By Stephanie Ondrack
As many of you know, I foster cats for an animal shelter. Usually I get pregnant cats, whom I care for during pregnancy, birth, and kittenhood, until the whole family is ready to wean and become eligible for adoption.
But due to the current forest fires raging through BC, the shelter has been inundated with kitten refugees, whose mothers have been lost. Recently, they received two batches of three kittens each (for a total of six kittens), both around two weeks old or slightly younger. The odds of survival for motherless kittens that age are slim. So the shelter did their best to find a substitute mother.
The only contender available had recently weaned two ‘grown’ kittens, who had already been adopted, while the mother was still awaiting a prospective family. And so the six orphans from the forest fire were placed with this adult cat, and all seven of them were placed with me. I was given containers of powdered kitten formula, syringes, bottles, and everything that might increase the kittens’ chances of survival.
From the get-go, challenges abounded. The kittens were traumatized, starving, and full of anxiety. The mother was done with parenting—she had just graduated and had been looking forward to some quality ‘me time’. Even at the height of her lactating career, her body had been accustomed to producing enough milk for two kittens, and that amount had gradually decreased throughout their weaning process. The harrowing question was: would the mother cat accept these kittens? And even if she was willing, was she physically capable?
The first day we had them, the kittens were frantic. They seemed hungry. They seemed scared. They couldn’t seem to find the mother cat. They would spin in circles mewing piteously even though the mother was right beside them. They were too young to walk, but they would drag themselves around blindly, anxiously searching, desperately seeking a familiar maternal scent. My kids and I would place them beside the mother cat’s available nipples, but the corybantic kittens seemed too frenzied to latch on effectively. They would try, but jerk away after a few seconds even more frantic.
They didn’t seem to recognize her as a new mother, and nor did she seem to fully recognize them as her new offspring. She would often get up and walk away while they were trying to latch on. She would ignore their little cries of distress as they searched in vain for some maternal care. She would often try for a few minutes, but give up quickly, as if deciding that she wasn’t really up for all this effort, or that this sudden relapse into motherhood didn’t feel quite right. My children and I spent hours trying to redirect the kittens towards the mother, finally formula feeding them when it seemed there was no alternative.
The formula feeding was not entirely successful either. The kittens’ smell changed after receiving formula, and the mother was even less inclined to wash them, necessitating a new chore for us: wiping them off with a damp, warm cloths as needed. As well, they never settled into a normal, contented sleep after syringe-feeding like kittens do after nursing. They remained unsettled, out of sorts. And we remained tense, stressed, and very worried.
After two days and nights like this, with kittens who couldn’t settle, and a mother cat who seemed barely willing, and possibly unable, to appease them or meet their needs, something that should have been obvious finally twigged for me. We had been worrying about the kittens, trying to look after the kittens, moving them to beside the mother every time she relocated. We were feeding them whenever nursing clearly wasn’t working. At some point my youngest child asked if maybe the mother cat couldn’t produce enough milk for them, and I found myself embarking on a familiar explanation of how lactation works–on a supply/demand system, augmented by oxytocin and instincts—a lecture I perform frequently for human mothers. And all of a sudden it struck me with humbling clarity. We were approaching this challenge all wrong.
Like the missing piece of a puzzle, the problem suddenly presented itself to me like giant capital letters spelling the word “DUH!”. This was a directional issue, a question of hierarchical cascade. Somehow the feline factor had obscured the obvious: this stuff is doula 101. When a mother is struggling to look after her baby, we need to focus on meeting the mother’s needs. New mothers frequently feel overwhelmed by the extreme demands of early parenthood: the fatigue, the feedings, the baby’s constant need to be held, the crying… If the mother is depleted herself, she often has nothing left to give.
As soon as I recognized that this might be what was going on, my kids and I shifted our focus to the mother cat. Instead of pointedly looking after the kittens, we redirected all our energy to caring for the poor, overworked mother. We fed her canned food every hour (rather than just in the morning, as we usually would), and we kept her dry kibble (always available)well topped up and fresh. We cleaned her water dish many times a day. We scooped her litter box promptly every time she used it. We gave her treats frequently. And most importantly, we stayed with her, petted her, cuddled her, spoke lovingly to her, and looked after her as if she were a baby. To quote a timeless doula phrase, we ‘mothered the mother’.
