Posts Tagged ‘lactivism’

“Does She Drink Breastmilk or Normal Food?”

November 1, 2010

I overheard the above quote at a children’s Halloween party last night. It’s not an uncommon question for those of us who aim for full-term breastfeeding or delay introducing solids; it’s kind of a rude question anyway (and since when is breastmilk abnormal?), but the kicker is that the dude was not asking about the food habits of a six-month-old or a toddler – he was asking a new mother about her 7-week-old.

I could go into all the ways that my little lactivist heart died when I heard that, but I shan’t. This is an open thread, friends. Tell me about your weekend, vent, share links or halloween pics, do whatever. If you read this blog but rarely or have never commented, then at least take the time to say howdy.

[Image description: A rear shot of me, dressed in black sweats, and Eve, dressed in a cow costume, walking up someone’s driveway to trick-or-treat.]

Gladys and Elizabeth

October 25, 2010

[Image Description: The image depicts a portrait of a black woman nursing her child, who has a light brown afro and appears to be about 2 years old. The woman is wearing a black tank and skirt, and the child she is cradling on her lap is naked. The heads of both mother and child are each framed by a gold halo.]

I am now the proud owner of this breathtakingly gorgeous piece of art.

The artist’s name is Kate Hansen, and this piece, “Gladys and Elizabeth,” is part of her Madonna and Child project. While there are several portraits in the series, this piece seems to be the only one that she is selling prints of (which I am thankful for, since this is the one that I like best by far, although the others are also beautiful).

There are several things about this portrait that speak to me, as a black mother and as a lactivist. First, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m generally a little frustrated with the very limited selection of non-white breastfeeding art that is out there. It also makes me feel warm and fuzzy to see a black mother-child dyad depicted so lovingly; I sometimes feel bombarded by the onslaught of images and stories in the media that frame black motherhood as being naturally dysfunctional, and therefore detrimental to not only the involved family members, but to society at large.

It’s also wonderful to see a child other than a newborn or infant nursing. Even among pro-breastfeeding literature and resources, there seems to be a shortage of images normalizing the act of nourishing or comforting a toddler at the breast. Take note the next time you see an ad or public service announcement that is geared toward encouraging parents to breastfeed – when is the last time you saw one of those PSAs featuring a contented toddler snuggling, nomming, or sleeping at the breast?

I also love that Elizabeth, the child, is sporting a natural ‘do; and while you wouldn’t expect to see a child her age with a perm anyway, it still seems somehow more refreshing and organic to see a black child with her hair completely unrestrained, untied, and allowed to fully blossom, without even a bow to distract from the power and beauty of her kinks. To me, Elizabeth’s nakedness reinforces the reality of her dependence and the necessity of her trust in her mother. It’s also nice to see a reminder that I’m not the only parent who nurses my child while either of us is in various states of undress.

The halos are a wonderful touch, especially to a woman like myself who has, in every other single piece of similar art, only ever seen halos framing the heads of very white women and their very white babies. Black motherhood, as I’ve mentioned before, is so frequently dismissed as dangerous – or, at best, inadequate – and to see it depicted here as not merely loving and desirable, but also holy…well, it gives me chills, even as person who identifies very strongly as an atheist.

Some day, when I have my own private practice, I intend for this portrait to be one of the first things that my clients see when they walk through the door. I can only hope that they will appreciate and take as much comfort from it as I do.

Edited to add: Thankfully, I was wrong about “Gladys and Elizabeth” being the only print available for sale. Here is Kate’s clarification:

I do offer prints of some of the other portraits, but I only offer a high quality giclee of this one. I just don’t have the money to make a file for the rest. The other prints are from digital photographs, so they can onl…y be printed up in a small size or they lose resolution.

Race and Birth Activism

October 13, 2010

Jill from The Unnecesarean posted this sobering slideshow about racism and its effects on the lives of black women and their babies. Black women are much more likely than other races to go into labor early, and their babies are more than twice as likely as white babies to die before their first birthday. This is true even when controlling for socioeconomic status, maternal smoking, and dozens of other factors.

The conclusion drawn from these studies is that the racism that black women face is responsible for the disparity.

That’s not a shocker to me. Racism kills people of color. My desire to dismantle the racial hierarchy that we live in does not stem from some hippy we-are-the-world type of philosophy; it’s because racism murders people of color. So when people say things like “I’m not really an anti-racist, I don’t see what the big deal is,” what I hear is “I don’t care whether people of color live or die.”

