I was adamant that I was NOT going to breastfeed. It took way too much work and I was not cool with flashing my boobs to feed my kid. Formula also seemed super simple, so that was that. (Spoiler alert: I did, in fact, breastfeed my kids.) On the opposite side, my husband was adamant that I would breastfeed.
“Neither one of us was breastfed, and we turned out fine!” I tossed back at any argument he tried to throw at me to convince me to breastfeed. It was true–neither of our moms breastfed us or our siblings. In fact, I couldn’t remember if I’d ever actually seen anyone breastfeed. All the babies I’d known, including all the ones I’d babysat, were formula babies. Breastfeeding seemed so complicated. So nope, no breastfeeding for me.
But if I’m being honest, I turned my nose at breastfeeding because I hadn’t seen any moms do it who looked like me. I assumed that Black moms didn’t breastfeed. Any time that I had seen breastfeeding whether in movies or TV shows, the mom was not Black. This is reflected in breastfeeding rates. According to a CDC study, 69% of Black moms breastfed their babies at birth. However, this number decreases as the baby gets older, for a variety of reasons such as returning to work, less time to pump and less support from others. There is also a cultural stigma around Black women and nursing that stems from slavery. Many enslaved women were forced to be wet nurses for their mistresses, while also being forced to neglect their own children. There is a painful history for Black mothers when it comes to nursing.
So whether I realized it or not, a lot of my assumption that “Black women don’t breastfeed” was steeped in years of cultural harm and an erasure of the experiences of Black women who do breastfeed their babies. Black Breastfeeding Week (celebrated during the last seven days of August) was founded in 2011 by Kimberly Seals Allers, Kiddada Green, and Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka. It was created to highlight the unique challenges, needs, and celebrations of Black mothers.
I did decide to breastfeed when I had my first child, but I was not prepared for how challenging it would be. After I had my C-section, breastfeeding was painful–something else I was not prepared for. My incision made it difficult to position the breastfeeding pillow and the baby so I could nurse. The nurses at the hospital pushed formula on me, saying that my son was losing weight and I needed to supplement because he wasn’t getting enough milk from me. (Of course I would later learn that newborns’ bellies are very small and they don’t need much milk at all in those first few days.) I would be in tears trying to feed my son, both from frustration and from the pain brought on from my uterus contracting each time I nursed (hello, 4th trimester).
Like I said before, my mom didn’t nurse me so she could only offer encouragement. I decided to exclusively pump, which turned into yet another stressful situation and brought anxiety. I was constantly worried about my production and if I would make enough milk to last through the day. Sleep deprivation was exacerbated by pumping around the clock, all hours of the night. I was miserable.
I would eventually get help from La Leche League, but again, I was the only Black mom at the meetings (and often the youngest). It’s important to note that I lived in a predominantly White town when my son was born, so this might not have been the case if I lived in a more diverse city. I often felt awkward and uncomfortable and constantly wondered if I was struggling so much because “Black moms don’t breastfeed.” I was ready to throw in the towel and either keep pumping or start using formula. On top of feeling isolated as the only Black mom at breastfeeding support groups, I had only lived in my town for a little over a year and had no real support here outside of my husband. Luckily, I was able to go home for several weeks, and this changed everything for me.
I thought that I hadn’t known any Black breastfeeding moms, but that actually wasn’t true. As I started talking about my struggles with nursing, I discovered that several of my family members had nursed their babies. I was just too young to have remembered. One day I was visiting my cousin, and whipped out my pump. She took one look at me and asked me what I was doing. At that point I was ready to get defensive because I was so exhausted from my struggles. I didn’t want to try and latch him because at 3 months, I just knew he wouldn’t be able to. She asked me if I’d be willing to at least try, and I nervously said yes. Lo and behold, he latched instantly. I was on the verge of tears–I didn’t think I would be able to nurse after so many failed attempts. Not only did he latch, but he nursed on both breasts until he fell asleep. This changed everything. I went on to nurse him until he was 2.
That support from my cousin was crucial. She gave me the courage, confidence, and education I needed to successfully breastfeed. I think that support is key for Black women in nurturing their relationship to breastfeeding. We need to be encouraged and told that we can do this. We need support from our community–from our partners, family members, friends, our jobs, etc. We need to see more Black moms nursing their babies. We’re not new to this–we’ve been breastfeeding our children for years. But it’s also important to acknowledge the ways that this has been erased from mainstream outlets.
I am now nursing my infant daughter–she is 6 months old. When I was finally able to latch my son, I planned to nurse him until he was 1. But once he turned 1, it was obvious to me that he wasn’t ready to stop nursing, so I decided not to. Extended breastfeeding opens up a whole different can of worms–I got lots of side eyes, from family members and strangers alike, about my decision to nurse him as a toddler. It was one of the most freeing and empowering decisions I’ve made as a parent. I will make the same decision with my daughter. I will let her guide our breastfeeding relationship–she will let me know when it is time for it to end.
Because of how vocal I’ve been about my struggles and triumphs while breastfeeding, I’ve had friends and family reach out for support when they decided to breastfeed their kids. It meant so much to me to be able to help these Black moms feed their children the way they wanted to. A Black woman helped me nurse my son, and I’m so grateful I was able to do the same for other Black women. Black Breastfeeding Week helps to connect Black moms with other Black women who have decided to breastfeed, are curious about breastfeeding or reflect fondly on breastfeeding their kids. It is important that we see others doing what we would like to do–they serve as possibility models for us, and empowers us to be able to make the same decisions. I’m proud of myself for choosing to nurse my children in the face of so many odds, and I will proudly celebrate Black Breastfeeding Week (August 23-August 29) this year.