayed late just to say “thank you” for putting two bright minds together and coming up with The Senior Reflection. Little did I know that TSR would become my family, my safe haven, my joy, and my therapy.


“I’m kind’ve a baby fanatic.” Eyes widen all around. “So I’ve been thinking a lot about breastfeeding and how it’s important for infant growth and development, but also the fact that some moms choose not to breastfeed and I don’t really know why… Oh, and I want to make a quilt. Like a really REALLY big quilt that takes up a whole wall. Though I’ve never made a quilt before…” I’m not sure if my TSR classmates knew what to do with me on the first day of class. I came in with a passion and a plan, and my mind was moving too fast even for me to process what was going on. I had an idea—and I was excited about it! It was definitely a start.

Looking back, my selection of the topic of breastfeeding and the medium of quilting was a deeply personal decision—one that extends all the way back to childhood. When I was about three, my greatest desire was to be a mommy. When adults would ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I would respond, beaming, “A mommy.” I had well over a dozen baby dolls, and each of them was well-cared for. When I would go to the grocery store with my own mother, I indulged my desire to be a mommy by carrying around a bag of birdseed. The bags were always on the bottom shelf, and they were always deliciously heavy and squishy—just like babies. Around the house, I soon found that my baby dolls were too light, and therefore unlike real babies, so I cast them off in exchange for water balloons. I would draw faces on them and carry them around the living room, in the bathtub, and even to bed (much to my mother’s dismay). I would cry when they broke and stand in a puddle screaming, “My baby broke! My baby broke!” My mother would hide a smile and hug me, a normal routine. As I got older and my dexterity improved, I got smarter and craftier. I began deconstructing my beanie babies and harvesting the beads. My mother taught me how to use a plastic needle and thread, and I began sewing together pieces of colored felt to create my own baby dolls—which I would fill with beads. The result? My very own heavy baby doll. I was a mommy alright!

I could not make this stuff up if I tried. I was a baby fanatic from the moment I was born, and I’m proud to say it has followed me into adulthood. As a sophomore, I began working in the Center for Infant Studies, a research lab on campus that investigates infant language development. I found out about the lab through a sophomore seminar class taught by professor Anne Fernald, and she happily obliged to take me in as a research assistant. My work in the Center for Infant Studies was technical and I spent much of my time doing quantitative data analysis, a very important skill for a young researcher. I would sit at a desk and watch videos of 14, 18, 24, or 30 month-old babies on a large Mac monitor. The videos showcased only a baby’s face, so I would be literally face to face with an infant (albeit, through a screen). It was my job to code the videos for eye movements, but I was not privy to what the baby was looking at, so I was theoretically “blind” to the conditions of the study. One day, I was called away from my desk to babysit a study participant’s sibling—a lowly job offered only to undergraduate research assistants. When I entered the playroom, I gasped out loud. Sitting in a buggy were two chubby babies, 6 month-old twin boys. I scooped one up immediately. For 45 minutes, I relished in their presence. If you’ve never hung out with a baby, you’re missing out.

That day in the Center for Infant Studies, I made a remarkable personal discovery. As much I liked working there and being a research assistant, what I really wanted to do (surprise surprise) was be a caretaker. I wanted to interact with children for real, not through a screen. Towards the end of my junior year, I made the difficult decision to stop working at the “Baby Lab” (as we insiders called it). Both to fulfill my calling to interact with children and to engage my own inner child, I began volunteering for a non-profit called the Mural, Music & Arts Project that strives to educate, empower and inspire youth through the arts. In the Health Education through Art (“HEArt”) program, I was able to bridge my interests in children’s development and health with my long-lost love of the arts. It seemed too good to be true. And it only got better.