Jill’s post was excellent, but the comment section was, predictably, full to the brim with fail. Here are some snippets:

I am not buying it. It really comes off as flashing the race card…You never even listed reasons for these babies to die. Did they die in that first year due to child abuse? Improper care? Murder? Domestic abuse? Malnutrition?

As Tim Wise has said, what kind of a card is race? Also, racism doesn’t kill babies. Black mothers (who are apparently abusive, murderous, and neglectful) kill babies.

I truly hope that it turns out to be something a little more controllable than the nebulous “racism.”

The definition of nebulous is “lacking definite form or limits; vague.” Doesn’t sound like racism fits the bill to me.

I am a mom who was pregnant with a visible disability. If you want to talk about interpersonal stress, it would seem women with disabilities would have to deal with that at least as much as black women

Oppression Olympics: bingo!

The entire conversation was more than a little disheartening for me, as an aspiring health care professional. My future colleagues are going to be overwhelmingly white, and thus many will be happily unaware of their racial privilege. What are they going to say when I, a woman of color, speak up about the racial disparity in breastfeeding rates and outcomes? I want to help black parents breastfeed; I feel that as a black woman and lactivist, that it is my obligation to help identify and address the obstacles that black parents face when they choose to nurse their children. And I want to make sure that black parents have a choice in the first place.

Will addressing these concerns earn me the label of racemonger, of a woman who plays the “race card” in order to gain some intangible benefit? I’m sure it will, and I do not look forward to it. But I intend to put myself out there anyway, because racism is killing little brown babies like mine.

I think commenter Heather said it best on Jill’s blog:

Holy crap. Much of this comment thread is like a cross between racism bingo and Derailment for Dummies.

Yep, that pretty well covers it.

Boobies Are Complicated

October 10, 2010

At the request of my very best friend, The Roaming Naturalist, I am writing an update about my lactation studies. It has been more challenging than I expected in two ways: first, the lessons themselves are dense and difficult for someone who does not have a medical background, and secondly – it’s hard as hell to find time to study with a toddler running around the house!

I take a lot of notes, and I prefer to devote a solid 3 hours towards a lesson, because only finishing one halfway and then picking it up later only leaves me more confused. I have never – EVER! – had three hours of time to myself since Eve’s birth, unless you count the time I spend at work (and I sure as hell don’t). I have attempted to study while she is in the room, but it’s hard to concentrate and listen to the lecture when she’s climbing into my lap to nurse for boredom, funsies, or attention about once every ten minutes. And when she’s kicking the keyboard. And pulling all of the DVDs off of the shelf. And…well, you get the idea.

That being said, human breasts are nothing short of FASCINATING. It kinda makes me want to wear a t-shirt that says MAMMALIAN PRIDE. And honestly, I may just screenprint just such a shirt for myself…if I can find the time.

In addition to the usual studies, I’ve also found myself chairing the marketing/promotions committee of my local breastfeeding advocacy group. It pretty literally fell into my lap, and while I haven’t been able to exactly DO anything yet (I’m still waiting to receive the contact information of the rest of the committee members), I have big, big plans and a list of ideas a mile long.

How has everyone else been faring?

Dear Mama

August 27, 2010

[Image description: A screenshot of a tweet from user @Matervan that says, “Totally inappropriate some lady #Breastfeeding her kid at #Starkbucks. I called her out and embarrassed her. This needs to stop!”]

I don’t know who you are. 

I don’t know if you’re black, or gay, or trans, or have a disability, or are poor. I don’t know if you breastfeed your child because you would feel guilty* if you didn’t, or because you like to do it, or because you can’t afford not to do it (or all three!). I don’t know if the nursing relationship that you share with your child came easily or if you had to struggle to achieve it. I don’t know if your friends and family have given you the support that you need in order to maintain that relationship.

I don’t know if your decision to nurse in public was made with trepidation. I don’t know if you only did it because your baby was hungry and you felt you had no other choice. I don’t know if you do it all the time because you already know that there’s nothing shameful in it.

And I don’t know what this asshole said to you to embarrass you. But whatever it was, I wish I could tell you in person that he is wrong. Breastfeeding your child in a Starbucks is not inappropriate. Breastfeeding your child in public does not need to stop. Your relationship with your child is sacred and should be respected as such. You do not need to hide your breasts, your milk, or your nursing relationship for anyone.

It’s breastfeeding awareness month. Thank you for nursing in public. I’m sorry that it has cost you to do so.

*I really hope that guilt is not the reason. Making women feel guilty over the decisions they make with their bodies is such a popular method of controlling them, even in so-called progressive and women-friendly movements like lactivism.

Hat-tip to Elita of Blacktating for bringing this tweet to my attention.

