By: Waetie Sanaa Cooper Burnette
Happy National Breastfeeding Week!
In Village Voices, we sit down and interview network partners about how they got to where they are, why they do what they do, and their powerful visions for the children of Boston, MA. Recently, I had a chance to meet with Dominique Graham, who has been a member of the Vital Village Network for several years. She even created the Vital Village Network logo! It is my particular pleasure to have the opportunity to sit and learn even more about Dominque after meeting at an educational advocacy training sponsored by Phenomenal Moms and Dr. Darnisa Amante, founder of DEEP, Disruptive Equity Education Project.
We were both at this event and seated together with our breastfeeding two year-olds when we realized we had many things in common. We attended the same high school – The Cambridge School of Weston-- at different times. We both attended women's colleges, Wellesley, Smith and Simmons. And, we now were trying to figure out how we can give the very best educational and social-emotional foundation to our children as we raise them in the city of Boston, MA.
Finally, it wasn't until we completed the entire training that we realized we had a mutual connection via our work with the Vital Village Network. Given all of this, I am particularly grateful that she is willing to share some of her story with all of us.
In the interview below, Dominique shares of her experiences with the Vital Village Network, breastfeeding, homeschooling, homebirth, and more!
Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Name: Dominique Graham
Title: Wife. Mom. Homeschooler. Breastfeeding Advocate. Blogger. Lover of Life.
Waetie Sanaa (WS): What led you to become connected to the Vital Village?
Dominique Graham (DG): I was recruited to the Vital Village Community Partnership by my daughter's teacher, Josette Williams, who is pretty active in the community. I did not know much about Vital Village before joining, but became involved because of my relationship with this woman.
WS: How have the people you have met encountered doing this work informed your own parenting approach and awareness of what children in the city need to thrive?
DG: Several people in the Vital Village Network and the relationships I have built have helped me have a clearer understanding of how I want to raise my children.
Meeting Berthilde Sylvester at a Vital Village Network Connection Meeting will always be a memorable moment. Berthilde noticed me nursing and we immediately bonded. Before her, I never met a mother who nursed longer than six months. Additionally, being a first time mother and breastfeeding in public was intimidating. Seeing Berthilde's beautiful smile while she shared her experiences as a mom with me was extremely comforting. I do not see Bethilde often, but that brief mother-to-mother connection was crucial in helping me build my village of support and still has a lasting impact till this day.
I also heard so much about Dominique Bellegarde before I actually met her. Rumor had it, she ran a breastfeeding class and busted out her own nipple to show the new mothers how to latch their precious babies. I only remember seeing a brown nipple once in my life and images are so powerful. My mouth dropped hearing this amazing mom talk about how influential Dominique's class was. I was disappointed I did not know about this group led by a local black mother willing to have meaningful dialogue and share her personal experiences. After hearing about Dominique for so long, I was blessed to finally meet this phenomenal woman in person.
Both Dominique and Berthilde are a part of the Vital Village Network doing one-of-a-kind and purposeful work.
I'm not sure what young people in the city need to thrive, but my family has greatly benefitted from this village of amazing people.
WS: You are so humble, Dominque. I can see from the way you interact and teach your kids that you know more than you think you do about ensuring that your kids thrive. It is also so great to meet another black mom who has taken advantage of homeschooling. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of this approach?
DG: Advantages include allowing our children to learn at their own pace, in the comfort of their home with their family. I also love that I am learning more about my daughter and her academic strengths. Most importantly, it's a decision our five year old made for herself and I'm happy we are able to support her choice. The disadvantage doesn't really have to do with homeschooling, but that fact that my children are with me 24/7, so I rarely get a break.
WS: In the US, any breastfeeding that extends beyond your child's first birthday is called extended breastfeeding... But, this term truly doesn't exist in many cultures, as breastfeeding is so routinely done for as long as mom and child desire. Perhaps there should be more specified terms in our culture for moms who breastfeed for short periods of time or who don't get support to breastfeed, which tends to be more common in our culture.
It sounds like being at home has also made it really easy to commit to extended breastfeeding? What do you see as the benefits so far for your girls?
DG: I am not sure… I do know children have milk teeth and they can nurse until those first set of teeth fall out. I'm not really sure what the benefits have been for our girls, I just prefer to give my children the best and I'm blessed that my body naturally produces nutrient rich meals specifically designed for what their bodies need. Therefore I will nurse as long as I can.
WS: That is so wonderful that you are willing and able to be relaxed about the end point of your nursing relationship. I know a lot of moms have a goal in mind and may have predetermined when they feel their child should stop breastfeeding. Sometimes there is disappointment or sadness if a baby chooses to wean before a mom is ready, and sometimes there is frustration and resentment when a mom feels that she is ready to have her body back to herself or her partner and the child should have weaned, but doesn't seem ready. Kudos to you that you seem open and neither urgent for her to continue nor stop in either direction.
At the same time, I know you made some pretty specific choices about how you wanted to give birth to and parent your second daughter after your first birth experience. What is it that you learned from that first experience that informed your second birth?
