The Challenges & Opportunities Of Breastfeeding As A Black Mother
When I found out I was pregnant in 2016, it was a no-brainer that I was going to breastfeed my child. However, once I gave birth to my son, Isaiah, I realized that breastfeeding wasn't going to be as easy as I thought. Shortly after I got home from the hospital, my milk supply was low.
Navigating a troubling history.
I spent those first few weeks worried that he wasn't getting enough nourishment. At the same time, I was bleeding and dealing with painful swelling of my breasts. Honestly, I felt like a failure. "Why isn't this working?" I thought. "Why aren't my boobs working? This is supposed to be natural." I hadn't learned the lesson that just because something is natural doesn't mean it's easy.
At the time, I was living in California, away from family and friends on the East Coast, and didn't have a solid support system. When I did open up to people, including family members, about my breastfeeding struggles, I was told that I didn't need to breastfeed, that it wasn't a big deal if I didn't. I know that they were saying this to comfort me, but it made me think about how many Black women and Black femmes have come up against this over time.
69.4% of Black infants were breastfed in 2015, compared with 85.9% of white infants — a 16.5% difference.
Historically, enslaved Black women were wet nurses forced to feed white babies, often to the detriment of their own children. Countless Black babies died because their mothers weren't allowed to feed them or didn't have any breast milk left. Even though it's not talked about much, this historical trauma plays a role in why Black women are, to this day, far less likely to breastfeed their children than white women.
CDC data shows that 69.4% of Black infants were breastfed in 2015, compared with 85.9% of white infants—a 16.5% difference. Those differences are also due to systemic barriers such as pay disparities, lack of health care, lack of paid sick time and maternal leave, and lack of Black lactation consultants—all making breastfeeding virtually an impossible feat for most Black birthing people.
Personally, I've had to unpack my own intergenerational trauma around breastfeeding since having my son. Along with doing my personal work, I was able to get support from a lactation consultant who really helped me through that process. She taught me about all the things that I never learned during pregnancy—things like knowing the signs that my baby was hungry, how and how often to nurse (and it's often), and how to ride the emotional waves of the postpartum period.
When I finally started breastfeeding, it was like a weight had been lifted off my back. I remember during one of our visits, the consultant weighed Isaiah before breastfeeding and then after, and seeing that he weighed more afterward was one of the happiest moments of my life. I laugh about it when I think about it now. But the work didn't end there. I still had to navigate how to keep up with pumping while juggling my business—yet another barrier to breastfeeding for many working mothers.
Why we need to readjust our priorities moving forward.
Ensuring that every breastfeeding or chestfeeding person is supported will require making sure that new moms and birthing people have access to the resources and education they need.
We need to create a culture of nourishment. Right now, we're living in a culture of capitalism—and capitalism is not nourishing for human beings. Period. The corporate "lactation rooms" that are sometimes really just cluttered, dark closets are not enough.
Today, our society is more focused on productivity and profit than on human livelihood. But consider the fact that in the richest countries in the world, 1 in 5 babies never receive breastmilk. In what are considered to be the poorest countries in the world, that number is 1 in 25 babies. The difference lies in the kind of culture we are creating. To make a change, we must shift our cultural priorities.
How to support a more nourishing future.
For too long, female and femme bodies have been connected to male sexual pleasure, regardless of orientation or preference. Black bodies in particular have been fetishized, and it's powerful to see many women and femmes reclaiming their sexual autonomy. Our bodies have been viewed through that limited lens, so anything that falls outside that box—like breastfeeding, menstruation, and even aging—is seen as unnecessary or inconvenient.
But why should it be inconvenient to provide life to the next generation?
I would love for us to start having conversations about the reclamation and decolonization of our bodies. And I believe it starts with embodied healing and leadership, which is the work that I do through Embodied Black Girl. The other aspect of reclaiming our bodies as women lies in reclaiming the village. We need to show new moms and birthing people that they are not alone. We need to rally around them as a community. We need to make sure that Black mothers have access to BIPOC-led spaces to connect and undergo the healing process together. Finally, we need to center Black mothers' mental health—because no books can prepare you for the emotions that come when you have a baby.
Black Breastfeeding Week, started by three amazing Black women, is one of the many organizations spearheading this work. Another organization doing great things is the Black Mother Breastfeeding Association. I would encourage anyone to check out their websites, get involved, and seek out ways to support the Black mothers in your own community.
Together, we can create a culture of nourishment for Black birthing people and our children. But it will take normalizing tough conversations and creating spaces where healing can happen, for generations to come.
As told to mindbodygreen's senior sustainability editor, Emma Loewe.
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Thérèse Cator (she/her) is a Trauma-Informed Embodiment Practitioner, Leadership Coach, and founder of Embodied Black Girl, a global community that stands for the embodied liberation of Black womxn and Womxn of Color everywhere. Embodied Black Girl is devoted to creating a safe space for Black womxn and Womxn of Color to heal from intergenerational trauma, racialized stress, and colonial conditioning in service of our individual and collective liberation and healing.
Thérèse is a mother, Leadership Coach, an Embodiment Practitioner and Teacher, a Healer and an Artist. Her work bridges leadership, spirituality, healing, somatics, mindfulness, decolonization, and social change.
In 2020 alone, Thérèse led many healing circles for the Black community, attended by nearly 5,000 folks. She also led Becoming Human, a series of lessons for white people to dismantle white supremacy, for thousands of white and white-passing people. Thérèse has led gatherings at brands such as HealHaus, Ethel’s Club, Minka Brooklyn, and Facebook.