As a Black mother of three sons, I have experienced my share of both triumphs and hardships. Systemic racism is something I have always been aware of, but never more so than when I had my own children and could see the various ways I had to fight extra hard to be heard and seen.
I was 24 when I gave birth to my first son. Admittedly, I didn’t know much about children; I am an only child and the youngest in my family. I was not even someone that babysat. There I was, though, with this beautiful boy that was depending on me and needed me to do the absolute best I could for him.
I did enough research when I was pregnant to know that I wanted to give breastfeeding a go. It never crossed my mind that it would not go smoothly, or that I would encounter some of the barriers that I did in my fight to be able to do it.
My son was born a couple weeks early, and like many babies he had trouble latching. I felt searing pain every time we would try to nurse, to the point of where I would be in tears every time. So many people told me that was just how it was, and to push past it.
I instinctively knew something was not right.
So found the number for a lactation consultant. I made the call, stated what was happening, and scheduled an appointment for the next day. It was a very pleasant and positive conversation so I did not expect that my experience would be anything else but the same once I had the appointment.
When my son and I arrived, we were greeted cheerfully by the lactation consultant. Once I stated that I was here for my appointment and that we spoke on the phone, I could see her whole demeanor change. The body language that had been so warm became rigid and stiff. She then abruptly asked me to sit down and nurse my son so she could see his latch.
I was taken aback by how things completely changed but I sat down and started trying to nurse him. I was so flustered that it was taking me even longer to get him to latch. I could feel tears coming to my eyes but I was determined to not let this person see me cry.
Finally, I got him to latch on. I let out a deep sigh of relief as he nursed.
The lactation consultant hovered over us for a couple of minutes, and then said I could stop nursing. I tried to say I wanted to keep going and at least let him nurse a little while longer because he was latched on, but she told me that she had seen enough.
For long as I live, I will never forget what she said next.
“Honestly, it doesn’t seem like your body is made for doing this. Besides, a lot of Black mothers don’t end up nursing anyhow, since I’m sure you have WIC to get formula with.”
I was shocked into speechlessness. I could feel my face turn red and get hot from embarrassment and shame. It all became clear to me why she was so friendly with me on the phone, and then acted completely different once she saw my Black face in person.
I hurried us out of there as fast as I could, and spent the next hour bawling my eyes out. All I could hear in the back of my mind were her words—that somehow my Blackness meant that I was not going to be able to nurse, that my body was not good enough. That I was not good enough. That simply by virtue of my being Black that I would not be able to get the help I needed and maybe she was right. Maybe I should just not even try.
I wish that I could say that I brushed myself off, put my chin up, and just kept knocking on doors until I got the help I needed—the help I deserved. Only now years later can I admit without shame that I did stop trying.
Unlike what the lactation consultant assumed, I was not on WIC, so I had to buy my own formula, but I did it anyway. I did not have support from my family or my son’s father, none of whom understood why I would want to breastfeed anyway. The experience haunted me so much that it paralyzed me from going forward and those words stayed deep under my skin.
It would take me 11 years later, when I had my next child, to finally be in a place that I could advocate for myself and do everything I could for the breastfeeding relationship I desired. When I had my second son, I was incredibly fortunate that he had a wonderful latch at the start and we are now three years into our breastfeeding relationship. Not only that, I went on to have a third son who is almost two and I tandem feed them both.
When I tell people my story, a lot of the time people ask me what I would say to that lactation consultant now given that I have gone on to very successfully breastfeed. It always surprises people when I say that I would not be unkind to her. I would just love her to see my Black body nourishing my two beautiful Black toddlers.
I would want her to know that, despite her racism, my Black body was perfectly made for this.