Trans Women, Lactation, and Exclusion

August 19, 2010

While I have discussed the obstacles faced by cis women who wish to breastfeed many times, I have neglected to delve into the reality of trans women and their experiences with breastfeeding. This is unacceptable, and a reflection of the cis privilege that I enjoy. Contrary to popular belief, almost every person regardless of gender has the necessary equipment to nurse a child. If you have a healthy breast, you can probably breastfeed.

Now, when a cis woman wants to breastfeed, she is in for an uphill battle. She will get so much misinformation from health care professionals, well-meaning relatives, friends, and advertisements. Her decisions on when and how frequently to nurse are going to be policed by total strangers. If she nurses for “too long,” people will accuse her of being selfish (as if there were no health benefits to full-term nursing or child-led weaning); if she doesn’t nurse “long enough,” then people will accuse her of being vain or lazy (as if there were no legitimate reasons to choose not to nurse or to choose mother-led weaning), which not only is disrespectful to a woman’s bodily autonomy, but also feeds the “rabid baby-fetishing mommy-guilting breastfeeding zealout” meme and turns more women off to even considering breastfeeding in the first place. If she wants to take breaks at work to pump, she will have to deal with coworkers and superiors who may be less than understanding.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg for cis women. For a trans woman, take all of those issues and multiply them by a million.

Misinformation regarding, well, almost anything about trans women’s lives is regurgitated and unchallenged by the vast majority of the cis population (who, naturally, dominate the medical profession as well as every other discipline of our society). Trans women have to deal with discrimination from the medical community on a horrific level; things that cis women do without much thought, such as filling out medical forms, are not such a carefree task for trans folks. When I see a new doctor for the first time, I don’t have to wonder if she is going to be so bigoted against me that she will not even enter the room or touch me.

While I feel snug and protected by the laws in my state that guarantee my right to nurse publicly, trans women do not have the same luxury. They cannot take for granted that someone will not challenge them (or arrest them!) on the basis that they are “not really women.”

While many cis women can take for granted that their milk will come in without much effort on their part, there are many trans women who will not be able to afford the hormonal regimen that will allow them to simulate a pregnancy and induce lactation. Insurance companies already overwhelmingly fail to provide support and supplies for lactating cis women; trans women can expect to get exactly squat to even spur lactogenesis in the first place.

The books that I’ve been reading about breastfeeding are of course filled to the brim with cis-sexism. There is a complete black hole in regards to the needs and concerns of trans women who wish to nurse their children. This is something that needs to change. When the “pro woman” battle cry really means “pro cis woman” (and let’s be honest – it almost always certainly means just that), then we are failing. We are neglecting our duties as supporters of health care, as womanists, as decent damn people.

My silence about the needs of trans women in breastfeeding advocacy is a testament to my bigotry. I’ve been fucking up. And I need to do better.

Lactivism Is Not Work For Whites Only

August 18, 2010

As I’ve mentioned before, my super long-term goal is to start a nonprofit that provides marginalized parents with lactation guidance in a safe, diverse, and accommodating environment. While the populations I have in mind include trans and gender queer folks, non-hetero folks, and teens, I also intend to help racial minorities.

One of the things that has consistently disappointed me in my recent search for lactation books, materials, and swag is the overwhelming whiteness of it all. Searching Etsy for handmade breastfeeding art brings up jewelry and artwork that is full of white women; browsing CafePress and Zazzle for ridiculously overpriced breastfeeding t-shirts likewise does the same. Even the textbooks and study guides that I will eventually need for my lactation internship, such as The Breastfeeding Atlas, Clinical Lactation: A Visual Guide, Breastfeeding and Human Lactation, and Counseling: The Nursing Mother all have covers featuring white babies, pink nipples, or women without even a touch of kink in their hair. [The cover of The Core Curriculum for Lactation Consultant Practice is one of the rare exceptions, although I will note that unlike the more modern style of the other books, this cover features a pre-industrial illustration of a non-white nursing dyad, which is slightly dodgy considering the all-too-common tendency to depict POCs as if we’re all stuck in a time warp.]

While I do understand that authors do not have total (and sometimes any) control over the art that goes on their books (for example, check out the feathers that were understandably ruffled over the cover of Liar, a young adult novel told from the point of view of a black girl that features a white girl on the US version of the cover – because according to the publisher, books with black faces on them “don’t sell”), I still can’t help but feel slighted by the racial homogeneity of these books that will be some of my most important resources in the next year (and for my entire career beyond that).

