black woman breastfeeding
photo credit: Beatric Film

I remember small hands softly stroking my chin, body heat warming the air between us, satisfaction surrounding us. Being proud of my body. Smiles sweeping across my face as I noticed the excitement in her eyes. I remember feeling whole.

Recently I’ve begun to confront the realities of my nursing relationship with my 3.5yo. In the last year with regularity I was becoming burnt out everyday, feeling pangs of bitterness beginning to take root and I knew that my needs and boundaries were not being cared for enough. I was tired of feeling like I was the only answer to everyone’s problems, eager for a break and anxiously clenching my jaw when she began to cry out “milk, Mommy! Milk!!” 

Though there was no actual desire to end our nursing relationship entirely, it became difficult to untangle the complexity of what I was experiencing through clouds of anxiety, compassion, and helplessness.

I had known for months that we were approaching a breaking point but the tug-o-war within me hadn’t yet decided on a victor. What I did know was that I missed feeling all the way happy about breastfeeding. 

I missed looking forward to the snuggles, I missed feeling her temples against my skin and smelling her hair, I missed feeling fulfilled by our special moments.

Knowing that a change was to come but unsure about how to reconcile my boundaries with her emotional needs, I spent months stewing in a strange mixture of maternal guilt, attachment, and resentment. 

With the spirit of change and newness in the air during the New Years season, I decided on a plan of action to have her weaned by her 4th birthday in July. I figured to myself, even if the process wasn’t pretty who (including myself) could blame me for being ready to move on? As wonderful as breastfeeding had been, who could testify against me?

It occurred to me soon enough that all energy spent on such trains of thoughts was nothing short of wasted: I did not need to quantify my love for my child, I did not need permission from others to make decisions about my body and its employment, and I did not need to question if my emotional limits were valid.

I’m concerned what this lack of conversation centering the needs of caregivers, especially mothers, means for black women. Social attitudes stigmatizing black women’s bodies are compounded by harmful anti-biology understandings of motherhood, adding new culturally specific dimensions to the definition of misogynoir.

I see black women waved into the huddles and subsequently fortified with the information, encouragement, and support necessary to brave the tide strong arming black communities away from our instinctual and ancestral parenting practices now dubbed “attachment/natural parenting.” Stolen from our homes and displaced in lands unfamiliar with surroundings unfamiliar and religions unfamiliar and lifestyles unfamiliar and MASTERS UNFAMILIAR to us, we were violently removed from what would in every way be our natural parenting practices. 

Barreling through literal hundreds of years enduring forced abandonment of our children in exchange for a life entirely comprised of servitude to children who would then become the adults who would further the legacy of such severance in the next generation, we now continue to endure the results of such years spent in unimaginable physical and emotional butchering.

The Black community’s relationship with breastfeeding isn’t random happenstance. We have inherited a history of mothers who have been methodically divorced from peaceful motherhood.

Our history coupled with an over dependence on western medicine (which does have its practicalities but is pompous in its self image and abusive in its behaviors) has produced an environment in which we dont trust our biology and our instinctual tenderness towards children has been adulterated by an understanding that the lives our children are about to lead does not allow much room for softness and vulnerability: we are still functioning in survival mode. 

Even if a black woman does overcome such hurdles and seeks to reclaim the tenderness stolen, support is an elusive necessity.

Functioning amidst such inherited distress without access to our ancestral healing practices, many of us rely on the understandings of generations in closest proximity to aid us in navigating such waters.

Our sentiments towards breastfeeding aren’t just antiquated, they are actively and passively anti black and anti woman, mahogany misogyny.

Repulsion is found in the biological use of black (women’s) bodies when it’s motivation does not directly serve men (even black men). As such, our husbands, fathers, sons and brothers (silently and loudly) denounce us as we reclaim our bodies and it’s employment.

More often than not, it is assumed during pregnancy that our children will be bottle fed and presumably with infant formula. While such assumptions may be experienced by mothers of all races, Black women face disproportionate access to the information, resources, and support that would make breastfeeding a truly viable option to them. 

There were no women in my family who had experience breastfeeding their children and I am certainly not an anomaly in that regard. Many of today’s black mothers are the first mothers in generations who are giving their children breastmilk, from the breast or bottle. 

With such a stark removal from breastfeeding practices coupled with cultural stigmatic history that continues to today, what was once an inherent part of our caregiving is now a ‘goal.’

Having experienced it firsthand and witnessing it on innumerable accounts, the necessity of factual, practical, accessible information and support is not to be understated.

With resources such as the internet (which, as one might have inferred, black people have disproportionate lack of access to) mothers are able to gather facts, unlearn internalized mentalities, witness anecdotes of other caregivers, ask questions, and discover that they are much less alone than they might think. 

From BabyCenter apps to parenting centered Facebook groups there are seemingly endless virtual peer groups, all of whom are the sum of their collective parts (black participants of such groups will unanimously resound “GIRL.”)

If one is fortunate enough to find themselves in conversation with the right person or stumble across the right hashtag, in person support groups, whether formal or not, can offer a new level of support, something no caregiver is eager to find themselves in short supply of. 

Edifying us in some senses and failing us in others, the general narrative surrounding women and especially black women in their reclamation of self through breastfeeding and other parenting practices still has room to grow.