The effects were instantaneous, and nothing short of miraculous. Every time we fed her soft food, she would get up and eat. Then she would drink, attend to her litter box needs, and enjoy a big long cuddle from us, while we praised and encouraged her. Then, satisfied, sated, and replete, she would go lie down beside the kittens. We would continue to pat her, and she would PURR as she invited them to nurse. This seemed to be the missing ingredient. The purring would attract their attention and activate their homing instincts. The kittens would squirm and drag their way towards the mother, latch on calmly, and begin their own motions of purring and kneading and nursing. We were seeing the classic mother/baby oxytocin loop; the small yet powerful feedback circle of the timeless love hormone.
It only took one day of this approach to completely shift this new cat family’s success. While we actively nurtured the mother cat, she was able to give all her energy and attention to her kittens, feeling safe and secure that her own needs were being met. As she fed them herself, she was now inspired to clean them too, since the scent of their output was now familiar to her. The more she licked them and fed them, the more they oriented to her scent. Within only one day the kittens were able to locate the mother, and could now head straight for her with purpose. And the biggest difference was the dreamy calm that finally emanated from the contented kittens. It was a heart warming sight when all six of their tiny bodies were kneading and purring with rapture at their mother’s belly. The mother, thoroughly relaxed and happy, and all six little kittens, would finally drift into an enchanted sleep, cuddled together and fully satisfied.
Witnessing the rapturous kittens in their purring heap as they kneaded and nursed, surrounded by the mother cat’s own, deeper purr, was a solid reminder of the bonding power of oxytocin. This potent hormone not only joins together parent & babies like glue, creating a profound sense of trust and contentment in each other’s company, but it also fosters milk-flow, boosting the mother’s supply to meet the voracious needs of so many more kittens than she had birthed. Oxytocin reaches beyond the nursing participants too, suffusing everyone present with a happy glow and feelings of affection. My kids and I were goofy smiley near the feline family, just as the dad or partner can become when proximal to a human nursing dyad.
This was a profound reminder for me. Babies needs are not separate from a mother’s needs: rather, one is dependent upon the other. Looking after a baby is a full-time endeavour, so it is up to the proverbial village to look after the mother, thus freeing her up to parent her baby. Mothers can tap into unlimited stores of energy to care for their little ones, but this is much more possible if they don’t need to worry about their own basic needs at the same time.
As we so often encounter important reminders or inspirations in unexpected places, this foster cat family brought home a familiar but often forgotten message. Mothers can’t do it alone, and nor should they have to try. We need to provide for new parents, so that they can provide for their little ones. A baby’s needs are best served when we focus on empowering and supporting the mother, so that she in turn can provide nurturance as needed.
This cat family highlighted what many societies already know: Look after the mother so that she can look after the babies. All too often we focus on a baby as a separate entity. We weigh babies, examine them, direct medical attention their way, assess their ability to thrive. But babies do not exist in isolation. Baby and mother (or primary parent) form a dyad, intrinsically linked in health and survival, with the baby in a position of utter dependence. This is a daunting, exhausting, and potentially overwhelming task for a new mother—one that she can do best with plenty of support. Just as we are all capable of generosity when we have plenty to share, mothers have unlimited love, energy, and nourishment for their babies only if they are getting enough themselves.
As individuals, we need to feed the mother, take her usual chores off her hands, bring her tea and other comfort items, help make her environment feel serene & safe, help her get rest, and help bolster her confidence. We need to shower her with encouragement, admiration, and support. As a society, we need to provide generous parental leave, look after new families’ economic concerns, health care, housing… The oxytocin high is almost unattainable for a new mother who has to worry about where her next meal is coming from, or finding a safe place to sleep. When expected to care for a baby, a mother should not be thus encumbered by financial stress. Further, we need to stop separating mother and baby as the first intervention when the pair is struggling. Postpartum depression is not necessarily best approached by wedging obstacles between mother and baby. Sometimes removing a baby from the mother’s bed or the mother’s breast, in the name of more rest or less responsibility, can push the mom over the very edge we were trying to avoid. Instead we might bathe her in support, love, and care. We might tend to all her practical needs. It is easier to feel nurturing when one is nurtured; to have plenty of love to give when one’s reserves are overflowing. She can’t do it alone: It really does take a village.
Three weeks later now, our foster cat family is thriving. The kittens continue to develop as happy, healthy kittens should, and we continue to mother the mother, as every village should. And if anyone is looking for truly amazing feline companions, Cider and all six of her miracle kittens (Peach, Plum, Apricot, Lemon, Whiskey, and Granny Smith) will be up for adoption soon, through Action 4 Animals in Distress.
Stephanie Ondrack is an instructor with The Childbearing Society, a mother of three, and provides a foster home to many mother and baby cats.