I do not ever, as a general rule, buy or wear swag (such as buttons, t-shirts, etc) that depicts only white skin, and I do not buy those things for Eve either. Because of this, I have to really look to find images of non-white breastfeeding advocacy swag, and have to stick to text-only or non-racial iconic artwork if I can’t find anything else. It’s not that I don’t find such images and art beautiful because they are white – to the contrary, some of the artwork I’ve found almost hurts me with their beauty.

But I will not support artists who do not support brown lactivists, brown mothers, or brown children. And if it has never crossed an artist’s or mother’s or lactivist’s mind that not everyone will identify with a pinkly-nipped white woman, then they are obviously so deeply steeped in their ignorance and privilege that I cannot support them with my hard-earned dollars – and I am especially not going to wear images that erase my very existence on my own person. I refuse to accept whiteness as default, as the norm, or as the ideal image of the nursing dyad.

Fortunately, there are other women of color out there who are fighting the good fight. Elita from Blacktating asked recently, “Where are the images of black mothers?” and the answer was quite disappointing:

Take a look at Nestle’s Baby Milk website. The first thing you see are two images of women of color, a mom who appears to be black and another who is Asian. When you get to the main content page all you see is black women and babies…

Compare that with La Leche League’s magazine, New Beginnings, where I was unable to find any pictures of black women breastfeeding in the recent issues. The seminal breastfeeding organization in the world, the go-to folks for breastfeeding information, and no images of black women.”

Elita is also one of the presenters for this year’s National Seminar sponsored by the Black Mother’s Breastfeeding Association. I wish I could go, but alas, I am in another state – and the seminar is being held on a damn Monday, to boot.

Also holding it down for nursing black moms (who have the lowest nursing rates among all races) is the blog Black Women Do Breastfeed, which features an adorable close-up of a black baby happily nomming on a black breast at the top of the page.

Finally, allow me to share white anti-oppression blogger Arwyn’s letter to white lactivists who kinda suck at race.


August 5, 2010

Today my little family participated in a walk for World Breastfeeding Week. I was delighted to find out that it was the first, because that meant that 5, 15, 25 years from now, when I’m an IBCLC, I’ll be able to say, “I remember the very first year that we did this walk. It rained and the heat index was 105! But it was the start of something beautiful.”

It was awesome to be surrounded by so many people who are passionate about breastfeeding. I did get the impression that some of them were of the “Let’s convince women to breastfeed because it’s awesome!” camp, which I actually am not a part of at all, although I understand where the urge to evangelize comes from even if I don’t agree with it. My particular brand of lactivism doesn’t focus on telling women what to do; I prefer to put the pressure on politicians, on businesses, on hospitals and care providers, and on insurance companies to support the women who have chosen to nurse their children. More women will nurse once nursing becomes a more [socially] affordable and less stigmatized option.

Anyway, I’m on a natural high after spending a couple of hours surrounded by lactation consultants, peer counsellors, breastfeeding coalition members, and babies. It’s got me thinking about why I chose to nurse and have chosen to continue my nursing relationship with Eve.

I breastfeed because:

  • Human milk has evolved to be the absolute best source of nutrition for human babies. Cow’s milk evolved to be the best source of nutrition for cow babies; for me personally, it makes little sense to give cow’s milk in place of human milk.
  • It’s sustainable. Think about all of the cows, the processing, the plastics, and the oil spent in getting formula from a cow’s udder to a child’s bottle. Nursing is much friendlier to the planet, especially for those lucky parents who don’t need to pump and store their milk.
  • It’s much less expensive than formula.
  • The anti-capitalist part of me loves the fact that I am providing food for my child without paying for some rich dude’s Ferrari.
  • It feels good. I especially like the tinglyness I feel when letting down.
  • Eve is heartbreakingly adorable when she falls asleep at my breast (which happens at least once a day).
  • Squirting Marcus in the face with milk is hilarious.
  • Squirting Eve in the face with milk is likewise hilarious!
  • Watching Eve grab my breast and accidentally squirt herself in the face is the most hilarious!
  • It’s convenient to not have to prepare a bottle in the middle of the night.
  • It’s convenient to not have to carry bottles around when we leave the house.
  • Breastmilk makes a fine substitute for cooking with when we’ve run out of cow’s milk or almond milk.
  • The antibodies in my milk protected Eve from contracting the swine flu when I caught it.
  • It’s an excuse to stop, slow down, and snuggle.

Those are just a few off the top of my head. Nursing has been a vital and beloved component of the relationship that I share with my daughter, and I am so, so grateful to have had this experience. There are plenty of parents out there who have wanted to breastfeed but couldn’t, due to financial, medical, or social reasons, and I hope that they realize that this month and week honors them too. This is for everyone who supports breastfeeding, regardless of whether or not they did it themselves (by choice or circumstance):

Thank you.

