It was Wednesday, July 16, 2003, I was three days postpartum and standing naked in the shower, hot beads of water dancing along my skin and soothing my breasts that were engorged with human milk. I gazed down as droplets of breast milk began to leak like a faucet not quite turned off. The milk pooled lightly at my feet along with traces of blood and lochia from the interior of my womb whose contents were emptied 72 hours ago after 41 weeks of gestation. I sigh with a deep exhale… the baby is here, I still can’t believe it, and so is the milk! I gently massage my breasts to soften them a bit more before I exit the shower and prepare to nurse my son. Thanks to my mom, I’ve got my postpartum recovery ritual in motion and one of the things I look forward to is sitting in icy witch hazel pads to soothe my vulva and sore perineum. But what I love most about all of this newness, is holding my infant son close and breastfeeding.
Mommy quietly signals from the bedroom that the baby is stirring, she teaches me that it’s best to situate and latch him at the breast before missing his feeding cues or he may start to cry. So I hurry back to the bed wearing cotton drawstring pajama bottoms, with my breasts at full attention and fully exposed. Mommy helps me get propped up with pillows so I can nurse Fulano comfortably. She passes me the baby and gazes on in approval as I position him, skin-to-skin, with his head in line with my breast. He instinctively opens his jaws wide and latches… I feel warmth, tenderness, and a distinctive pain as the letdown reflex kicks in and an abundance of milk passes through me to him. Liquid love.
I am reminded of my mother’s breastfeeding story as my son and I begin our own breastfeeding journey. She has always bragged about nursing me exclusively until I was a year old, and that at 13 months I was 32 solid pounds. My grandmother didn’t nurse my mother or any of her children and had lots of well-meaning weaning advice, that I let flow in one ear and out the other. I had a powerful model for breastfeeding success — my mother. I’d seen my mother breastfeed my sister, I had watched my aunts breastfeed and it was something I always knew I wanted to do when I became a mother. Because of her foundational support and her example, I felt empowered to extend my breastfeeding journey beyond one year and I nursed my son until he was three years old.
As a doula and educator who seeks to empower women to reclaim their bodies as sacred ground, I know how important it is for us to breastfeed our babies and that it’s not only an act of nurturing, it’s a deeply healing and it’s a political act. It’s about self-preservation and protecting the future that lies in our hands. It’s about savoring and reclaiming the closeness, connection, and healing of breastfeeding that was once robbed from us and denied from our ancestors.
We need to address the policy gaps — like the lack of federal paid leave which makes it nearly impossible for working Black women to breastfeed as they likely return to work much earlier.
Black Breastfeeding Week reminds us of our history in this nation. And 2019, marked the 400-year anniversary of the first Africans being forcibly transported to these shores. Black women were once considered property, very valuable property during chattel slavery. Not only were Black women ripped apart from their families and sold on auction blocks, but they were also systematically “broken in” by their new slave owners by being raped, then forced to nurse the young babies of the slave masters.
Our ancestors’ women were known to be exceptional “breeders and feeders.” There was an entire market created for “Black milk” which sustained this nation. I can’t begin to imagine the trauma endured by our ancestors at the hands of their masters and institutionalized White terrorism. But I know that post traumatic slave syndrome is real, and that our collective maternal lineage has gaping holes and oozing wounds that need healing and reintegration when it comes to our bodies that have been policed for hundreds of years.
We are the descendants of these ancestors who endured so much. It’s time overdue to heal — our lives depend upon it. Our foremothers wet-nursed this nation. And today, out of all ethnic groups, Black women have the lowest breastfeeding initiation rates at 64% and the shortest breastfeeding duration, around six weeks — according to the Centers for Disease Control. We need to advocate for culturally competent care for mothers of color to help ensure breastfeeding success. It’s important to have doulas and lactation practitioners to provide perspective, encouragement, and support. We need to educate our communities about the health, financial, and societal benefits of breastfeeding. We need to address the huge policy gaps — like the lack of federal paid leave which makes it nearly impossible for working Black women to breastfeed as they likely return to work much earlier. We need to see breastfeeding for Black women as an expression of healing, of political activism in a nation that still doesn’t value our lives. It’s reclaiming our bodies, our breasts, and our lives as sacred. We are divine. We matter. Our babies matter.
Join us on August 26th for our Mama Glow Webinar in celebration of Black Breastfeeding Week