There is not enough conversation centering people suffering with mental illness and/or body trauma and the burden it adds when what could very possibly be your only line of support prioritizes the needs of a child over the needs of a caregiver.

The benefits of breastfeeding can not be underestimated, but since breastfeeding requires a relationship, surely both involved parties ought to be well cared for. 

Often at this point, the conversation veers towards “fed is best” or similar responses which presume the point of contention is breastmilk vs formula; this pivot is a disservice to a conversation which centers the reintroduction of breastfeeding into black communities. 

While bodily autonomy is still at center stage, the point of interest being analyzed here is how black breastfeeding mothers can be more adequately and holistically supported.

If we have a vested interest in reintroducing and normalizing breastfeeding in our communities then there has to be an intentional acknowledgment and understanding of how breastfeeding affects caregivers. 

Too often the rhetoric surrounding breastfeeding and breastmilk is one that overly prioritizes the child without consideration for the other involved parties.

Parents are bombarded with (necessary) information about the benefits of breastmilk and the benefits of breastfeeding for caregiver and child, but are ill equipped or under supported when it comes to the practicalities of a breastfeeding lifestyle or how to navigate being an entire person without a full self sacrifice in the name of ultimate parenting.

With the list detailing the power of breastmilk ever growing, the urgency to reincorporate breastfeeding into our lifestyles is legitimate; the exact risks that disproportionately affect the black community are directly minimized with prolonged exposure to/involvement with breastfeeding. The advantages of breastmilk within the black community can not be understated.

What happens as a result of such urgency is an enthusiastic and headstrong campaign aiming to lessen the gaping valley between caregivers who are interested in breastfeeding and those who are able to accomplish such goals. 

There is a clear correlation between achievement, information, and support when it comes to breastfeeding.

Within support communities, in response to the objective understandings of the biology of breastfeeding in conjunction with anti-breastfeeding and misogynistic social norms, an environment of “musts” is created: we must breastfeed our children and we must do it in totality and abundance.

Having breastfed (and still breastfeeding) two children myself, I understand the importance of equipping breastfeeding caregivers with an empowerment that assures them that they are everything their child needs; western medicine and media does a terrific job at convincing us that our bodies and instincts are not proficient enough for our children to thrive without intervention.

Unfortunately, this seemingly feminist climate/atmosphere/ambiance often turns sour upon further examination. 

While acknowledging the inherent power of our bodies is empowering, the expectation that caregivers (especially mothers and especially black mothers) must prioritize all needs for their children at the *expense of themselves* is not merely a disservice to black women, it is misogynoir in action.

Anyone who has experienced breastfeeding is exceedingly aware of the mental, emotional, and physical tolls charged, and such taxation cannot be undermined.

Teaching and support spaces must be vocal about more than human biology, benefits of breastmilk, and the reestablishment of instinctual parenting, they must be vocal about *balance.*

With an attitude that exhorts “baby first and foremost,” the very people who bear the responsibility of internally housing, growing, and birthing babies, the very people who are then responsible for nearly all aspects of care, the very people who are responsible for literally producing food for and growing newborn babies into young children are the very people who remain most neglected.

Surely a person who bears nearly all physical labor and the brunt of all emotional and mental labor in child rearing ought to be more than considered as an afterthought. As the black community reacquaints itself with ancestral and instinctual parenting practices, intensive contemplation and reverence for black women is nonnegotiable.

Among black women who have had these self realizations an internal battle erupts between our commitment to our children and our commitment to ourselves. While such pledges are not mutually exclusive, intentional and attentive care for children is accomplished at the expense of their mother who in turn has no one intentionally and attentively caring for her.

To resolve these disconnects, deliberate attention must be paid to the acknowledgement of the parent-child relationship, healthful only when all needs are prioritized and attended to.

In regards to breastfeeding, this means a keen assessment of what areas are most compromised, and this requires an investigation into how ancestral parenting practices operated effectively.

No longer living in cooperative and intermutual social environments, most caregivers today live lives of self dependency and parent in isolation. The responsibility of what were once communal parenting habits–birthing, breastfeeding, and the day to day raising of children–now rest squarely upon the shoulders of individuals, with little to no collective support.

Through the forced separation of black communities from their ancestral practices, birthing and caregiving traditions such as midwifery, post partum care, and wet nurses are now foreign concepts often met with skepticism or general disinterest.

Unsurprisingly, wet nursing stirs a particular discomfort and disgust within black communities (even among those who have begun the work of biological and ethnological reclamation), an attitude inherited from generations of women forced to act as wet nurses to the children of slavemasters and to the detriment (and death) of their own offspring. Yet the impact that the reintegration of tangible communal support like wet nursing stands to dramatically alleviate much of the over exertion associated with breastfeeding. Continued resistance towards shared breastfeeding responsibility isn’t simply a matter of preference, it is a living continuation of denigration, control, and hatred of black women.

Many are working to peel back these layers and uncover truths once familiar, and their efforts can not be undervalued. 

The generational enthusiasm for reconnection with black natural parenting is multifaceted and glorious in its own right, certainly an affirmation for pro blackness if there ever was one, but it will be all for naught if there is not a concentrated and vested interest in what these realities mean for black women. 

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