Willow Rockwell is a world champion cross-country mountain biker who was perched for Olympic success. She gave it all up in 2011 when the birth of her daughter, Raven, tugged hard at a string that unwound a lifetime of emotional struggle that included abuse and pre- and post-partum depression. Breastfeeding her daughter Raven, and receiving as much love as she is giving, has helped her to release her heart and to heal. Her new book, My Wheels Gave Me Wings, is a portrait of her journey from suffering to thriving. Willow is Best for Babes’ newest Champion for Moms and is a proud supporter of Team Best for Babes and Team BFB Durango, where she lives. Willow’s story is the first in our series of Team BFB blogposts about professional athletes and breastfeeding. (Read to end of post for more about Team BFB)
Best for Babes: The portraits of you, your husband, and your daughter Raven breastfeeding are breathtaking – what inspired you to have them taken? What inspired you to breastfeed? I love photography, and I love intimate moments. When I was pregnant my belly dance teacher said I MUST do photos with Candace. I was never one of those woman who thought being pregnant looked sexy. I was terrified of gaining weight and getting stretch marks and losing control of the body I had “built” through athletics. I had a very unhealthy ideal when it came to the female body. Candace made me feel so beautiful and special. I relaxed into my pregnant body as soon as I saw the photos. I immediately booked her to shoot the first year of Raven’s life. I always wanted to breast feed, it just seemed natural and convenient for both baby and I. BFB: The more we see ourselves and other moms breastfeeding, the more we will come to see, value and appreciate breastfeeding not just as normal behavior, but as that quintessential type of beauty where powerful nurturer meets gorgeous goddess. Pregnancy and breastfeeding are uniquely empowering but fleeting experiences for which moms need and deserve to celebrate themselves and be celebrated! The stunning photo essay of Willow and her new baby and husband was done by Durango, Colorado photographer Candace Cross.
You shared openly with ESPN about your history of being emotionally and sexual abused and how it fueled your competitive edge. Did your experience influence your decision to breastfeed?
My history of sexual and emotional abuse made me want to be the most conscious mother I could be for Raven. I really dug up my past and went through the deep dark work of healing so that my daughter would not be a victim of the same treatment as I. As soon as I found out I was pregnant, the life I had built for myself as a star in the biking world began to unravel. It was either deal with the demons that had been surfacing for years, or suffer incredible depression, anxiety and self sabotage for the remainder of my life. I chose to heal, and devoting myself to breastfeeding was part of the process. I had to completely let go of my past life and just BE there for my baby. At first, it seemed like it was mostly for her benefit, but I soon realized that her angelic presence was also nurturing me.
You’ve written about being “reborn” since Raven’s birth. Has breastfeeding specifically been a part of healing from your emotional pain? Raven has changed everything. I no longer race bikes, I have separated from people who are not loving and supportive, I have allowed myself to be a real wife to my husband, and I allow myself to receive nurturing and care that was always absent in my life. I really am in the process of transforming into a completely different woman. The transformation has literally been “transformation by fire”, but it has been beautiful in its synchronicity. I have many wonderful healers who have held my hand through this rebirthing process. One of them told me to always remember that every time I nurse Raven, she is transmitting healing energy to me. That really struck a chord with me, because after retiring I was very low on money. I could not afford the support I really needed to continue with my healing, so I thanked Raven every time she was at my breast for coming to save me. And I REALLY let it be a healing session. I do not multitask when I nurse. I only nurse. I don’t want to miss those moments when she looks up at me and smiles. Those are the moments that heal a broken heart. BFB: If you are a survivor of sexual abuse, we urge you to get help from a qualified professional, and read “When Survivors Give Birth” by Penny Simkin (click here for a fantastic podcast). While breastfeeding can lower the risk of postpartum depression, every woman is different and should work with her healthcare providers to make an informed feeding decision that is best for her. For resources, click here.