DG: After our first daughter was born, I felt defeated, traumatized, powerless and angry about my labor and delivery process. The moment I walked into the hospital, the staff wanted to induce my labor (via artificial drugs). I was told I could not scream. My birth plan was laughed at. I could only have two family members in the delivery room, but there were numerous strangers, like hospital staff, surrounding us. There were multiple tests that the hospital did on our child without my knowledge or consent. I didn't know much about the birthing experience but my instinct told me this is not how it should be.
I always want the best and I knew this was not. A colleague referred me to some home birthing midwifes and I am so grateful she did. Our home birth was the most beautiful, amazing and liberating experience. I even noticed the difference in our children. To give you a visual, the nurses rushed our first daughter off my chest to lay her on a hard, cold scale and left her there for what seemed like hours. Watching that video and hearing her wail in the background breaks my heart till this day.
On the contrary, my midwives at home allowed me to spend a significant amount of time with our youngest daughter on my chest before they placed her in a warm, cozy, sling-like scale and weighed her. She didn't make a sound, because she was so comfortable and treated with care and respect. I have multiple examples of how the experiences were different and I'm blessed to have had both. I find hospital births to be dehumanizing and not only would I recommend a home birth to every women, but I wish I could do it over and over again.
WS: I loved both of my births, which were both doula and midwife supported in two different hospitals, but I am far from wishing I could do it over and over again. I wish I felt that way, but I am super cautious and liked having the back up support of the hospital staff, should anything have gone wrong. After all, as African American women, there are huge disparities in our maternal and birthing outcomes that may or may not be attributed to the hospital setting. I do wonder if being at home would have allowed me to slip into that relaxed, sweet spot you describe or if I might have felt more anxious about what might go wrong. In any case, I can really see how very personal and specific these decisions are for everyone who chooses to birth.
Given your personal experiences, where do you see yourself making an impact in the Vital Village in the coming years?
DG: I’m not sure. I'm excited that Vital Village is in its 5th year and still going strong. I'm impressed by its growth.
When I started attending Vital Village meetings, I was seeking a local breastfeeding group, because me and a friend would drive an hour once a week to get to one. Now, the Breastfeeding Coalition hosts groups all over Boston. I'm also excited about the work with Fathers’ Uplift, another partner of Vital Village, who focuses on prenatal care for fathers and actually opened the first outpatient therapy program in the nation that is designed specifically for fathers.
Talk about making an impact. Vital Village is collaborating with some powerful organizations and I'm happy to be a part of that.
In regards to my personal impact, I'm taking my involvement one day at a time. Right now, I co-coordinate the Vital Village Mediators, a social justice approach to conflict-resolution. My passion lies in strengthening families, so I hope to work more with families.
WS: Well, on behalf of the Vital Village, I want to thank you so much for all of your efforts and I look forward to seeing each other around much more now that we have officially moved to Boston!
DG: And thank you.
By: Waetie Sanaa Cooper Burnette
One of the biggest transitions I have made over the past five years has been integrating who I was before kids with who I am now. As a woman of color, and a child of immigrants, it seemed revolutionary for me to slow down my work schedule to ensure that I could spend some time at home with each of my children. Living in a working class community, I know that the extended time I had with my children to play, go to the beach, or a museum, or simply observe and cheer them on as they mastered a new skill was truly a luxury. While this decision came at great financial cost, I still feel confident that this time was extremely beneficial to their development and their bond with me and our community. Given my experience, I was not surprised to read that pregnancy & childbirth (especially for mothers 18 & under) can lead to a rise in homelessness without adequate financial & familial support in “Pregnancy and Childbirth: Risk Factors for Homelessness?” by Beth C. Weitzman.
Children require ample time and care, and most new families experience a huge increase in responsibilities which can be overwhelming for even the most capable mom. And, for moms who may already be at risk or struggling to stay afloat, anticipating what will be needed financially when planning for a new baby can be really stressful. Since I love to observe and learn from other moms, I have learned many resources and strategies to plan for the financial costs associated with becoming a new family. See below strategies for new families trying to balance everything whether working inside or outside of their homes.
1. Clothes swap: Plan to swap baby clothes with family, friends, or neighbors who have children older and younger than your child. Those who are done having kids are often eager to pass their gently used clothing along and you will be able to pass along the items you are done with to other families who seem interested in saving money.
2. Working: Being able to work (if you choose or need to do so) after your baby is born can assist you to stay on top of all of the many new bills you can expect.
State support: Call 211, our state’s emergency assistance and information hotline for all kinds of resources, but especially to put your child on the waitlist for daycare/ afterschool/ summer camp assistance. You can get on this waitlist as soon as you can confirm that you are pregnant, and, if your family is income eligible at the time your child is born, this voucher can assist your family with the costs of child care from the time they are born until they turn 13. You will be required to work 20 to 30 hours and your family’s income will be used to determine what percentage of the daycare fees you will pay.
