Mother’s Little Helper: Té House of Tea Becomes a Destination for Breastfeeding Moms

By | November 26, 2014
Photo by Juan Islas.
Breastfeeding mothers need a comfortable place to go, and in Montrose, Té House of Tea is just that. Photo by Juan Islas.

You can’t blame the regulars for looking nervous. At 10 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, the normally somnolent Té House of Tea is in chaos. The counter where a handful of poets and students routinely order their chai throngs with a dozen or so young women balancing menus, infants, and giant cloth bags, crowding like hunger-crazed fans at Reliant Stadium. They’re ordering tea; scrutinizing the quiche; paying for panini and English cream scones and Asian four-salad plates. They’re laughing.

Out of the ordinary as it all is, today’s onslaught was planned. It’s the monthly outing of Breastfeeding Cafe, a group of mothers who meet to help each other through the not-that-intuitive process of nursing. All belong to La Leche League, the venerable support group founded in the 1960s when breastfeeding was not something you saw in a crowd.

These days, breastfeeding has been rehabilitated. Most expecting parents have heard that breastfeeding is linked to higher IQs, stronger immune systems, and crucial emotional bonds. But even with this new respect for nature’s way, La Leche League thrives, because mothers who take such data to heart are understandably miserable when they learn how difficult that way can be to follow.

“Without a support system,” Melissa Nealy says, cradling a newborn with one arm and a toddler with the other, “I don’t think breastfeeding works very well.” Nealy, a tall woman with cropped blonde hair and the cheeks of a ski instructor just in from the slopes, is one of the reasons the mothers are here. A regular at Té House of Tea when she was in graduate school, Nealy thought of it instantly when her La Leche group needed a meeting place.

The Breastfeeding Cafe’s first outing to Té House of Tea was in October, the second in November. At each, the mothers gathered not just for community, but also for information. Even with only one child to feed, breastfeeding doesn’t just happen, like breathing or sleeping. While it can be easy, it can also be fraught with complications and physical barriers. A newborn may fail to latch on to the breast for no clear reason, or she may suffer a simple condition like being “tongue-tied” that makes nursing impossible.

Even if the process goes as it should, new mothers desperately need all kinds of other details. “There’s so much misinformation out there,” Nealy says. “Mothers are worried about their milk supply, about what to do if they don’t have enough. Or they want to know what is normal, for instance if they have pain?” Lactation experts can answer a lot of these questions, for a price. But it’s unrealistic for a mother to call these specialists over and over, or to wait weeks for a doctor for answers about sustaining a life hour-to-hour.

Above all, the specialists can’t deliver what the Breastfeeding Cafe offers for free: a community where the role of breastfeeding in this culture, in this city, and at this moment in American history, is still being figured out by mothers themselves.

Photo by Juan Islas.
Owner Connie Lacobie opened her tea house in 2006 after a career as an accountant. Photo by Juan Islas.

Connie Lacobie, Té House of Tea’s owner, dries her hands on a black apron, and surveys the roomful of mothers with pleasure. She has dark bangs across her forehead, a rosy, young face, and is dressed to move: black jeans, plain top, ponytail. Born into a secure life in Hong Kong, she came to Texas in 1982 because a scholarship brought her to the University of Houston.

Lacobie studied business, fell in love with a fellow student, and, after they married, got an accounting job. As she rose to supervisor status, however, she found that motherhood made work precarious. After one too many complaints from her boss about staying home with a sick daughter, Lacobie quit. During free time though, she had volunteered at 10,000 Villages, the fair-trade craft store in Rice Village. There she learned how to do business while still paying suppliers a living wage. From her libertarian husband, she grew convinced that capitalism could only work when all individuals have their rights.

That’s why nearly every week since she opened Té House of Tea in 2006, the chalkboard on the sidewalk has announced an event in support of people around the world who have been left behind. “Té supports Umbrella Revolution for Hong Kong,” the board declared in November. It earlier invited tea drinkers in for a fundraiser for child migrants, to a mindfulness talk by a Medical Center physician, and a presentation by the anti-trafficking nonprofit Children At Risk.

Mondays, the spare cafe is darkened for open mic night for anyone with something to say. Meanwhile, during mornings like this Tuesday, Té House of Tea is usually quiet. Partly this is unintentional. Houston is verbal about its love of coffee, Lacobie has found, and it’s taken years to build up a clientele that sips tea.

But Té House of Tea is also intentionally serene. Such is the traditional mood for drinking tea, after all. Moreover, along with her activists and refugees, Lacobie loves creative types. The young men and women at the register tend to be artists; book groups and a crochet club come for the low couches and low pressure to leave. Since the music tends to be instrumental or non-existent, Té House of Tea also lures students, journalists, and poets – people who need to hear their own thoughts.

