Trigger Warning: Abuse; Assault

Hillarye Hightower is the Director of Training and Outreach for a domestic and sexual violence crisis agency and a mom to a talkative two-year-old. She joined us for the fourth session of our Reflections of Motherhood series to share her thoughts and experiences with motherhood, breastfeeding, and implementing abuse prevention in her parenting.

Tell me about yourself outside of motherhood.

I work in the violence against women field and I have been here for a very long time. I am a counselor by education, a public speaker by trade and choice, I guess as a way to say that my role is working to educate the community in various ways about the impacts and dynamics of domestic and sexual violence. I love my job, even when I don't always love the way things are at my job. I like the actual work and it's kind of fun to get to be paid to be a feminist so I enjoy that part of it.

I work for Denton County Friends of the Family. We are the domestic and sexual violence crisis agency for our community. Our mission statement is that we're dedicated to providing compassionate, comprehensive services to those impacted by domestic violence, sexual abuse, and sexual assault while partnering with the community to promote safety, hope, healing, justice, and prevention. We've been in our community for 42 years.

I'm specifically the Director of Training and Outreach. I oversee and coordinate all of the agency’s training and education. I've been in the field for about 18 years and have worked in direct client services with victims and in offender intervention. I do a lot of consulting work for businesses, universities, and school districts regarding violence information and curriculum for them. My newest task is the building of the Training Institute as our agency moves toward becoming a Family Justice Center for the community.

{ Hillarye in the Eva Nursing Dress }

Tell me about your child.

I have a very vocal two-and-a-half-year-old. She is a lot of fun. It's tiring and she's trying though. She's currently in a very boundary-pushing stage. She does not always use her listening ears, which is difficult for me because I start to run out of patience. I’m of course trying this gentle parenting approach, and it’s like, how many times do I repeat myself?

She really likes school, her friends, and her teachers. She likes to play outside and put wood chips from the playground in her pockets, shoes, pull-ups, and her hair. I learned yesterday that she also likes to put wood chips on all of her friends' lips to put lipstick on them.

She likes to read books a lot and play with baby dolls. She likes to play outside on her jungle gym in the backyard and hug our dog.

Tell me about your breastfeeding journey.

When I was pregnant, it was my goal to breastfeed her. We even took a breastfeeding class. Some people were like, "it's kind of hard but you'll get the hang of it." I didn't really know what that experience was going to be like.

I had her on a Wednesday, and my milk didn't come in until the Sunday after that. It was extraordinarily stressful for me. I had to stay in the hospital a little bit longer because of some bladder problems, so we were trapped in this tiny room. The lactation consultants would come by and be like, "it's fine. She's getting enough. She only needs the amount of a marble or a cherry. It's totally fine." Then the nurses would come and be like, "she's not getting enough food. You need to feed her formula. You need to give her a bottle."

I didn't want to give her a bottle because I was trying to do the whole nursing thing. They had us feed her with a syringe.

I was super stressed because I couldn't pee, I couldn't leave the room, and every time I stood up, I bled all over the floor. It was the whole thing.

It didn't help that the lactation consultant kept coming in saying, "she's got a great latch. Everything is good. You're doing all the right things,"  and then the other nurses were like, "nope, she's not getting enough food. Her diapers aren't wet enough." That was starting to get very confusing and defeating for me because I didn't know which message to believe.

When we got home, that Saturday night, I felt really stressed out. I was like, I'll never be able to feed my baby. She's gonna die. Of course, all of these hormones were raging. One of my best friends' mom is a lactation consultant. I texted my friend and was like, "I need to talk to your mom." She gave me her phone number and I called her mom sobbing, "She's not getting enough food! She's gonna die!" She was like, "Listen, you do not listen to the regular nurses. She will tell you if she's not getting enough food. Her little hands will be clenched all the time. She'll be crying." That was really late Saturday night. Then my milk came in the next day and things were much much easier.

Many people told me that they had so much milk that they would feel engorged or they would leak through their bras, but that never happened to me.

People would pump and have milk for days and days. I would pump and get like two ounces.

I thought to myself, I don't know if she's getting enough. I called my friend's mom, the lactation consultant, again, and she said "She is the best pump you have." So after that point, I got the hang of it. I knew my mom breastfed my sister and I. When she breastfed me, within two or three months her milk dried up. When she breastfed my sister, it was less than six months also. My sister was the same way with her kids, so I had the expectation that this isn't going to last very long and I just want to make it six months. Then I made six months and I was like okay, well we'll just keep going then. Then it was a year. I was like okay, well the average in the world is breastfeeding until age four. I’m not trying to breastfeed her to four, but I was like, I'll just keep going.  Then she turned two. Now she's about to be two and a half and we're still going. I don’t have a great desire to continue past the age of three, but I do love having that bonding experience with her. Now she only nurses in the morning and at night before she goes to bed. I don’t pump during the day anymore.

I love those experiences but part of me is like, this is kind of exhausting. Sometimes you just want your body to be your own body again, so that part is hard.

I also don’t want to be the one to make the decision to stop and then hurt her feelings, shatter our bond together, or have her feel abandoned. I want her to make that decision to stop herself, but I feel confused about how that process is going to go.

{ Hillarye in the Eva Nursing Dress }

What advice would you give to a new mom regarding breastfeeding?