When fall quarter started, I enrolled in Maya Adam’s sought-after course, Critical Issues in Children’s Health. I had wanted to take the class since sophomore year, but it always filled up with seniors. Finally, it was my turn. The first week of class, we talked about infant development and, appropriately, breastfeeding. I had never given breastfeeding much thought, but I knew that I had breastfed for 12 months (so I was told). Never took a bottle. But when Maya polled the class about their own breastfeeding histories, I quickly learned that I was in the minority. Many hands shot up for being breastfed “ever,” but they steadily dropped down as she ticked away at the number of months breastfed. By the time she got 12 months, my raised hand was one of few. I couldn’t believe it. In my mind, a 12-month-old was still a baby—surely most moms were still breastfeeding?

That night, I got a very important email in my inbox. You guessed it: The Senior Reflection. Curious, I opened it and scanned my eyes across the screen. A fusion of the arts and sciences… A creative project of my own design... It seemed too good to be true. Upon further investigation perusing the TSR website, going to the info session and meeting with the instructors, I was convinced that this was the program for me. In fact, it felt like TSR was made for me. By this point, I was still mulling over the events from Maya’s lecture on breastfeeding while grappling with my identity as a scientist and an artist. Did I really fit either identity? I was a Human Biology major, but I had only really studied sociocultural issues in child development and health—did that qualify me as a scientist? And I loved making art with the kids in my work at the Mural, Music & Arts Project—did that qualify me as an artist? What about breastfeeding? Was it a science? And how in the world could I make it into art?

As it turned out, breastfeeding was very much a science. I asked Maya Adams to point me in the direction of the relevant research, and I began studying up on the anatomy and physiology of human breasts, as well as the historical, social and cultural influences surrounding the practice of breastfeeding in the United States. Needless to say, I learned a lot.

At the beginning of the 20th century, roughly 16% of babies born in the U.S. died before reaching their first birthday.1¬¬ Many of these deaths were thought to be the result of improper infant feeding. However, a combination of factors likely contributed to the high infant morality rates, including poor environmental and living conditions in urban areas, low education levels, limited resources and access to health care as well as inadequate surveillance and monitoring of disease.2 No matter the cause behind rising rates of infant morality, American parents were desperate for a cure. Enter commercial infant formula in the early 1900s: parents across the nation breathed a collective sigh of relief and embraced powdered formula as a superior method of infant feeding.3 To attract new customers, formula manufacturers like Nestle gave away free samples in hospitals, and mothers accepted them without question. Advertisements for infant formula abounded, often featuring pictures of smiling babies and boastful claims about improved infant health. Fast forward to the 1970s: after decades of formula feeding, American mothers took a stand and launched a boycott against infant formula manufacturers, accusing big corporations of interfering with breastfeeding and prioritizing profit above infant nutrition.5 In recent years, breastfeeding has made a significant comeback.

Furthermore, numerous studies have investigated the benefits of breastfeeding for both mother and infant. A primary finding is that the joint activity of breastfeeding serves as a time for bonding. Infants also benefit by ingesting breastmilk, which contains immunologic agents that help fend off infectious diseases and provides nutritional and growth benefits that contribute to a reduced risk for chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).4, 5 Furthermore, breastfeeding benefits mothers, reducing the risk of developing post-partum depression as well as breast and ovarian cancer. Lastly, breastfeeding provides economic and social benefits to the family. Since breastfeeding is free and breastfed infants typically require fewer sick visits to the doctor, families can potentially save hundreds of dollars.5, 6, 7

Given the multitude of benefits breastfeeding provides, it is not surprising that breastfeeding has been recommended by several prominent organizations of health professionals, like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), American Academy of Family Physicians, and American Public Health Association. All of these organizations recommend that infants in the United States be breastfed for at least 12 months, including exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months.6, 7, 8 Nonetheless, only 75% of mothers initiate nursing at the hospital, 13% breastfeed exclusively for the first 6 months, and 22% are still breastfeeding at 12 months. How can this be? The explanation lies in multiple barriers to breastfeeding, such as lack of education surrounding breastfeeding benefits, poor family and social support, limitations conferred by work environments as well as lactation problems. 7 Additionally, barriers related to health services (such as physical proximity to care facilities) account for remarkably low percentages of breastfeeding in the United States.