Which is how, as a graduate student, Melissa Nealy first found the spot where she now brings fellow mothers looking to find tranquility in a public place.

Photo by Juan Islas.
Melissa Nealy with daughters Alexandra (in arms) and Kate. Té was a favored spot when she was a student. Photo by Juan Islas.

“Okay. What are you wearing on top?” asks Nealy. She is addressing a young woman with bowed shoulders who is carrying a sleeping child and a tea mug. “Some women,” Nealy says kindly, “are just going to be sensitive to any pressure on their boobs.”

After the chaos at the counter, Té House of Tea has returned to its normal quiet. The many babies are still here, but they are busy demonstrating a fact proven earlier by their adult companions: It’s hungry humans who tend to make noise. Well-fed, cozy babies usually don’t. As Lacobie darts in from a side door with a gallon of milk, the mothers drift to the couches to talk. They are casually dressed, fit, mostly Anglo. Many, as it turns out, are also educators: Nealy, on sabbatical to be a full-time mother, was previously a music instructor. They’ve come here, above all, to give each other the confidence that comes of being in a group.

Part of what they’re looking for are facts about breastfeeding, which seem to change bewilderingly for such an unchanging endeavor. For example, Nealy notes, “The literature used to say, wait until six weeks to introduce the bottle so you’re absolutely sure they accept breastfeeding first. But new research shows that at three to four weeks a baby won’t fight an object other than the mother, such as a bottle. Much after four weeks, sucking is not a reflex, it’s a choice, and they could decide: ‘I don’t think so.’ So the new ideal is to introduce the bottle as early as three weeks as long as breastfeeding is going well.”

Fact, though, can be supplied by Wikipedia. The warmth of community can only spring from the human breast, and many American mothers find themselves starving for that. “This is community and connection,” says Alana Davis, ensconced on a couch with her infant snuggled under her green T-shirt. She pauses to film a few seconds of the moment on her phone. “Houston is a very transient society, especially the oil industry. You don’t have family nearby. In other cultures, you’re more geographically bound.”

“New mothers need support,” Nealy adds, “so you don’t think you’re crazy.” The women lounging on the couch smile ruefully. “A lot of women feel like they’re drowning at the two week point. There are hormones, there’s weakness, and there are a lot of expectations about what productivity looks like. When you are making it through the day, feeding your baby but still wearing your pajamas, you can feel you’re not meeting expectations.”

This is the opposite of how the postpartum weeks are treated from Latin America to the Philippines to Africa, where in the first 40 days after a birth family resources are poured into taking care of the mother. But traditional societies are engineered for postpartum support. Ours isn’t – yet. Nor does American culture, despite renewed respect for breastfeeding, really offer guidance as to when, where, and with whom this kind of sustenance should take place. Rather than making a political statement for others, the mothers at Te House of Tea seem to be in the process working all this out for themselves.

Photo by Juan Islas.
Alana Davis, with son Ajax, notes that some areas of Houston welcome public breastfeeding more than others. Photo by Juan Islas.

“Nursing in public is stigmatized for new moms,” Nealy says. “And a lot of mothers don’t feel comfortable nursing in front of men. So for some this is the first time out of the house. If mom has to sit at home to nurse, though, she can’t live her life. If you can be out and take care of your baby’s needs – that’s huge.”

But the truth is that for a roomful of breastfeeders, there is very little skin to be seen, less than there is across the way where several yoga students have sauntered in for their morning chai. “Okay, you’re showing a little more than I’m comfortable with,” Nealy murmurs down to her chest. She’s sitting with her two-and-a-half-year old daughter nestled under her shirt on one breast while her newly awakened infant, in a sling, is showing interest in the other. The activity looks complex, but it’s entirely covered by cloth.

Davis, the mother in green, looks up from her baby. “There are definitely some parts of Houston where breastfeeding is more welcome than others. But I’m pretty comfortable anywhere,” she offers. “The one time I said ‘hmmm’ was when I breastfed in a comic book shop with my husband. But that wasn’t about me. It was about the maturity level of men in comic book shops.”

She’s found male residents of Montrose, by contrast, largely at ease in the presence of nursing mothers – but just as unclear about the acceptable norms as many mothers still are. Right after everyone got her coffee order this morning, Davis says, Connie Lacobie walked over to the sofa with a worried message from the clean-cut young fellow at the register.

He felt perfectly comfortable serving all the breastfeeding mothers, he wanted them to know. He just hoped they found it acceptable for him to serve them.

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