I actually shared that this week with one of my best friends and his wife. They just had their baby this week and I shared how scared I was in the beginning and that it's not easy. I think people are like, “It's natural. You'll figure it out.” But it’s hard! I was terrified. I felt so much anxiety around that in the beginning.

I think advice-wise, I would say, “Don't give up. Listen to the lactation consultants over anyone else. That's their gig. They know way more.” I would have given up or been in a completely different mental state if it hadn't been for my friend’s mom. She's the real hero of the story because she talked me off the ledge.

What is the most challenging part of being a mom?

The most challenging is feeling like everything is always a mess, and that there's never time to clean it up. I feel constantly exhausted and think, will rest ever come again?

It’s like I straighten something and then something else is a mess. I unload and reload the dishwasher, and then turn around and there are 15,000 My Little Ponies on the floor. Everything feels chaotic and I don't really do well in chaos. It feels like I’m treading water a lot.

What is the most enjoyable part of being a mom?

She's a lot of fun and is fun to talk to. I enjoy getting to see her at the end of the day after work. She tells you all about her day and will ask you how your day was. She wants to know who I saw at work and if I went to my office or if I went to talk to people. I enjoy her presence, silliness, and little voice. I don't enjoy her messes yet. I'm not quite there. Maybe someday that challenge can turn into joy.

How has becoming a mom impacted the work that you do specifically in the Violence Against Women field?

I have a different lens now in every training I do or meeting we have where we’re talking about client services. I'm more motivated to change the world because I need it to be different by the time she's old enough to experience romance and those sorts of things. So it's like, “We need to tell everybody because we have to fix it.” In some ways, it has given me energy in my job.

I think about what it would be like for her to come for services. Which is terrible, because I don't ever want her to need our services. I also think about moms who have to come for services. Are we doing all the things the way we need to for them?

How does your work inform your parenting?

So, so much, I would not be 1/16 of the parent I am if I were not in this career. You know, every book, every statistic, every phrase like, “my body is mine and belongs to me,” all of those things come up daily in parenting for me. Power and control and what it means, what constitutes violence, and all of those things are constantly woven throughout every aspect of my parenting.

How do you already incorporate things like bodily autonomy and healthy relationships into your conversations with her?

I started reading books when she was in utero, about consent, bodily autonomy, and healthy relationships. The first time I changed her diaper, I started naming the parts of her crotch by saying, “you have a clitoris, labia, vulva, and vagina. This is your anus.” I started explaining those things and now she knows all of those and can name them. She does so without shame.

I always ask, “may I have a hug? May I have a kiss?” I know that not everyone in her life does that and even sometimes her dad doesn't do those things. I’m trying to help her understand that if she doesn't want to do something or if she feels weird about it that she can say no. That it is her life and her body. She can do what she needs to do to protect herself and her feelings. We have a lot of books that we read about consent and boundaries. We talk about safe and healthy relationships a lot. We’ll say, “What are the parts of your crotch? Who's allowed to touch those parts of you? Why do we touch those parts of you?” We ask her those things a lot, just so she is clear.

Specifically, we have taught her that the only reasons that anyone should touch her private parts are to keep her safe, clean, or healthy. For us, we touch them to keep her clean, make sure her pull-up isn't wet, or dry her after a bath. We have told her that her doctor might look when we go to an appointment to make sure everything looks okay.

Other than that, the people at school who changed her pull-up would only need to touch her to wipe her, keep her clean, or put diaper cream on her.

If you could go back before you had a kid what would you want to tell your younger self?

I think maybe not being terrified to be a parent. I was terrified when I found out that I was pregnant. For my entire adulthood, the thought of being a parent scared me. I wasted a lot of energy being stressed out about something that is not that bad.

I like to end with this question each time: What is the funniest situation that has happened with your daughter?

The one that comes to mind most recently was last week. Towards the end of February, we had a hailstorm where we live and both of our cars got hail damage. Her dad had been in a rental car because his car was in the shop getting repaired. We were in my car dropping her off at school and I got her out to stand on the sidewalk. She's like, “We're in mommy's car today. Daddy's car's in the shop. It's getting worked on because it’s full of dicks!” loudly on the sidewalk in front of the parents and the staff. It was in the shop to fix the hail dents, but in her mind, she heard "dicks" and repeated that…loudly.

In Hillarye’s line of work, she serves people from all walks of life. Domestic and sexual violence impact individuals regardless of age, race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, religion, or educational background.

Ellie and Becca partners with Sewing The Seeds to work against gender-based oppression, such as child marriage and domestic violence. Through the simple act of buying one of our nursing-friendly dresses, you are helping to change lives. For each dress bought, we donate towards purchasing sewing machines to empower women to break the poverty cycle.

If you or someone you love needs support regarding domestic violence, visit: The National Domestic Violence Hotline or the European Commission

For help regarding sexual violence, visit: RAIN or the Rape Crisis Network Europe

For children’s books regarding consent and boundaries, check out:

  • My Body Belongs to Me From My Head to My Toes - pro familia
  • Rissy No Kissies - Katey Howes
  • C is for Consent - Eleanor Morrison
  • ABC of Body Safety and Consent - Jayneen Sanders 
  • Don’t Hug Doug (He Doesn’t Like It) - Carrie Finison
  • My Body! What I Say Goes! - Jayneen Sanders
  • Don't Touch My Hair! - Sharee Miller 
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