Moms Who Don't Play it Safe | Erin Spahn Erenberg
This feature highlights female founders of brands/platforms/communities that are working to promote a vision/version of motherhood that accepts mothers as real, and complicated human beings. Here, we celebrate the brave ones who do not shy away from exploring the rawer sides of women — the parts that feel, that hurt, that lust, that are broken, and that are always shifting and changing. We cannot change the cultural narrative of motherhood without shifts in how the marketplace also reflects it, and so; it is important to acknowledge those brands that are working to portray a more inclusive picture of what it means to be a woman and a mother. Totum, founded, by mama Erin Spahn Erenberg, is one such company.
Totum is a lactation cookie brand, and an online platform and community for mothers, combined. Erin reached out to Not Safe For Mom Group (NSFMG), after reading a message on our Instagram Stories page from a woman who was suffering from low milk supply, postpartum depression (PPD), and postpartum anxiety (PPA) — and kindly offered to send her some cookies. NSFMG had been admiring Totum from afar for some time, but this exchange offered the perfect opportunity to make a real connection. We are so happy to have the opportunity to feature Erin, and to learn more about the story behind Totum, and how she created something that is so much more than just a cookie brand.
How would you describe Totum? Is it a food brand? Is it a platform?
Totum is a brand on a mission to help women feel whole as they journey into and through motherhood. One of the things that helped me feel loved and whole when I felt desperately sad after returning to work from maternity leave with my first baby was, of all things, a cookie. It sounds silly, but I kept feeling like I needed a hug from my great grandma. In the absence of that, I wanted an old-fashioned cookie. And my milk supply had fallen through the floor, thanks to long days of executive function that left little time for pumping -- let alone experiencing the expansive femininity I’d enjoyed during those first weeks of caring for our first-born.
While on a work trip to San Francisco, I stayed with my husband’s Uncle Robert, who had been COO at Mrs. Fields. I told him that I wanted to create a cookie that helped support healthy lactation but also actually tasted good, and was wholesome. Though he, a gay man in his late 50s, wasn’t sure about lactation, he sure knew about making an amazing cookie. Totum Treats are the result of us putting our heads and hearts together to support new mamas in a tangible way.
“We love celebrating women for all of their power — physically, mentally, emotionally — and a lot of that shows up in images of birth and breastfeeding.”
However, one of the things that held me back from launching 6 years ago, despite urging from mama friends and colleagues who loved the product, is that I didn’t want to “just” make cookies for new moms. My drive was deeper and based on my experience as a new mom. I’d noticed that there was a lot of information, support and structure for me when I was pregnant, but that vanished when I became a mother. I was grateful that there was support for our baby, but I felt utterly alone as a woman navigating my physical recovery and reentry into the world after birthing two new people: our baby and me as a mother.
In what ways does Totum not “play it safe”?
We speak our beliefs and take a stand. Whether it’s related to the crisis of family separation at the border, disparities in health care for women of color, or standing up for women who have been violated or treated inequitably — if the matter impacts helping women feel more whole, seen, and well after becoming a mother — we want to talk about it. We also aren’t afraid of showing the female form in a way that honors our power. As women, we’ve been subjected to images that suggest that our worth is wrapped up in a man’s idea of beauty and sexuality. We love celebrating women for all of their power — physically, mentally, emotionally — and a lot of that shows up in images of birth and breastfeeding.
What led you to create Totum? What did you feel was missing, in service of women (in the market or our culture)?
I touched on this above, but I noticed a dearth of support for a woman as she becomes a mother. This was apparent to me as I navigated my way through a painful recovery from childbirth, an identity crisis related to going back to work, strain on my relationship with my partner, and a sudden loss of milk supply. I felt utterly alone, and online searching only led to a sense of further isolation and fear. Finding friends who were also mothers helped enormously, but I found that it took us quite some time to open up and share our difficulties. I got angry that we women were essentially feeling around in the dark for support at a time when we should feel so proud of what we’re capable of — bringing a life into the world and supporting that life — and I knew that sense of passion I felt was a clue to my calling to serve.
How would you describe the community you’ve built? Who are the women of TOTUM?
