Wednesday, July 8, 2015

everything I know about breastfeeding, I learned from black women

Somewhere along the way in my breastfeeding journey, I learned that African American women are less likely to initiate breastfeeding and also less likely to continue beyond six months as compared with their Caucasian counterparts. Reasons for this include lack of breastfeeding education and varied levels of support. Several researchers believe, however, that the greatest discouragement of black women in America with regard to breastfeeding is the lack of visible role models. Many observe that black women breastfeeding in public and in mainstream media are too few to encourage normalization of breastfeeding within the African American community.

Given my overwhelmingly positive experience with breastfeeding, this data truly makes me sad and I wish there was something I could do to encourage my black sisters here in the US. I understand that black women in Zambia and black women in America are worlds apart geographically, culturally and socially. Nevertheless, I still feel the need to acknowledge that it is my black neighbors who have taught me everything I know about breastfeeding.

While the postpartum nurses had taught me the technical stuff - holds and latches and the like - I left the hospital completely unprepared for the cultural challenges of nursing, and I spent my first few months uncertain and embarrassed. American moms, I know you feel me - this can be a rough place to be a nursing mother, and the constant strategizing wore my out. (Maybe I'm a wimp, but this is my story.)

So anyway. After a very awkward start in America, I needed a reeducation in the finer points of breastfeeding, and Zambia was the perfect place for just that. A far cry from all of the intrigue surrounding breastfeeding in the States, my Zambian friends eliminated every bit of my angst by sending a refreshingly different message.

This one time, back in Fimpulu, I was standing in line at the growth monitoring clinic, waiting to put my then three month old baby into the swing, anxious to see, along with all the other mothers, how much my chub had gained in the last month. There are usually a hundred or so women at these clinics, feeding babies and chasing toddlers, wiping their brows because it’s hella hot, but still smiling happily for the excuse to get together with everyone and dish. 

The clinics are run both by nurses and community volunteers who take on a variety of roles. One such volunteer was a well-known grandmother who was working the crowd, greeting the moms and kissing the kiddos. At one point, she came up to me and took her time squishing Bronwyn’s thighs, poking her baby muffin top and pinching her sweet cheeks. Then she looked at me, and without any reservation, cupped my left boob and said, “Bethany. Your breasts are AWESOME!”

I cracked up for a short eternity and eventually said, “Thank you,” because… what else was I supposed to say?

I heard her message and took it to heart: Your breasts are awesome. As in, fearfully and wonderfully made kind of awesome. Engineered for a purpose, the feeding of your babies.

The radically un-American message started here, and only got better. Throughout the months and then years, the ZamMamas continued to speak and I continued to listen:

Breastfeeding is not an “issue.” It’s not a “debate.” This is how we feed our children. End of story. No hoo-pla-pla needed. The sun rises and sets; its funny when people trip; and breastfeeding is normal. These are just facts.

This is how we love our children. Tears? Mommy’s milk. Sad? Mommy’s milk. Tired? Hurt? Bored? Frustrated? Lonely? Over stimulated? Mommy’s milk. This is not spoiling them. It is meeting their needs, in a tender and loving way. And it works.

netball champ and breastfeeding mama. work it girl. 
This is how we keep them quiet. Church ladies, BUST ‘EM OUT because the pastor is preaching and we don’t want noise so shove a boob in it. (The church secretary at one of the churches we attend said this verbatim. I could not possibly be making this up. “Shove a boob in it,” he said. It was fantastic.)

18 month old Promise should win an award for that latch.
This is the cornerstone of their early development. (I don’t think most of my neighbor ladies understand fully all of the physical and cognitive benefits associated with breastfeeding. What they do know is that their children follow the recommended growth curve and don’t get sick and develop perfectly… that is, until they stop breastfeeding. Zambian mothers all know that Mommy’s milk is magical and therefore work to pump as much of it into their bubs as they can, while they can.)

Kids wean when they are ready. And they all do eventually. It is impossible to nurse a child too long. 

this is the 8th Kalobwe baby. 

Breastfeeding is a communal event. (This one time, I was driving a group of ladies to town in the Land Rover and Bronwyn started crying in her car seat. The ladies in the back were frantically trying to unstrap her and give her to me, expecting that I could nurse her WHILE I WAS DRIVING. They freaked out when I said I couldn’t manage to drive stick shift and nurse a baby simultaneously and made me pull over to top her up before finishing the trip. I worried out loud that we would be late but they insisted I feed her anyway. THAT is breastfeeding support.)

Just be free. Dudes can handle this. (My neighbor guys are living proof that breast obsession (à la America) is cultural, and not biological. When the baby fusses and takes forever to latch, the Zambian men don’t panic and divert heir eyes. When a mom forgets to put it away after finishing nursing, no one blinks. When baby starts rooting, moms do not cover, run or hide. The first time a man came to say hi to us while I was nursing, he distracted Bronwyn, causing her to unlatch and leaving me all kinds of exposed. And what do you know, our guy friend didn’t bat an eye even though his face was about two inches from my whiter than white boob. He just kept talking to Bronwyn like it was no big thing, because apparently it’s not, and suddenly, I was free.)

check out this group of breastfeeding advocates - men and women. and their colostrum poster. love.
Breastfeeding is not a white person thing or a black person thing. It’s not a rich person thing or a poor person thing. It’s a human nurture thing. Unless medically necessary, and without extenuating circumstances, (see point #1 of this perfect article) why give your baby less than the best?

This is not a political issue. It’s not a moral or religious one. It’s a health issue. Moms don’t do this because all their friends are doing it, or to make a statement or to be a revolutionary or for any other reason than because they staunchly believe that Mommy milk is AWESOME.

hopefully my daughters are internalizing these messages too.
Breastfeeding might possibly be my favorite part of parenting. It’s the one thing that I alone can do for my babes. Grandma and Grandpa will spoil them. Siblings will entertain them. Teachers will educate them. But for as long as the breastfeeding days last, MOM is the only one that can supply that liquid love. Mom is the only one who smells that good and whose chest is that warm and whose num-nums can solve all the problems of the world. For the length of those breastfeeding days, mom is hero and no amount of cultural silliness should deny her that privilege.

I know my Zambian friends feel the same. Their enduring support of me in my own breastfeeding journey, even with my blindingly white boobs in a sea of dark ones, has shown me that the nursing world has the ability to be the most inclusive community on the planet.

And all the suckling babies say, “Amen.”


[a loving post script]:

Several of my closest friends have been unable to breastfeed for legitimate and heartbreaking reasons. It reminds me that sometimes words like "breast is best" can cause unintended pain. I'm proud of my friends for caring so much about their children's wellbeing, and for doing what's best for the whole family, even if that means not breastfeeding - especially when that has been hard. To the moms who aren't able to breastfeed and yet support breastfeeding anyway - you're tops in my book. thank you. 


  1. i LOVE this post.
    (typed that 1-handed, guess why)
    thank you.

    1. thanks heidi! i typed most of this post one handed too ;) hope you are well!

  2. Wonderful! Thank you for your post!