Breastfeeding Success Is A           Collective Responsibility

July 13, 2010

During class last week, the professor had us do an exercise in which we paired off with one another and had to learn about each other. We then had to address the class and tell them what we’d learned about our partner (if you’re wondering what exactly the point of the exercise was, I can assure you that it was indeed a waste of time). One of the things that I told my partner, a super shy 16-year-old who was literally quaking in her seat next to me (I know my afro has been kind of unruly, but am I really that scary?), was that I want to become a lactation consultant.

When it was our turn to share what we’d learned about each other, this is how it went:

Classmate: “She’s twenty-seven.”

Class: *eyes glaze over*

Classmate: “She’s a mother.”

Class: *eyes start to close sleepily*

Classmate: “And she wants to be a lactation consultant.”


Honestly, you’d have thought that she’d just told them that I want to fly to the moon and open up a fucking Starbucks. The class erupted in confusion, and my professor just looked at me with her mouth hanging open and asked, “Is that what it sounds like?” I assured her that yes, it is exactly what it sounds like. Cue more confused murmuring. One of my classmates piped up and said, “It’s true! I work with someone who saw a lactation consultant in the hospital.”

I started to say something about how breastfeeding is not always as straightforward as people assume it to be, and how the presence of an expert can help ensure a healthy nursing relationship, but another classmate interrupted me, saying, “Well, I guess you need someone to make sure that they don’t nurse the baby for too long.”

I looked at him and mother help me, I was about to start quite the lecture of my own, but Professor G decided that we’d wasted enough time and moved on to the next pair of students.

The whole encounter only reaffirmed the reasons that I want to go into lactation consultation in the first place: the myths surrounding the breastfeeding relationship between parent* and infant are harmful to that relationship and are by extension harmful to the communities that would benefit the most from higher rates of breastfeeding. I’m sure that my classmate – we’ll call him E – who expressed concern about parents “nursing too long” is the same guy who shames parents for nursing in public and breeds insecurity in new parents by telling them “your baby needs some ‘real’ food and you are selfish for not giving it to him.”

I wonder how long E thinks is ‘too long.’ Three months? Six months? What would he say if he knew that my 11-month-old daughter still nurses happily several times a day and once or twice overnight? The fact is that the nursing rates are entirely too short: while the World Health Organization recommends that infants be breastfed for at least two years, in 2003 only 5.7% of parents were nursing their children at 18 months old in the US.

I want to clarify that I do not believe that it is any one person’s obligation to breastfeed their child. Rather, it is our collective responsibility as a society, for the health of our children, to provide an environment in which breastfeeding is normalized, encouraged, and accommodated. We can’t keep saying “Breast is best!” and then nix legal protections for nursing in public, spread misinformation even in medical settings, fail to provide for parents who need help during the postpartum period, refuse to offer paid parental leave, deny medical coverage for pumping equipment, etc.

And we cannot shame parents who do not choose to breastfeed, whatever their reason – especially since we have set them up to fail. Even if parents were well-supported in deciding to nurse, there will always be those who choose not to or are unable to, and that is okay. Choosing to nurse or not to nurse does not make any parent better or worse than any other. We must be compassionate, supportive, and address the needs of those who will or can not nurse as well. The goal of breastfeeding advocacy is to ensure healthy nutrition for all infants, not to shame parents and tell them what to do with their bodies, when, where, and for how long.

The fact that I have been able to nurse Eve for this long is not an accomplishment on my part – it is a privilege. I was lucky to birth a baby with a good latch, lucky to have nipples and breasts that do not impede our nursing relationship, lucky to not need any medications that would have negatively affected my supply, lucky to have found the resources that I have in order to sort myth from truth, lucky to have a husband that supports my decision to breastfeed (the single most important factor in whether a parent chooses to nurse is whether they have the support of their partner), lucky to afford to take 3 full months off work in order to fully establish a nursing relationship, lucky to have a friend who was willing to give me her old breast pump… The list goes on.

My success in breastfeeding was a collective effort. I could not have done it on my own! It was the support I received from others and the privileges that I have that allowed me and Eve to start and continue our nursing relationship, in spite of the obstacles that society has placed in front of us. Our society cannot blithely say that parents have the right to choose to nurse when we have literally stacked the game against them socially, financially, and logistically. I want every parent to have the same support that I had – and more! – so that breastfeeding can be a proper choice.


*There are trans men who choose to birth and nurse a child, so it would be cis-sexist for me to assume that every breastfeeding dyad consists of a woman and child.