We are a new community — small but engaged. The women who follow Totum come from a range of ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. They’re mostly feminists, they’re open and curious, and they’re supportive. They’re searching for more affirmation and tools, and as we grow I hope to deliver more to them directly.
What are some of the biggest themes that tend to repeatedly come up when women send in (or tell you) their stories to the site?
There’s a lot of “me, too!” Recently I got a DM that said, “I love that you’re weird like me.” That was maybe my favorite one. I notice that a lot of women don’t feel supported by their partners and find more support from friends and other moms. I’ve also noticed that many of us have suffered pregnancy loss of some kind. Additionally, many women find their identity in mothering but also worry that it’s a one-sided role -- they’re worried about what’s on the other side of caring for dependant little people. Also, too many women I know have been impacted by breast cancer.
Women have trouble caring for themselves, even with “self care” trending as it is. Women wrestle with guilt. A lot of us are judged harshly by our moms (who didn’t have the habit of speaking up that we’re cultivating) and have internalized that guilt. And on a lighter note, women also really want help with their kids’ sleep!
Are there any stories in particular that have stuck with you, that you can’t shake?
Just noticed I took a big, sorrowful breath before responding to this. Yes, stories of losing a child at birth or shortly after giving birth. I now personally know four women to whom this has happened. It’s unthinkable. And yet these women keep going. They keep smiling, dancing, making the world beautiful. They keep being amazing friends. They contribute to the world around them through their work and through service. They’re amazing partners. They’re dedicated mothers to their other children. Whenever I am having an off day, I think of what some of these women and others have gone through, and I know we are all made of stronger stuff than it appears. And that there is so much to be grateful for any day that we and our loved ones are healthy.
Agree or disagree: Did you create the product/community/platform.
Absolutely, yes. But I have so much more to do in order to provide all that I needed. It will take a lot of teamwork. And in launching Totum, I found, especially in Southern California, that there are some incredible women working in the maternal health and wellness space who just need more exposure.
Do you feel like the landscape is changing, in terms of how we perceive motherhood, or is it still culturally seen through a filtered, rosey lens?
I do think it’s changing, but that’s maybe because I’m very selective in who I follow on social media!
Who are some other sites/communities/brands that you admire?
Allison Oswald, maternal wellness PT (@allisonoswald)
Stephanie Matthias, postpartum doula (@radiantwoman_)
McLean McGown, prenatual, postpartum, motherhood expert (@motherthemother)
Katie Vigos @empoweredbirthproject
Nikita Stanley and Aleks Jassem @therebelmama
Rebecca Minkoff @thefemalefoundercollective
Alexandra Sacks M.D. @alexandrasacksmd
Dr. Oscar Serrallach @droscarserrallach
Erica Chidi Cohen @thisisloom
Hello My Tribe @hellomytribe
Angi Fletcher @angigreene
Hey Mama @heymamaco
If Totum could take run the world, what would the world look like?
Everyone would listen to one another, really listen. And people would tap into their gifts, passions and concerns to serve one another. People would be motivated from a place of wonder and curiosity. We would stop acting as though we have it all figured out, and live from a place of love rather than fear.
Anything else you would like NSFMG to know?
We’re just getting started and have intentionally grown slowly because one of my key values is being able to put my children first until the youngest one is 5. That was great advice I got from a woman I really admire. And whenever I start to panic and rush through all I hope to accomplish with this brand, I remember that if I were to die today, I would never regret having slowed down to a pace that allows me to really and truly be available to our children. I do believe a woman can have all that she hopes to have in her life, but I believe that requires choosing what she hopes to prioritize, and when.
Erin Spahn Erenberg is a mom of three, attorney, serial business builder, and, most recently, the founder of Totum. Totum, which means "whole" in Latin, is borne of Erin's experience as a new mother who craved more honest support, information and resources from women who had been there before. In its first year, Totum launched a mother's support cookie that was featured in Goop, created a cause-supporting tee that became a favorite of women like Kate Hudson, Minka Kelly and Meena Harris, hosted wellness events for new moms, and has spoken plenty of truth into the world about what it means to be a modern mother.
Photograph of Erin Spahn Erenberg by @ev.and.ro.