Was any of the mindset involved in being a World-Class Cyclist helpful with breastfeeding? I was lucky to have very few problems with breast-feeding. Raven latched on right away, and to this day I have not had a sore nipple. The one problem I do face is my right breast swelling up to twice the size of the left. This happens when I push myself to do too much. Instead of becoming angry, I try to take a deep breath and tell myself, “today you are to do nothing but nurse and rest!” The right side of our bodies is the masculine side. It represents all of our “do, do, do,” habits. As a former professional athlete, I had to learn to STOP pushing myself. My body had had enough. As an athlete it was always about over-riding the body’s warning signals, but as a new mother you cannot afford to do that.
Did you encounter any breastfeeding challenges – what we like to call the Booby Traps . What were they and where did you turn for help? At first, I still planned on returning to World Cup Racing, and I was worried that my training would not leave enough milk for Raven. As it turns out, there was plenty of milk for Raven, but no energy for me. The health of my body and my baby’s future was one of the big reasons I decided to retire. I also had problems with mastitis when I was trying to continue my racing career. Since retiring, the flare-ups have been less. The key is paying attention to the warning signals. Our bodies need to release emotions, or they create dis-ease. Our bodies really are our best friends. They are encouraging us to be true to ourselves, to express our truth, and to nurture ourselves as well as our babies, husbands, and friends. I find that getting a little alone time each day to exercise and meditate does wonders for keeping me and my breasts in balance. I also never hesitate to feed Raven in public if she is hungry. It does not embarrass me. Because I hold the vibration of ease and confidence, I find that others are not offended either. Again, it is about finding that center within yourself, because your aura and your baby’s aura are one when they are young. If she is upset, she is simply mirroring how you are feeling. One deep breath before breast-feeding in public can really calm both of you down. BFB: While your breastfeeding, your body will take whatever fluids and vital nutrients you’ve got and make them available to your babe– leaving you potentially depleted. It’s imperative, therefore, especially if you’re exercising or training, that you stay hydrated and stock up on extra nutrients for YOU. Drink every time you nurse, eat nutrient-dense foods, and consider a vitamin supplement (Vitamin D and Omega-3s from fish oil are key). Mastitis, an infected clogged milk duct, occurs most often during times of stress and when there is an incomplete emptying of the breast due to scheduled, timed or skipped feedings, or a constriction of the breast tissue from a too-tight bra. Nursing in public can be a big Booby Trap for many women– moms are often openly rebuked, shamed, and asked to leave retail stores, churches and restaurants. Click here for some great tips for nursing on the go. More and more moms have decided to organize themselves to end the discrimination against breastfeeding in public. Check out our hub TAKE ACTION for all the latest news about current efforts as well as great information about What to Do If Your Harassed While Breastfeeding in Public.
Do you have any tips or advice for expecting or new moms who have a history of depression and abuse like yours? Be true to yourself, always. Be patient. If you have spent a lifetime repressing emotions and physical symptoms, it will take time to fully heal. Once you begin your healing work, there may be people who are no longer healthy to have in your life. It will become obvious very quickly who is loving and supportive of you and who is not. There are many layers to healing, so do not be discouraged when old patterns surface. They are now simply coming up to be let go of for good. It is so helpful to remember that experiences that are horrendous on the psychological level are in fact, a spiritual goldmine. Life is full of tests and lessons, but when you face your fears, you can finally be who you truly are. You are a goddess, and all of life is an opportunity for alchemy! Blessings on your journey.
Survivors – has breastfeeding brought you healing?
Team Best for Babes is for anyone, anywhere, who wants to get involved with the Mother of All Causes and Race to Beat the Breastfeeding Booby Traps(R) and Put Prevention First! Millions of moms annually are Booby-Trapped — prevented from achieving their personal breastfeeding goals, whatever those are, by the legal, cultural and institutional barriers they unfairly face. Join or support our pioneering team members as they run, walk, stroll, cycle or tri in the name of moms and babies. Team BFB races next on August 25 at the Family 5k in Durango, Colorado, and again on October 28th at the Marine Corps Marathon. To back our runners as they race for babes, go to: www.bestforbabes.org/team-bfb and click on the individual team.