My Journey to Becoming an IBCLC
Pursuing my passion while on the move as a military spouse
Mary Unangst is a dear friend and colleague, whose passion for supporting breastfeeding military families is evident in all she does. Mom2Mom Global is proud to be a Recognized Mother Support Counsellor Organisation for Pathway 1 to become an IBCLC. If you are inspired to follow in Mary's footsteps and become an IBCLC, contact us to learn how we can help!
When I was a kid I thought I wanted to be a teacher. When I joined the Air Force I thought career Airman was a good fit. After 10 years in the Air Force I applied to culinary school; I’ll be a chef, I thought. But just a few years after my active duty husband and I married, and my two terms of enlistment were up, I found out I was pregnant with our first child. Surprise! Soon after we found out that we had orders to Germany too. Surprise again! That’s when all my plans changed. Just like that I was going to be a mother (a stay at home mother) and I needed to prepare for a big move.
My outlook and focus completely shifted. I immersed myself in all things labor and delivery. I hired a private childbirth educator and my husband and I took a series of natural labor courses. We planned for a birth center birth; I wanted to deliver in the water. I set my sights on learning all about breastfeeding too, of course. I knew it was natural and “good” so I knew I would be doing it; I didn’t see any other option in fact. First I attended a breastfeeding class at our birth center in Annapolis. I left pretty contented. I learned that if I fed my baby early and often and held him just so we’d be breastfeeding champs-piece of cake! After that I read La Leche League’s book “The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding”. I was pretty much a breastfeeding ace at this point. After all I had read the book! And just weeks before my son was due I attended a La Leche League meeting. At that meeting I was surrounded by moms in all stages of parenthood and breastfeeding. There were new babies, toddlers and everything in between. We sat in a circle and one by one each of us introduced ourselves and explained why we were there. I was shy and the only one pregnant, but when it came for my turn, I didn’t ask any questions. I simply stated that I wanted to observe. I wanted to “see parents in action”. The moms all smiled knowingly at me. They all knew my life was about to change dramatically and that one book/one meeting/one class did not a breastfeeding expert make. Nonetheless, I felt so prepared. I gave my Type A self a big fat A+. I was going to rock my natural birth AND I was going to be a breastfeeding goddess.
December 3, 2010 my sweet 8 lbs 14 oz baby boy was born. Instead of the “natural” labor I had dreamed of and intensely planned for, I labored for more than 24 hours, stalled at six centimeters (my dilation actually went backwards at one point because my cervix was so swollen), transferred to the hospital, received Pitocin AND an epidural and then had a c-section. My cesarean left me unable to move anything below my ears; I could barely talk let alone move my arms to hold my son. I later learned that I had had a bad reaction to the medications given for my surgery; I certainly didn’t expect that. I watched helplessly as my husband held our son, but I couldn’t muster the strength to hold him in my own arms. Every so often, he’d hold him to my cheek so I could feel and smell him. I remember that feeling so vividly. About seven hours after he was born I was finally ready to try him at the breast. I was still in a recovery room. It took two nurses and my husband to prop my breast and hold him there. He barely suckled. He too was very drugged and very sleepy. Finally, we transferred to our room on the mother baby unit and I waited for another opportunity to feed him. Every few hours I tried him at the breast and each time I felt like we failed. Of course I had the hospital nurses “helping” by shoving his head onto me and holding him down while he flailed and screamed. I too was bawling as my nipples had already begun to bleed. On day three we were discharged with a nipple shield and encouraged to “just keep trying”.
Once home it went downhill even more. He cried and cried and couldn’t seem to latch comfortably. I cried and cried and in the end reluctantly handed him over to my husband to finger feed him some formula. I wept some more. None of this was in my birth plan. None of this was what I expected. I wished the whole thing to go away. I wished for my life to go back to how it was before when I was in control. I couldn’t handle any of this. Luckily, my husband knew that there was lactation help back at our birth center. He knew that he had to get me there before I completely gave up on breastfeeding. The birth center employed two wonderfully patient IBCLCs, Flossie and Laurel, and for two weeks straight I saw one or the other in their office. We worked on positions to improve transfer and decrease pain. They reassured me that we’d get there. They patted my back as I cried and cried. Each day, though, I went home a little more determined. Around week five, we turned a corner - there was no pain. I got rid of the nipple shield and I started to actually enjoy it! And at week seven, the three of us boarded a plane to Germany and there I was nursing in public. Life seemed manageable again.
Once in Germany I knew I needed to surround myself with other nursing mothers. I thought back to that La Leche League meeting in Annapolis. I wanted that circle of women around me now so badly. I needed that support and friendship. I was a new mother in a new place and as awesome as my husband was (still is), I longed to find my mama tribe. And then one day it just happened; fate intervened. I was at the commissary when I met some of the wonderful ladies of Mom2Mom KMC. They had a table showcasing their group and they invited me to a meet up on base the following week. I immediately knew that I had found my tribe! It was at these groups that I learned so much about breastfeeding. I also made many lifelong friends. Mom2Mom ignited my passion in breastfeeding. First I took their peer mentor course so I could pay it forward. I wanted to give back to the community who had welcomed me and supported me. At this course I learned how to support other new moms as they started their breastfeeding journey. I felt empowered. Then Mom2Mom brought the Healthy Children Project to Germany to teach their Certified Lactation Counselor (CLC) course. After five long days and a multiple choice exam I felt even more knowledgeable about human lactation and breastfeeding. But I knew I wanted even more! I began researching the different tiers of lactation support. That’s when I learned about the International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) credential. I wanted to take my knowledge to the next level.
