Motherly Collective

When I was pregnant with my son Isaiah, there was no doubt in my mind that I would breastfeed him. It was a moment I looked forward to and longed for. What I didn’t realize was that breastfeeding my baby would not only shape me as a mother but also inform my work as a leadership and embodiment coach working at the intersections of somatics, social justice and reclamation.

I underestimated that breastfeeding would be one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. Needless to say, my breastfeeding journey wasn’t an easy one.

My saving grace was that Isaiah latched on pretty easily and quickly after birth. However, my breastfeeding challenges began soon after we arrived home. I struggled with low milk supply (although I didn’t know it at the time), bleeding and cracked nipples, blocked milk ducts, mastitis and unbearable pain all while wearing an adult diaper. There were so many days where I sobbed inconsolably and felt like an utter failure as a mother.

During those early days, I wondered why I couldn’t do something that was “natural.” I hadn’t learned the lesson that just because something is natural doesn’t mean that it will be easy. I also didn’t realize at the time how much support I would need as a new mother.

Intersectionality is important

There were other aspects of my breastfeeding journey that added layers of complexity. I wasn’t only a woman breastfeeding, I was also a Black woman breastfeeding. It’s important to name these intersections, not for the sake of political correctness but because these intersections steer us toward historical, political and present-day realities.

When we’re unaware of these intersections, we’re unable to take the appropriate supportive actions, and for Black women especially, it’s the difference between life and death.

Black women are more likely to die during pregnancy at a rate nearly three times that of white women. The CDC found that 2 out of 3 of the overall deaths for all pregnant people were preventable. Additionally, the infant mortality rate for Black babies is more than double that for white babies (10.8% compared to 4.6%). Furthermore, Black children also suffer disproportionately from childhood illnesses such as asthma and have a death rate of more than eight times that of white children. Black children also make up 22.75% of the kids in foster care even while only being 13.71% of the population.

When it comes to breastfeeding, more than 26% of Black babies aren’t breastfed compared to 13% of white babies who aren’t breastfed.

These seemingly unrelated statistics tell a story of an interconnected web that illustrates the grim realities that Black mothers and Black birthing people and their children have faced for centuries.

The breastfeeding gap

Editor’s note: Motherly’s special edition State of Motherhood report on Black Mothering in America found that that where previous generations of Black mothers were less likely to breastfeed compared to white mothers, younger generations of Black moms are now almost equally as likely as their white counterparts to breastfeed, which marks a significant generational shift. But the breastfeeding gap, defined as the disparity between breastfeeding rates in Black vs white populations, still exists across the country.

Study after study has shown the benefits of breastfeeding for both mother and child. We know that breast milk contains antibodies that protect children from viruses, bacteria, asthma, allergies, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and many other illnesses. Breastfeeding also helps birthing bodies heal and decreases the risk of postpartum depression.

Why do these disparities exist?

To begin to understand these chasms, we must orient toward the root of these issues.

Historically, enslaved Black mothers were separated from their babies sometimes only a few weeks after birth, a cruel practice that deprived both the child and mother not only of essential bonding time but also of nourishment. Newborns as young as two weeks old were placed for auction and sold into slavery without their mothers. These violent and traumatic acts denied Black mothers the opportunity to nurse their babies and denied our babies the opportunity to thrive. We can see the parallels between this and Black children being placed into the foster care system today at disproportionate rates.

Related: Mastitis vs thrush: What they are and how to treat them

Even when enslaved Black mothers weren’t physically separated from their offspring, they were forced to be wet nurses for the white babies of those who enslaved them. This led to Black infants dying from preventable malnourishment. We can see the parallels between this and the fact that Black women make up 19.7% of domestic workers in the United States, often caring for children and elders while their own children are left to fend for themselves.

Today, Black women serve as the economic foundation for their families, with 3 in 4 Black women being the breadwinner all while working multiple jobs and earning only $0.67 for every dollar earned by white men. I’ve known many nursing Black mothers, including family members who had to return to work shortly after childbirth.

For Black women, lack of paid maternity and sick leave along with economic barriers make breastfeeding an unrealistic option.

The breastfeeding gap that exists today is also inextricably tied to a system that views Black women as less than human, as labor, and views their children as expendable. Until the humanity of Black women and birthing people are embraced not only through words but through policy, legislation and meaningful change from the halls of Congress, to boardrooms of corporate America, to hospital emergency rooms, we will continue to leave behind a legacy that doesn’t reflect the truth that we are each valuable and valued not because of how much we can produce—but because of who we are.

Reclaiming breastfeeding as an act of revolution

In my early days of breastfeeding, I’d often spend 12 hours a day nursing my son, so yes, it’s time-consuming. It was also physically and emotionally draining. I also recognize that I was one of the fortunate Black mothers. Even with my challenges, I had a constellation of care that included a lactation consultant, postpartum doula as well as family and friends who rallied around me when I was at my most vulnerable. Years later, I can clearly see the impact of having the right education and support and I want the same for all mothers, especially Black mothers and Black birthing individuals who are the most impacted.

For too long, breastfeeding has been seen as a privilege, but being able to nurse your baby is a human right. Black mothers are dying. Black babies are dying. And it doesn’t have to happen.

In a culture that centers capitalism at the expense of its citizens, breastfeeding will always be viewed as a time-consuming inconvenience—and exponentially more so for Black women.

As a Black breastfeeding mother, it wasn’t until after I gave birth that I recognized that, for me, as a Black woman, breastfeeding is an act of revolution and reclamation. Breastfeeding my baby meant I was rejecting the systems that said that my Black body was only worthy because of labor or sex. Breastfeeding my baby meant I was reclaiming something that my ancestors were systemically denied.

Breastfeeding my son also meant that his life and health mattered and affirmed that all Black lives matter, always.

The true advancement of a society is measured by how it cares for those who are the most vulnerable. It’s time that we give Black mothers the care that they deserve.

A version of this post was originally published on Aug. 20, 2021. It has been updated.

This story is a part of The Motherly Collective contributor network where we showcase the stories, experiences and advice from brands, writers and experts who want to share their perspective with our community. We believe that there is no single story of motherhood, and that every mother's journey is unique. By amplifying each mother's experience and offering expert-driven content, we can support, inform and inspire each other on this incredible journey. If you're interested in contributing to The Motherly Collective please click here.

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