While I do not denounce formula feeding, I point to the fact that humans are physiologically equipped to breastfeed, and therefore the benefits of breastfeeding deserve serious consideration. Indeed, by the end of my research, I was thoroughly convinced that “breast is best.” It made me wonder, how might I spread awareness about the benefits of breastfeeding while simultaneously breaking down the barriers that impede it? And even more daunting of a task—how could I make it into art?

I decided to reach out to one of the TSR instructors, Andrew Todhunter. I asked him what I should do, and he fired a question right back at me: what do I like to do? It seemed simple enough, but it was an important question. After all, this was a creative project of my own design. It could be anything I wanted. And I would be working on it all year long, so naturally, it should be a project that I want to do. After a moment, I responded, “I like to work with my hands. In high school I took a ceramics class and I really liked it.” Andrew smiled. He recommended that I take a tour of the Cantor Art Museum to get some inspiration. Four hours later, I came home with piles of sketches of busts and babies. I wasn’t any closer to figuring out what I medium to work with, so I decided to kill some time by knitting and watching TV. As my hands got busy, I felt at peace. It was such a mindless activity, almost mind-numbing. Then, out of the blue, there it was. An idea. I should make a baby quilt!

My mind was instantly drawn into memories of my beloved baby blanket, in which I was wrapped while I breastfed. My beloved baby blanket, now in tatters. My eyes began welling with tears. What was happening? As I thought about it, I realized that baby blankets are iconic symbols of early childhood, and that’s why they tend to evoke emotional and sometimes visceral responses in adults. A baby blanket—or better yet, a quilt—seemed to be a natural choice of medium for my creative project. Ultimately, I settled on quilting because I have a passion for sewing and knitting, and I really wanted to expand my artistic skills to include quilting. This was, after all, my project.


For the rest of fall quarter, I focused on writing a grant to get funding for my project. At the time, I had no idea how much money I would need, but I estimated as best I could (My advise? Go higher). Another important task I undertook fall quarter was selecting two mentors to guide me in my creative project: a science mentor and an arts mentor. Following my intuition, I asked Maya Adam to be my science mentor because she had already been so helpful in pointing me to relevant research about breastfeeding. As for my arts mentor, I looked around for several weeks before I found the perfect person: Marlo Kohn, Associate Director of the Product Realization Lab (PRL) on campus, and home quilter extraordinaire! Having completed over 20 quilts in her career, I trusted her judgment. Over the course of the year, Marlo and Maya proved to be invaluable resources to me.

During winter quarter, I began the construction phase of my project. My first steps involved drafting several design templates of the quilt and making stylistic choices about size, shape, content and color. Originally, I had planned to make a prototype quilt on a much smaller scale to test out my design and strengthen my quilting skills. Unfortunately, my grant was denied in the first round and I hadn’t received funding from the UAR, so I waited. Instead, I made more sketches, visited quilt museums, and as part of my shadowing experiences in the Stanford Immersion in Medicine Series (SIMS), I interacted with new moms and babies.

Right before spring break, I got the news that my grant had been approved—finally! Now I could begin the construction of my project. That left me with 11 weeks to make a quilt, including spring break. Plenty of time. But I ended up going to Miami for spring break (senior year, whoop whoop!), so I was down to 10 weeks. Then the first week of spring quarter, the weather was fabulous and I spent most of my time outdoors. 9 weeks left. The second week of the quarter, I already had a paper due and I volunteered over-time at the Mural, Music & Arts Project. 8 weeks left. The third week of the quarter, my senior bucket-list was calling me, so I spent some quality time with my friends and knocked off a couple items. 7 weeks left. Uh oh. How could that be? Time was flying by, and I knew I needed to get cracking. For two quarters, I had planned intensively for this moment, and it was finally here. I purchased the materials and met with my arts mentor to construct a game plan. Together, we planned my every move, down to the installation. I walked away feeling re-inspired and excited. This was MY project, after all! I could do whatever I wanted! And it was ok if I failed! Right?

