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Gratitude: Yes, We Are Still Breastfeeding

Sunday, March 13, 2011



(WOMENSNEWS)--Let's start by putting the pertinent details right out there on the table: I'm Black. I'm the mother of a nearly 2-year old daughter. And yes, we are still breastfeeding.

To me, there's nothing particularly radical about what I've just told you about myself. Motherhood and nursing are mine by choice; my skin color and curly hair are factors over which I had no more control than any other person born into this world. But sadly enough, the convergence of these three aspects of my identity – my blackness, my role as a mother, and my decision to nurse, especially into the toddler years – makes me a rather unconventional bird, indeed.

If you've paid any attention to the data on rates of breastfeeding among Black women, you'll understand what I mean. While women overall are now initiating breastfeeding at a rate of 75 percent, Black women trail the pack, initiating breastfeeding in just 54 percent of births. Look beyond the initiation phase (i.e. those first hours and days after birth when most of us would try anything), and the news gets even worse for Black babies. Though the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends "exclusive breastfeeding to age 6 months and continued breastfeeding for at least the first year of life," by the time our children reach 12 months of age, only 11.7 percent of them are still being breastfed, as compared to 24 percent of Hispanic babies and 21 percent of white babies.

(And at two years? I couldn't even find data for that. But if my personal experience is any evidence, let's just say we're a teeny, tiny drop in a bucket that's far too small overall.)

Statistics like those drive me beyond mad – both because I'm saddened to think about how many Black babies are missing out on the kind of nutrition baby docs have acknowledged is ideal, and because I'm sick to death of seeing poll after poll highlighting just how far behind the Black community lags, in a host of important categories (don't even get me started on the achievement gap).

But I have to be honest: frustrating and scary as those numbers are, they aren't what got me breastfeeding in the first place, or what have kept me at it for so long. The factors driving those truths are far more personal, as I'm sure they are for every mother out there, whether they choose to breastfeed or not.

My family's history with breastfeeding has already been beautifully documented in a Women's eNews video by Malena Amusa -- so I won't go into deep detail about why I, like a minority of other Black women, did in fact chose to breastfeed.

The short version is that I knew many women who did breastfeed, had done my research on the topic, and decided that it made sense to me to at least give it a try and see how things went.

Luckily for me, things went beautifully: my newborn daughter turned out to know much more about breastfeeding than I did; she latched on right after her birth, and never looked back. I'd like to stress again here that I consider this pure luck – there's nothing I did or didn't do to wind up with a baby who breastfed well, right from the beginning, and I'm very clear about the fact that things could have gone just the opposite way.

I'm isolating this luck factor because I think it has everything to do with why, nearly two years later, my daughter and I are still enjoying a healthy, happy nursing relationship. Nursing was never, ever a source of stress for us. If it had been, I think it's quite likely that we would have weaned far earlier than now.

The other piece of luck that went into this particular equation was the fact that I was able to decide, not long after my daughter was born, that I no longer wanted to work full time outside of my home. Making that decision wasn't easy, but my particular profession gives me the latitude to work more or less from anywhere.

From a nursing perspective, this was an absolutely key choice. I was never a big fan of pumping, and I am almost 100 percent certain that if I had had to pump at work on a daily basis, I would have struggled to breastfeed even for a year. The luxury (and it is nothing short of that in this country, sadly enough) of being able to work from home has meant that I can largely nurse on demand. It has made nursing easy, and, again, mostly stress free. It's become a natural and soothing (for both of us) part of our daily routine, and therefore a practice it's been easy to continue as my daughter has grown from infant to toddler.

My point in sharing all of this is not, I promise, to ask you to bask with me in the rosy haze of self-satisfaction that can become the norm among some breastfeeding advocates.

I share my story with you precisely because the circumstances that have made my breastfeeding experience possible are so exceptional and rare. Some of our success, as I've said, had to do with the luck of the baby draw, and the fact that I didn't struggle with milk production. But our ability to succeed long term also had everything to do with the early and continuing support I received from my community (the women around me who were also breastfeeding, my doctors, my partner, my mother and on), and with the good fortune of being able to make choices about my work life that, coincidentally, made breastfeeding easier. Those are luxuries that few women in America have – and among Black women, the number is once again smaller still.

In a better version of America, all women would have the opportunity to make choices for themselves and their families that feel right to them -- as my choices have felt right to me. If we lived in a nation that truly valued the health and well being of women and children – where extended and paid parental leave was the norm; where all hospitals promoted breastfeeding, and provided women with the support they need to continue breastfeeding once they are on their own – then breastfeeding for a year and beyond might not have to depend so much on the existence of "exceptional" and "rare" circumstances that made it possible in my own case.

That, to me, is something to aim for.

How long will I continue to breastfeed my daughter? I've got no more definitive answer to that now than I did back when breastfeeding was a concept, not a practice. All I can say is that I believe, wholeheartedly, that my daughter and I will come to an understanding about when it's time to stop, when it feels right and good for both of us. At the moment, that time is not here – and that's perfectly fine with me. But when that day comes, that will be just fine, too. Fortunately, we get to figure it out as we go along. Every mother and baby should be so lucky.

Elizabeth G. Hines, a New York-based writer, is co-author of the award-winning bestseller Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire.