Breastfeeding as a Black woman from a Mississippi Delta community filled with formula-feeding mamas has been quite the feat. When I think about what the journey to and through #BlackBreastfeeding for me has been since I first started in 2015, I think “lonely” is the best word to best describes the journey.
While, yes, it is common in some Black communities for people to scoff at celebrations after a first baby, we still host baby showers and, more recently, Mother’s Blessings—which I had with my first baby—all centered around the arrival of the new baby or the change it’s going to cause in and for the mother.
For me, pregnancy brought fascinating—almost supernatural—visible physical changes that more easily garner attention and excitement from co-workers, family, friends, my spouse, and even from strangers in stores. During my first pregnancy, many people around me urged me to stay seated and asked, what I need (again, this still does not happen NEARLY as often as it should for Black women but stay with me here, it does happen at least SOME).
On the other hand though, once I gave birth and started breastfeeding, my support almost instantly lessened or altogether disappeared; right along with my social life. Very few people were checking in to see how breastfeeding was going. Not a single stranger asked me about it. Instead of public outings bringing kindness from random people willing to load my groceries or open a door for me; they (public outings), on the contrary, became an added anxiety.
In these stores,there was nowhere for me to stop and nurse if I needed to; on top of the fact that if there ever was a bench in a mall walkway, I had the stress of trying to keep my baby quiet so no one would look at me annoyingly (because people hate crying babies for some reason). So, while trying to quiet a hungry fussy baby, I had to somehow get to my boob as quickly and discretely as possible because; unless they are featured in porn, on a music video, during a TV commercial, on prime time television, or part of any R-rated movie; the sight of breasts are the devil. Never mind the fact that onlookers can very well choose to not look while a woman they don’t know is feeding her child…if not…it would kind of seem like the onlooker should be scolded and not the woman; but I digress; or do I?
So anyway, that scenario made malls, grocery stores, churches, mosques, and even visits with family and family friends extremely frustrating to me because the expectation was always the same: keep my baby quiet or/and keep myself covered—two things that are hard to do at the same time. Many times I just found a back room to nurse in which, every time, equated to me feeling like I was an outcast or that I was hiding or being hidden.
In my community’s defense I will say a few things:
- Not everyone expressed this expectation and sometimes my uncertainty and insecurities around breastfeeding in public were the real root of the anxiety.
- My anxiety WAS created by childhood sexual abuse, church abuses that literally demonized women and the female body, and by a society that paraded women’s body parts around separate from the women as nothing more than objects and tools designed for the sexual use and pleasure of men. All that to say that no one comment, remark, or disapproval caused my breastfeeding anxiety. They only triggered and exacerbated them.
- I was in Mississippi at the beginning of my breastfeeding journey in 2015, and although I had peers having babies, and I was surrounded by my and my husband’s female family and friends, I was the only person any of us knew who had dared to breastfeed, so what I was doing was totally foreign to all of them AND because of this NONE OF THEM could really help me; they simply didn’t know how; or that they even should.
- All of the above people were, and in most cases still are, battling the trauma, misunderstandings, mis-education, and misinformation from the same types of childhood sexual abuses, church abuses that demonize their bodies, and they all lived in the SAME society that parades women’s body parts around separate from the women as nothing more than objects and tools designed for the sexual use and pleasure of men. They were seeing me and what I was doing through the same lenses I wore to see myself.
So, while I realize the failures in support I experienced were systemic, I nonetheless journeyed along alone and feeling extremely forgotten about, scorned in some cases, and altogether lonely with no one to talk to or to happily or fretfully share my everyday experiences and growing knowledge with. Finding community online proved to be very helpful though most of the conversations were held by white women and the communities around breastfeeding were still growing and still fairly new. I also found that I had 1 cousin living a state away who had recently wrapped up her 1 year breastfeeding journey. Connecting with her was a lifesaver. I think her advice, her testimonies, and my husband’s encouragement kept me from ever having to even think about giving up breastfeeding or supplementing with formula.
However, she was far away, and my husband was still a man with a job to go to and a social life of his own that did not, as far as I could see, take nearly as big a hit as mine immediately seemed to. I found myself stuck to the couch and the bed way more than I expected. Going anywhere without taking my baby with me just became a headache. I had to ensure I’d pumped enough milk ahead of time, and while I was out if I stayed too long I had to pump or risk engorgement and a decrease in milk supply. If I pumped and wasn’t able to store my milk in a cool enough place I just had to throw my milk away and watch the possibility of another baby-free outing go down the trash.
It was a hot mess and by the time I was done adding up the cost of just a few hours or a few days away from my nursing baby, I just opted to only go where he could come also, and to not stay gone anywhere too long when we would go out. But…as I mentioned earlier, outings with baby carried their own level of social and logistical anxiety so most of the time I just stayed home—it was easiest, but it was tough because I was then at the mercy of others to visit me…which happened a grand total of 5 times over the course of 8 months. Because we were living with my in-laws at the time, I did see my sister-in-law a lot, my husband’s parents and his younger brother were around as well, and their family friends and would visit during holidays or invite us over to see them. Their gatherings were the other half of the things that kept me sane as I missed opportunities, forfeit my own family (of origin) gatherings, quit (more like lost) my job, and as I reluctantly resigned to my new life mostly indoors with fewer friends from my past, and even fewer members of my own family.
I did eventually figure out a rhythm, but before I got my bearings though, I couldn’t even enjoy social gatherings the same way and would find myself isolated in a back room nursing, then keeping the sleeping baby sleep and away from the noise, feeling lonely in the middle of a bunch of people all enjoying themselves in ways that I couldn’t or hadn’t learned to. It was isolating and I think now I wish that someone had come with me at least some of those times.
I felt alone. I felt left out and left behind. I felt invisible like life was moving on past me and I was just tucked away in a corner mattering less and less with each “thing” I was no longer able to just get up and go to—not to mention the night time feedings that I was shocked into learning about through bitter trial and error. I had no idea how much sleep I would lose. I had no idea how often new babies eat. I had no idea that I would be up at night—many times crying—alone, trying to figure it all out by myself. I remember wishing for an adult sleepover. I figured maybe if I had friends stay overnight at least one of these up all night sessions might actually be fun. That never happened, but I remember the feelings that made me wish it did. Yes, my journey started out very lonely…
so many more Black women have started breastfeeding since I first began. I even like to think that seeing me do it inspired some of the ones closest to me. It has felt good to have a childbearing peer ask me about breastfeeding as they embark on their own journey—sometimes after they have already formula fed a first baby. I’ve realized that it’s been lonely, yes, but pioneering—blazing a trail—always is. It’s a burden, or a cross that women with purpose take up to bear. As Isaiah put it:
God uses such affliction to purify and improve us so that through us, the mystery of who He is can be shown and better known (48:10). Sounds mysterious, I know, but all I’m saying is that the Lord used a lonely and Black Breastfeeding story to “make [me] the head (leader) and not the tail (follower)…” of a Black Breastfeeding movement in my community. He “[placed me] above only, and…not  beneath…” and brought me so much closer to learning who He is and who, through Him, I can also be (Deuteronomy 28:13).
So despite the very real sadness I’ve felt through much of my less-traveled breastfeeding road, this is not a sad post; it is an encouraging one. My advice based on my own experiences is to lean into whatever breastfeeding looks like for you. It is not something you can succeed at while also wishing it away. Gather as much support as you think you need, but go harder if you find you don’t have it; it just means God wants to grow something He’s already, from your own mother’s womb, placed inside of you. If you listen and pay close attention to the commandments of the Lord your God, Mama, all these things and more shall you, too, be able to do.
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