Unfortunately, I had run out of time to construct a prototype model of my quilt, so I set about constructing the final product and hoped for the best. Early on, I had decided that I wanted to make a non-traditional round quilt in the image of Urie Bronfrenbrenner’s Ecological Model of Child Development, which centers the child in a series of concentric rings of social influences that affect his development. In my design, however, I would place a mother breastfeeding in the center, and all the sociocultural influences supporting or opposing her decision to breastfeed. Of course now I was regretting that decision. A ROUND quilt? What was I thinking?? I didn’t know how to sew curves on a sewing machine!

Thankfully, after several conversations with my mentor Marlo and watching instructional You-Tube videos online, I got it down. Once I finished the circular frame, I set about sketching the iconic images that I would cut out of felt and sew onto the surface of the quilt. Excluding the mother and child, there were 18 icons—9 in each ring. I chose to divide each ring into three thematic concepts, with 3 iconic images to represent each theme. In the innermost ring, I visually expressed family support, neighborhood resources, and access to healthcare delivery service. In the outermost ring, I showcased the media, scientific research and innovation, and law and national policy. Once I attached all of the felt icons to the quilt, it was time for the grand finale: to sew everything together! I decided to do this by hand because by now the quilt was too bulky to use a standard sewing machine. Fun fact: as Marlo later informed me, the act of “sewing everything together” defines the actual activity of quilting. Everything else up until that point had just been sewing. Who knew!

I have to be honest—balancing my artistic and intellectual pursuits wasn’t easy. There were times when I wanted to toss my homework out the window and focus only on my creative project, and then there were times when I was so frustrated by my creative project, all I wanted to do was throw IT out the window!! It took time, but over the year I managed to strike a balance between work and play, school and art. In The Senior Reflection, I fully re-embraced the arts as an integral part of my life. I see the construction of a quilt that promotes breastfeeding as a way to express myself and combine all my passions: I love sewing, I love babies, I love public health, and lastly, I love sharing my passions with others. TSR gave me a chance to bridge my intellectual and creative pursuits in one culminating project, pushing me to use the academic and artistic skills I have accrued over the course of a lifetime. Ultimately, the success of my project rested in my ability to convey a powerful message through the integration of art and science, and I must say, I exceeded my own expectations. In doing this project, I grew creatively as an artist, which is important to me. Furthermore, I better understand an area of interest to me—infant development and health—a social issue that is tremendously important to the world.


[1] Wegman, Myron E. “Infant Mortality in the 20th Century, Dramatic but Uneven Progress.” Symposium: Accomplishments in Child Nutrition during the 20th Century. American Society for Nutritional Sciences. The Journal of Nutrition. 131: 401S–408S, 2001. .
[2] “Achievements in Public Health, 1900-1999: Healthier Mothers and Babies.” Division of Reproductive Health, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, CDC, 1999. Web. 01 Dec. 2012. .

[3] Fomon, Samuel J. Infant Feeding in the 20th Century: Formula and Beikost.” Symposium: Accomplishments in Child Nutrition during the 20th Century. American Society for Nutritional Sciences. The Journal of Nutrition, 131: 409S–420S, 2001. .

[4] Ip S, Chung M, Raman G, Chew P, Magula N, DeVine D, Trikalinos T, Lau J. “Breastfeeding and Maternal and Infant Health Outcomes in Developed Countries.” Evidence Report/Technology Assessment No. 153 AHRQ Publication No. 07-E007. Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, 2007.

[5] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Breastfeeding.” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office on the Women’s Health, 2011. 1 Aug. 2010. Web. 01 Dec. 2012. .

[6] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Support.” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Surgeon General, 2011. .
[7] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “HHS Blueprint for Action on Breastfeeding.” Washington, D.C. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women’s Health, 2000. .
[8] American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement: Breastfeeding and the use of human milk. American Academy of Pediatrics, 2005. Pediatrics, 115(2), 496-506.