Credit: Chanda M. Scott.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Fear. Indifference. Disdain.
These are the emotions that too many African American mothers feel regarding the decision to breastfeed.
Instead of having the cheerful "breast is best" line sung to them from family members, colleagues and even physicians, some black mothers have to fight through a host of assumptions, ill-informed statements and unsupportive banter.
The opposition that was thrown at me was overwhelming after I told family members I was choosing to breastfeed. It was as if they couldn't tell me enough about how the baby wouldn't get full, that my milk wouldn't come in, that my milk would run out, that it would be painful. And my personal favorite: I was being too cheap to buy formula.
Fortunately, more voices are chiming in to support black women who breastfeed. Kiddada Green, of the Black Mothers Breastfeeding Association, and Sojourner Marable Grimmett, of Table for Two, are among the growing number of women seeking to erase the stigma of breastfeeding.
Since 2007, Green's Detroit-based organization has been promoting the importance of breastfeeding, as well as debunking the myths about black women and breastfeeding. In June, the Black Mothers Breastfeeding Association received a $100,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to boost the fight to eliminate breastfeeding disparities.
Grimmett's organization, Table for Two, is an online resource for breastfeeding mothers. She also recently launched a campaign to build more public accommodations for lactating mothers in Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport.
The work these women are doing is crucial as the racial disparities in breastfeeding rates persist. Only 54 percent of black mothers initiate breastfeeding compared to 74 percent of white women and 79 percent of Latina mothers. The numbers dip considerably after the recommended six months, as only 27 percent of black mothers continue to breastfeed.
Rooted Deep in Our History
The lack of support for breastfeeding is rooted deep in our history. With family and friends either purposefully or inadvertently discouraging moms from breastfeeding, it makes it hard for some women to stick with breastfeeding.
Green, founding director of Black Mothers Breastfeeding Association, believes it is important to address the historical context of why there is not enough support in our community.
"Something that shocks me the most about how much our culture's past has affected this current culture is the fact that I meet women, especially pregnant women, who have never even seen a baby put to the breast for nourishment," she said. "The entire concept is almost a foreign language to them because all they have ever seen were children being bottle fed. Breastfeeding isn't something that has been visible in their lives so it's hard for them to even conceive it in their minds."
I will continue to breastfeed my now 4-month-old daughter until she is at least 12 months old, but I had to overcome several barriers to make this decision. Seeing the way breasts were sexualized by society, it was difficult at first to breastfeed my daughter in public. I had never seen a black woman breastfeeding before I had my child. Even when I would tell other black mothers I was breastfeeding, they'd still ask what kind of formula I was giving her, as if breast milk was only a supplement to "real milk."
"Breastfeeding has to become more visible in the black community. It should be so common that it's not a big deal anymore. Just imagine if there was actually a picture of Beyonce nursing her daughter, the impact that would have on African Americans would be so powerful," Green said. "It's great to hear celebrities say that they breastfeed, but we just have to make it more visual for black mothers who rarely, if ever, see a child being breastfed."
Providing More Support
Grimmett has accepted the call to provide more support for more breastfeeding in the African American community.
Through her own experience as a full-time working mother, she can empathize with women who find it difficult to nurse or pump in public. With her first son, Roland, Grimmett's only option at work was to pump in the public restroom. She eventually stopped breastfeeding because of the inconvenience and lack of privacy.
"The painful reality of allowing breast milk to 'dry up' when women are not ready to stop nursing can cause tremendous grief, depression and disappointment for mothers anxious to provide the most important nutrients to their newborn," she said.
Two years later, after giving birth to her second son, Joshua, Grimmett spoke up and assisted a colleague and their employer in establishing a permanent lactation room on site.
"We provided a safe and designated place for mothers to pump and feed their children. This allowed a smoother transition for working mothers and enabled them to continue to provide milk for their children after returning to work. I was pleased to have the ability to nurse our second son for nearly 15 months."
Grimmett added that, "All we're asking is that employers provide their working moms with safe, clean, places to express milk and or breastfeed. Ideally, a 'table for two.' In order to support our campaign's message, we asked models to literally eat in the bathroom. You wouldn't eat in the bathroom, so why would you expect a baby to?"
There is still a long road ahead for black mothers who breastfeed, but it is not hopeless. Grimmett and Green are not alone in their fight to increase the numbers of black mothers who breastfeed. First Lady Michelle Obama made waves in her "Let's Move" campaign when she promoted breastfeeding to help combat childhood obesity. Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin's Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding has brought more attention to the issue, particularly the low numbers of breastfeeding moms in the black community.
The growing voices within our community are creating a stronger foundation for our children's future and our health as mothers.
Christina Caldwell is a freelance writer who covers women's issues. The development of this piece was supported by a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
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