I jumped on the internet and I read and re-read the different pathways to becoming an IBCLC and to be honest I was confused and overwhelmed. The road to becoming an IBCLC was going to be long and I wasn’t sure I could do it. We were living overseas, my husband traveled constantly and I had a small baby. How on earth was I going to manage college courses and internships in these conditions?! So I met with one of my mentors, Amy (she is now the Mom2Mom Global executive director!) and she encouraged me to go for it. She knew I could do it as long as I took my time, stayed dedicated and stayed positive. The advice sounds similar to that given to breastfeeding moms, doesn’t it?
So, I dug in and I dug in deep. Following pathway 2, I enrolled in several online college courses at Union Institute and University and transferred my credits acquired from my time in the military. I began my undergraduate degree for Maternal Child Health: lactation consulting. I completed my school work in the evenings and during nap time. I completed shadowing projects in the lactation department at the hospital on base. I was doing it. This could work! And then, wouldn’t you know it, we got orders to move back to the states. I was stunned. I had created a professional and personal support network in Germany and I had a rhythm figured out for my classes. How was a big move going to affect all of this? As a former active duty member myself I knew I had to be flexible. I knew we just had to adapt and we would most definitely overcome. So just 18 months after arriving in Germany and halfway through my second semester in school we boarded another plane, this time with a toddler, and we made our way back to the states.
When we landed at our new duty station in Florida, I hit the ground running. I had to. I made new professional and personal networks and began new shadowing projects in the community. I took a job with the Department of Health and made connections at a major hospital that happened to be in the middle of going Baby Friendly. I secured an internship in both locations; even though it hadn’t been done before didn’t mean we couldn’t make it happen! I was charging on with my college courses and I could start to see the finish line in the distance. So, naturally, I found out that I was pregnant again during this time. That’s the way life goes, doesn’t it? I pushed on. I worked until I couldn’t anymore. I completed my assignments early, because I was (of course) due in the middle of my last semester and the IBCLC exam would take place when my new baby was just a few months old.
Study break with my girl!
Our daughter was born February 12, 2014. This time I had a VBAC (vaginal birth after cesarean). This time I experienced immediate skin to skin. This time nursing began immediately following birth. And this time, I still needed help from lactation consultants! Here I was a second time breastfeeding mom and an IBCLC candidate and I needed help. At first, this was troubling to me. Did I really not know anything after these last few years studying and attending classes and interning with some of the best IBCLCs in the area?! I was able to again experience firsthand the importance and significance of this specialty. Breastfeeding is the norm; babies are born to do it. Whether a woman is a first time mom or this is her fifth baby, she needs and deserves support and clinical guidance along her breastfeeding journey. We all need this. I felt even more determined to achieve this credential; this is my calling. And then, surprise, my husband got orders for a six-month unaccompanied temporary duty assignment. Here I was, with two very small children, one month from graduation and two months from the exam and I was alone. Support from my extended family wasn’t going to happen as they had their own families and work (on the other side of the country no less) that they couldn’t leave. I needed to figure this out on my own and fast! Just in the nick of time I found a babysitter who could stay overnight and I pressed on. I am happy to say that after many late nights, I went on to graduate on time and pass my exam.
Look at me with the breastfeeding experts!
My journey was long and arduous, but not unlike other IBCLCs. I was asked to share this lengthy (but greatly abbreviated) story because sometimes as military spouses we can feel that some things are out of our reach. We are always moving. Things are always changing. We are often alone during TDYs and deployments; we hold down the household for weeks or months on end. Our spouse’s career takes priority and that can mean ours takes a back seat. BUT, I’m here to show you that you can do this. It may take time and there will undoubtedly be setbacks, but this is an achievable goal. Passion and determination will get you there. Today I am happily running a private practice as an IBCLC providing clinical lactation support. With my professional and personal support network I was able to create a thriving business serving our local families with the same compassion and clinical care that was shown to me and my family along our breastfeeding journey. The lactation field needs you too! We need more women to promote, support and protect breastfeeding - why not you? You can always contact me or check out www.IBLCE.org for more information.
Mary Unangst is a mother of two, Air Force veteran and military spouse. She is also a board certified lactation consultant (IBCLC) in private practice. She is the Executive Director at Sweet Songs Breastfeeding, LLC and founding partner at the North Tampa Breastfeeding Center, LLC in Tampa, Florida. Her lactation career was spurred on by her own breastfeeding challenges and successes. She found inspiration from the IBCLCs who helped her along her journey, and from the peer mentors of Mom2Mom KMC who supported her in the early years of motherhood.
She holds a BS in Maternal and Child Health with a focus in lactation and is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Public Health with a focus on women's reproductive health. She enjoys empowering women to meet their own breastfeeding goals and supports all women in their feeding decisions. When she's not at work you might find her cooking or hanging in her garage gym lifting heavy stuff.