Mama, black mothers and black babies matter
BY DIONNE LASHLEY, GUEST WRITER
I’ve got a large energetic family - there is never a dull moment! I am from Barbados and my partner is from New Zealand. He brought 2 children into the relationship and I brought one - so we have a boy and two 4-year-old girls and have just added another baby daughter to the mix. So now four children! I’m constantly working on developing my practice of mindfulness both at home and at work.
I often reflect on my ancestors’ journeys when facing a challenge.
A mantra I repeated throughout birth, for example, is “the strength of my mothers before me flows through me now.” I am not where I am or who I am by accident. Strong men and women battled all manner of hardships - including slavery - in order for me to be here. Knowing that enslaved women were often wet nurses to their owners’ children, and watched their own suffer because of it, I know that breastfeeding my own babies is a privilege.
Ironically, the privilege of choice is often now used against women.
The formula industry has generated an enormous marketing machine that preys on women’s drive to do the best they can for their children. As a teacher I know that information and critical analysis is needed alongside the options presented in order for each of us to make the choice that is truly best for us and our children. But many mothers are not getting the information and support they need.
When the time came to feed my own baby, I was armed with plenty of research, and my mum's support.
I thought it would be easy. I had all this knowledge and help at my side and it was supposed to be “natural”! I hadn’t quite accounted for just how stressful it could be for both baby and I to climb that steep learning curve in the first few weeks. I was headstrong about direct feeding as much as possible to establish my milk supply and delayed introducing a bottle to avoid nipple confusion.
It was tiring. And then came thrush.
Baby and I passed it back and forth for weeks. But once we got it right, we got it right! And I still vividly recall her smiling up at me with her nipple in her mouth in the early days. I’d planned to breastfeed exclusively at least until 6 months and then see what happened after introducing solids.
The next hurdle was going back to work - my maternity leave lasted only until my baby was 10 weeks.
I had tried to secure more leave, unpaid, but hit a brick wall there at work - it was absolutely not an option. So in my final weeks of maternity leave, I built pumping into the schedule to build my glorious “stash”.
Although I ended up producing enough milk to help feed 3 or 4 other babies through donation, I also created oversupply (not as amazing as it sounds!) and my poor baby struggled to keep up with my overactive letdown. I do NOT plan to do this now with my second baby!
I don’t know how I would have survived my first weeks back to work without the active Facebook and WhatsApp groups of breastfeeding mothers and others working full time and pumping. We shared everything from our complaints about pumping in toilets and storage closets to tears over spilt milk and triumphant photos of full bottles. To this day I have met only a handful of these mothers in person.
But it truly felt like I had comrades side by side with me in the trenches.
We were fighting to feed our babies the best way we knew how despite strong opposition in the form of uncaring bosses and colleagues, a lack of proper pumping facilities and inadequate legislation.
I was a single mother by my daughter’s first birthday, and whilst many offered sympathies, it was in fact a big boost to my breastfeeding journey to step out of an unhealthy relationship and into a strong sense of freedom to be who I wanted to be as a woman and as a mother.
I was surprised to reach that first birthday and realise that I was still breastfeeding with no signs of stopping.
Those hard early days seemed light years away and it was now second nature for both of us. We kept going until she was 3 and a half years old, and now I have begun the journey all over again. These days I whip my nipple out wherever I am when my baby starts smacking her lips.
However, it didn’t start that way. We’ve all got a million and one reasons to be self-conscious, and I had mine - am I actually going to get the latch right in public? People already stare at me in Hong Kong for my brown skin and dreadlocked hair - will they now stare at my nipple too? Will someone yell at me and my baby?
Eventually I just couldn’t be bothered adding the extra trouble of prepping bottles for every trip outdoors - it seemed silly when my breast was literally right there, feeling the strong letdown when baby started to fidget, and I was getting engorged by the minute from not feeding directly on cue.
I realised other people’s problems with me breastfeeding publicly were just that - other people’s problems.
I grew up with many images of strong Black women, my mother being the most formidable of them. Being the eldest, I watched my mother feed each of my baby sisters in turn - sometimes breast, sometimes bottle, always love. The idea that strength means an absence of weakness is completely false, but it was difficult to navigate vulnerability as a new mother. I already had tendencies towards perfectionism - as a schoolgirl in a colonial system, nothing less than 100% was acceptable.
I bought the lie that my value was tied to my productivity.
I took it with me to the US to study and work, and added the additional layer of feeling like I needed to be more exceptional than my White peers in order to prove that I was deserving. Returning to work after my first baby, I wanted to be as productive as I had ever been and make sure there was no reason for anyone to say I was “less than”.
It was tough. I couldn’t keep it up. Something had to give or I would break.
My sisterhood was there for me - a cadre of women of all colours and backgrounds with whom I could remove the layers of teacher and partner and mother with, and be hurt or angry or proud without need for justification. And I can’t forget my therapist! I celebrate the fact that I had the opportunity to have professional help as well. I found my stride again and no longer apologise for the space I occupy.
The African Diaspora is spread far and wide and Black culture is quite diverse.
Whilst there are many things to celebrate, it is quite sobering to reflect on the disadvantages that Black women generally face in comparison to their counterparts, particularly in communities where Black women are a numerical minority. For both my births, I expended quite a lot of energy and a bit of money as well to ensure I could birth the way I wanted - as naturally as possible. I wanted my body’s own chemistry to guide the process and help me kick-start my breastfeeding journey. I'm well aware that my geographic and relative economic privilege afforded me the opportunity to advocate for myself.
So what can we do to improve the situation?
Health systems and culture play a big role in supporting or hindering women from achieving breastfeeding goals. We can improve the outcomes for all women by ensuring that workplace policies allow for sufficient paid maternity leave and provide adequate facilities for women to maintain their breastfeeding relationship for the full two years recommended by the WHO and beyond if they so desire. Until that battle is won, women must continue to exercise their agency wherever possible.
I’ve also noticed recently - perhaps with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement - that more and more of my favourite parenting and breastfeeding websites and groups are using images of Black mothers and babies to accompany their general posts and articles.
There is something truly powerful about being represented and feeling seen as a mother and a parent.
To be welcomed into the wider community rather than being considered exotic or remembered only on certain days or months of the year. So more representation, please!
On a personal level, helps to be “in it to win it”.
It takes a village to raise a child and to succeed with breastfeeding, you will need your village on board from day one. A golden piece of advice from my midwife for my first birth was that I needed to find a local group of like-minded women who I could turn to for advice and encouragement along the way.
I followed her advice, wrapped my newborn to my chest and trekked to my first breastfeeding event.
I felt a bit of a nervous thrill towards the end of the event when all the mothers in attendance - over one hundred - nursed their babies openly together. Liberating! There is so much power to be found in creating spaces for ourselves as women and mothers, even while we continue to demand more space in male-dominated spheres.