I never expected to fall in love with Pet Milk’s poster children, “the famous Fultz Quads,” or to feel such a deep affinity with their mother, Annie Mae Fultz. At first glance, Annie Mae and I appear to have little in common. Born Annie Mae Troxler on May 14, 1909, in Rockingham County, North Carolina, Annie Mae faced obstacles growing up Black and Cherokee in the rural South that I can only imagine. When meningitis robbed her of the ability to hear and speak as a child, she had to learn how to navigate a frequently hostile world without words. Despite these challenges, she met and married James “Pete” Fultz and gave birth to six healthy children before she became pregnant in 1945 with, according to her doctor, triplets.
In 2008, I learned that I was pregnant with triplets. I reacted with a mixture of joy and fear. Until that moment, I had firmly believed that my body was incapable of carrying children. With little to lose, I had taken advantage of my insurance policy’s coverage of one treatment of in vitro fertilization. If my doctors had known that I would suffer the worst side effect of this process, ovarian hyperstimulation, they never would have let me try it. But, as luck had it, by the time they figured it out, the procedure had already worked. After my first ultrasound, only a few days into the pregnancy, I went straight home from the doctor’s office to start indefinite bed rest.
When my next ultrasound detected three tiny heartbeats, my doctor immediately recommended selective reduction. This is a euphemism for sticking a large needle through my stomach to eliminate one of those heartbeats. Theoretically, the procedure would have increased the chances of survival for the other two. But after years of trying to have kids, I could not see my way to deliberately endangering any of those three potential lives. I went back home to bed and cried through the night. In the end, the universe made the decision for me. At my next visit, the ultrasound picked up only two heartbeats.
Two months before my due date, I went in for a routine checkup and learned that my cervix was almost fully dilated. The doctor sent me straight to the hospital. For the next week, the hospital staff tried desperately to keep the babies inside me long enough to inject their lungs with steroids. If it worked, it would increase their chances of breathing on their own when they came out. The hospital put me on magnesium sulfate, inducing what I can only describe as the worst feeling in the world. One morning, while I lay quietly suffering in my cot, alarms suddenly went off. A dozen hospital employees burst through the door on an urgent mission to revive one of the babies, whose heart appeared to have stopped. After throwing me around the bed and barking instructions, they determined that there was no danger. A machine had malfunctioned.
The next day, I decided that, regardless of the consequences, I could not stand another minute on the drip. Miraculously, the hospital staff agreed, took out the IV, and sent me home prepared for seven weeks of complete bed rest. The next morning, at 5:00 a.m., my water broke. Back at the hospital, the staff threatened to try to stop the babies from coming for another few days. My impatient children had other ideas. They were born an hour later and immediately whisked off to the NICU. Refusing pain medication and rest, I got out of my hospital bed and followed them there. The next few weeks were a sleepless blur. Every day, NICU doctors warned me that my babies, despite their progress, could die at any time. Every few hours, an alarm went off signaling that one of them had forgotten to breathe. I had to shake them to remind them to start again.
One consequence of their premature birth was that I never got around to reading any pregnancy or parenting books. I had no plan. I knew only one thing: I wanted to breastfeed. I quickly understood that this seemingly simple goal would be anything but. First, I learned that nursing a baby takes eleven hours a day. I did the math—nursing two babies takes twenty-two hours a day. Second, I discovered that my body did not want to cooperate with my mind. On such short notice, it simply could not produce enough milk for two infants who desperately needed to grow.
In a NICU, you have to weigh babies after every time they nurse. Any increase in weight is the measure of the amount of milk consumed. If the numbers fail to meet hospital standards, you have to supplement with formula. While my NICU neighbor cried as she filled shelf after shelf of the communal fridge with bottles of milk that her baby could not digest, I struggled to squeeze out even a few drops. A relentless routine took over my life. Pump for thirty minutes; try to breastfeed one baby for thirty minutes; weigh the baby; try to breastfeed the other baby for thirty minutes; weigh the baby; give the first baby half of the pumped milk; give the second baby the other half of the pumped milk; feed the first baby formula; then feed the second baby formula. Repeat all day and all night. I laughed and refused when the nurses encouraged me to take a night off, go home, and sleep. That would have been giving up.
The hospital released my babies a month later, when they stopped forgetting to breathe and gained enough weight. At home, the grueling regimen continued. Through it all, I tried to keep up with my job as a clerk for a federal judge. I worked on my laptop every time I pumped. I could not leave the house for more than a few minutes at a time or I would miss a crucial step in the sequence. Eventually, one child decided to give up nursing. The other persisted until she was four years old and there was simply no milk left. Even then, she threatened to continue until she was a teenager, because it comforted her. Although I never did get around to reading any parenting books, these early experiences laid the foundation for our close relationships. I knew what it felt like to face, day after day, the possibility of losing them, and I never forgot. I also had no illusions about the painful realities of pregnancy and childbirth.
My heart hurts at the thought of Annie Mae, stuck for weeks in the isolated and underequipped basement of Annie Penn Hospital, waiting for her babies to come. I doubt that anyone expected her to breastfeed, or would have, even if, in the end, she had given birth to only three, or two, or one baby. When her daughters arrived, a team of nurses immediately fed them formula through medicine droppers.
There is no record of what made Annie Mae’s doctor, Fred Klenner, decide to auction off her lovely, thriving girls to a formula company. Did he approach the corporations, or did they approach him? Either way, it happened so quickly that the only thing Annie Mae likely knew for sure when they finally went home was that whatever her girls’ fates might be, she would have little control over them.
I have devoted many years to researching, writing, and thinking about the complex and often hidden relationships between racism and food. The Fultz family’s story touched me in a way that no other has. But, it is not my story. I am wary of White people telling Black people’s stories. I wish that I had been able to interview the Fultz sisters and their families. All four sisters are gone now, and the relatives that run their Facebook page preferred to maintain their privacy when I reached out to them to talk. Because the Fultz sisters never documented their lives and I did not want to speak for them, I pieced together this narrative by relying on news items and magazine features. Poring over these words and pictures, I grew to love these girls and their mother and to feel the heartbreak of their losses. I wanted to share their story and connect it to the racism that continues to shape food law and policy. Their legacy of strength, beauty, and joy opens a window of defiance against the exploitation and commodification of Black girls’ bodies that must end.