'Is Slavery Why Black Women Aren't Breastfeeding?” In a word, Yes.'
Sister Sharing Circle was a revelation.
Developed by Esperanza Dodge and her colleagues at Young Women United, the Sister Sharing Circle experience was conceptualized by women of color for women of color. Sister Sharing Circles are hosted by YWU's Luna Sagrada, a collective that offers free support to low-income families of color in pregnancy, labor, postpartum and breastfeeding. Part support group, part consciousness raising session, part dinner party, Sister Sharing Circle is a monthly two-hour program on varying topics of urgent interest held at YWU's welcoming offices on Gold Street in the heart of downtown Albuquerque.
This month the topic was Breastfeeding/Chestfeeding, and I'd driven down from Santa Fe eager to participate as an ally, grateful for the opportunity to help get the word out about this foundational work, and looking forward to confronting and challenging my own vast ignorance on the issues, e.g. lesbian mama co-nursing, community cross-nursing, and the miracle of transgender nursing. In truth, I'd been craving just this kind of purpose-driven socializing. We may no longer meet daily at the village well or riverbank, but we women have no less need of each other's easy company than previous generations who did.
“A newborn baby has only three demands. They are warmth in the arms of its mother, food from her breasts, and security in the knowledge of her presence.” --Grantly Dick-Read
We shared a delicious meal (free to participants) from Buca di Beppo—pasta, salad, bread, and mini-connoli in chocolate sauce. As women happened in from work or school, some with their children in tow (childcare is provided, also free of charge) we chatted and ate heartily. After a time, Esperanza asked a “check-in” question by way of introducing ourselves: “If you were an ice cream flavor, which would you be?” The answers were as lighthearted as the query: “Rocky Road, because it's a little bit of everything;” “Rainbow Sherbert, because it's fresh and light;” “Cookie-dough anything,” said the UNM grad student in Public Health to knowing smiles, no explanation needed.
We read together. Aloud, we took turns, and then discussed what we'd read: “Is Slavery Why Black Women Aren't Breastfeeding?” In a word, Yes. While not the sole factor, the persistent legacy of African-American chattel slavery with its blame-the-victim stigma and collective trauma of “wet-nursing” remains an enduring cultural barrier. But the low breastfeeding rates among African-American mothers have real and often severe health consequences for their babies. The benefits of mother-to-baby transfer of Colostrum, the rich milk of protective antibodies that is produced in the first days after birth, cannot be overemphasized—even a single ounce.
“These are not simple choices for some parents,” Esperanza explained. “They carry a lot of weight. And it won't be fixed by information. There are things the mother won't say. She might not tell you that her mother told her about breastfeeding, 'That's for poor people.' She might just say, 'I can't.'
“Knowledge of history,” Esperanza explained, “acknowledges a person in their background. It's especially important because in New Mexico our initial breastfeeding rates are higher than average, then they drop off. The key factor is support.” One woman, herself a midwife, told us that given her profession, at first her mother was reluctant to say too much, didn't want to get in her business, so to speak. But as a newly nursing mother, she needed her to do just that. “It was my mother who showed me how to hold my breast so the baby could latch on; she was the one who showed me the C-hold and how to get the nipple flat enough; she told me to make it like a sandwich and put it in his mouth. She drew me a picture!”
Without support it can feel overwhelming, especially for women whose babies are at home while they work all day. Taking lonely breaks in the ladies room with her breast pump, one woman recalled her past attempt with disgust. “I made a mess at work!” Not all employers are as baby-friendly as the University of New Mexico, which provides lactation stations at several campus locations where parents can feed their babies, or pump and collect their milk for later feeding. Both the current and future administrator of UNM's Breastfeeding Support program participated in the Sister Sharing Circle that evening.
Some women spoke about their insecurities as to whether they would be able to produce enough milk, or fears about knowing whether the baby was getting enough, or expressed concern about receiving conflicting advice from family: “When I think about having a baby, I think about returning to my family, to the village. But everyone will be there and everyone will have a different thing to say. How will I know what's right? I'm torn between wanting the village and feeling it's too much.”
“There's a coldness, a harshness coming from the medical profession,” one woman shared. “They'll say to a new mother, You're not making enough, why don't you just supplement? They can be so insensitive to the new mothers' feelings. It's no wonder the numbers are so low.” Sometimes babies are not released from the Natal Intensive Care Unit unless the mothers agree to supplement with formula, which can undermine a mother's best intentions.
With a deeper understanding of both the difficulties and rewards of breastfeeding, Esperanza asked us to write down on brightly colored notepads what words we would use to encourage a breastfeeding parent. A cascade of beautiful words rained down on us:
You are not alone. How can I help? What do you need?
Every drop you give is wonderful.
Baby steps are what’s important. Don’t give up.
Keep doing your best, your baby appreciates it more than you know!
One woman reminded us that encouragement can come non-verbally too. “I sent a beautiful picture of a woman with tattoos breastfeeding her child, to my cousin who was having difficulties and also had tattoos. It meant a lot to her.”
As our time together drew to a close, Esperanza asked us to each articulate what we had valued most about this Sister Sharing Circle.
Hearing the stories...everyone's experiences...learning about the history... learning what resources there are...being able to share... practicing what I might say to someone needing support... feeling the compassion and kindness...expanding my knowledge...I'm feeling more encouragement...it's not so embarrassing to talk here...listening to all the wisdoms...remembering my work is important...the chance to speak directly to pregnant women.
As if we hadn't already received more than enough gifts—nourishment for the mind, body and spirit—the Sister Sharing Circle ended with a prize giveaway—nursing pads, a journal, baby sun block, a nursing apron, and a promise. The promise was given to the woman who had “made the mess” the first go around, who dearly wants to breastfeed her second baby due in August, who feels committed to try again even though it didn't go well for her last time.
Esperanza (whose name means hope) said the words that could just make all the difference for her and her newborn: “This time you have us. We will definitely be there for you.”