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What Breastfeeding Means to This Black Mom

Breastfeeding journeys often look different for Black parents

Published on: August 21, 2017

mom-breastfeeding
Photo:
The author and her son

My introduction to breastfeeding began when my son was born. It was a time of challenges and uncertainty, but I did everything I could to navigate the sometimes conflicting worlds of being a nursing mother and a working mom.

Breastfeeding is difficult for many people. But breastfeeding journeys often look different for Black parents than parents of other races — I know mine did. In the early days of breastfeeding, I never expected to exceed the average duration of breastfeeding for both Hispanic and white women. And I didn’t know that by doing so, I would astronomically surpass what was expected of me as a young Black mother.

That’s where Black Breastfeeding Week (Aug. 25-31) comes in. It was created to highlight the challenges and successes of Black breastfeeding. This is particularly important because Black women often find themselves at the intersection of two marginalized groups. As a woman, I endure the systemic employment practices and societal opinions that believe breastfeeding is strange. But as a Black woman, I have to endure the hypersexualizing of my body and carry the baggage of the history that comes from forced feeding of white babies.

The result is often a mess of confusion and conflict, and it’s no surprise that Black women have the lowest rates of breastfeeding success.

“If it's that hard, why don't you just quit?” In the first month of breastfeeding, this phrase was communicated to me more than any struggling nursing mother should ever hear. More often than not, I found myself surrounded by a sea of people who didn't see the point of continuing to attempt nursing with the child who hadn't “figured it out” as he approached 1 month old.

At the time, I couldn't imagine having a successful latch with my son. But after watching him overcome an inability to eat within his first week of life, I knew I could overcome the challenges of breastfeeding. Instead of quitting, I began exclusively pumping and while it was never easy it got the job done.

As a young Black mother, I was unaware of the role a larger system of stigma and beliefs played in the lack of support I received with breastfeeding.

As a young Black mother, I was unaware of the role a larger system of stigma and beliefs played in the lack of support I received with breastfeeding. According to the most recent data, Black mothers are substantially more likely to be offered formula in the hospital than their counterparts. Black women have the lowest rates of breastfeeding initiation (61 percent) and the shortest duration (6.4 weeks).

I don't remember being exposed to any breastfeeding women or even discussing breastfeeding before adulthood. The Black community’s complicated history with breastfeeding can be observed through the lack of discussion. When it was my turn to experience the journey of breastfeeding, outdated ideas about public decency created plenty of stigma. Suddenly, I was told stories of how frustrating and arduous breastfeeding initiation and continuation was. These factors stop a significant number of mothers from long-term breastfeeding. My inquisitive nature led me to breastfeed, but my stubbornness fueled my determination.

Not long after I thought I'd reached wit's end, my son decided it was time to latch. This was important for multiple reasons, but the most important was to learn that breastfeeding is often more complicated than lactation professionals make it seem. Before last year, I kept that experience mostly to myself. But after finding out about Black Breastfeeding Week, and encountering more women in my age group who were Black with the desire to breastfeed, I knew it was important to provide a holistic understanding of that experience.

Suddenly, understanding the obstacles that limited breastfeeding among Black mothers became a priority. I began to see my struggles as an opportunity to provide other young Black women with what I never had: culturally competent real-time descriptions of a breastfeeding journey. And while every girl that I spoke to didn't persist, those who did warmed my heart.

After breastfeeding my son for 1.5 years, I have learned a lot. His diet is a lot more diverse, but from time to time when one of us is in need of comfort we still breastfeed. My decision to breastfeed was an act of resistance with a message: I will not let the weight of the past, or the present, crush me. By owning that power, I have the potential to help others find their own power.

It wasn't always easy, but for us, it was always worth it. Through nursing, I have developed a bond with my son that I never believed I was capable of. And now that our journey is coming to an end, I can't help but feel reluctant. It's a sign that he's growing up, it's a sign that we have completed another chapter of our lives and it's a sign that once again ignoring the negative opinions of others has been in my best interest.

Even when I am no longer breastfeeding, Black Breastfeeding Week will always be significant for me. It was the motivation for my research, the catalyst on a lifelong quest for knowledge and the beginning of a deeply special relationship with my son.

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