3. Delay utility payments: Mail a copy of your birth certificate or verification of your child’s birth from your stay in the hospital to your utility company to delay payments and avoid shut offs for the first year of your child’s life. This way, if you need some time to catch up with those payments, you give yourself some wiggle room as you adapt to the many new expenses of parenting a young child. In addition, if you qualify for any other state benefits, you may also qualify for a reduced rate on some of your utility charges.
4. Food pantries: If you are like many families who are working, and, yet, don’t qualify for many state benefits, one option that can greatly assist you and is open to all families is your local food pantry. The majority of pantries do not have an income guideline, and understand that college costs, mortgage, and other situations can lead families to struggle to put enough food on the table. Each program and its requirements are very specific, and may require participation/ enrollment prior to the very day you need services, so you should consult each program with your questions and plan which programs will be most helpful to your family.
Holidays: Some pantries also assist with gifts for your children during the Christmas holiday, or gift cards to assist with the costs of Thanksgiving.
5. Breastfeed: Besides breastfeeding being free, portable, and always the right temperature, children who are breastfed tend to have less health needs/ interventions over the course of their lives. Making a plan for how you can breastfeed directly or using a pump while you are away will greatly assist you in reducing costs. Also, it will help for you and your child to feel connected.
Breast pumps: Currently, insurance companies will pay for an average size breast pump once your child is born. In addition, you can also get retired models that are hospital grade (so more efficient at pumping) from medical supply companies at greatly reduced rates.
6. Women, Infants, and Children (WIC): Did you know that only about half of all families who are eligible for WIC actually access these benefits which greatly assist pregnant, nursing, and families with children under the age of five? It is believed that lack of information, shame, and pride over accessing state benefits may potentially prevent some families from applying for this valuable resource. Prior to applying, it is possible to get an idea of your likely eligibility here. If you decide to apply, you can do so at any WIC office that is convenient to you, regardless of whether you live in that town or not.
7. Housing: Housing is one of the most expensive items that families pay for on a monthly basis. Sharing your space, whether with family or friends, is one way to reduce those monthly costs. Websites like Co-Abode help single mothers find other single mothers to share living space. If you have extra room in your home, there are also many organizations such as the American Language Programs are always looking for native or proficient English speakers who know their communities well and are willing to rent a room or two on a short term basis to students or professionals learning English during their visits to the US. For hosts who routinely have good reviews, this can be a good source of supplemental income.
8. Domestic Violence and Abusive Situation Leave Act: Many studies show that "women are at an increased risk of experiencing violence from an intimate partner during pregnancy". In addition, "If domestic and family violence already exists, it is likely to increase in severity during pregnancy." At the same time, early parenthood is a time when early interventions are possible with the help of the variety of professionals who are available to assist women as they make healthier choices. Since we know that moms may choose to stay in unhealthy relationships for financial reasons, one great stabilizing resource for moms at any stage of parenting is the Domestic Violence and Abusive Situation Leave Act. This Act allows any employee to take a maximum of 15 days of time off in a 12 month period if either the employee or their family member needs time to address issues related to an abusive situation. Keeping communication open enough with your workplace that you can get the appropriate support to keep your financial life on track is just another way to ensure that you maintain the stability that your child needs during that first year of life. (Your employer is required to publicize and share all of the details related to this act with you, so make sure your human resources manual is updated).
9. Stay connected: Find ways to get connected to or maintain connection with as many family, religious, and community members as you can, as these people and resources are a major preventative factor in your ability to transition well into your role as a parent as you access the communal wisdom of those who have parented before you. Being connected allows you to ask questions and solve problems when they are small instead of remaining isolated and waiting until things are totally out of control. Despite what you may think, there are always others in your community who have walked a similar path to your own in the past. It will always take time and patience to find those companions, guides, and mentors who are meant to share your journey with you.
What are Birth Intentions you might ask?
It’s your vision of how you would like to welcome your baby into the world. (Some people also call this a birth plan). By taking time to build the community around yourself and your baby on his/her 1st day of life, you can enter the experience of motherhood with a vision of things going well from the start!
Here is a brief list of some of the parts you might include in your Birth Intentions/ Birth Plan. Feel free to research “birth plan” and “birth intentions” online or talk to other moms for many other examples of things you might include. You will find a variety of popular notes that a plan would usually include, but your plan can be as unique as you, addressing as little or as much as you think needs to be widely shared. Some of the common areas that many mothers/ mothers to be consider addressing in this document would include:
A. Who will be there to support you? For example, your partner, mom, best friend, or doula (trained person who is there to help give you support during labor, birth, and after the birth, if you need it) are common choices.
B. Who might want to be in the room but should best stay in the family waiting area until the baby is born? It might be that your partner or mother in law is not the best person to support you during the birth. If that is the case, the hospital staff are experts at helping to protect your space and keep it peaceful. You can talk to them in advance about who is welcome in your space during the birth and afterwards.
C. How can your midwife or doctor support your family to support you? In those meetings before you give birth, you want to talk about what will make things go well for you! Some of the common things one might do to make your space more comfortable would include: Bringing your own music to play as you labor or bringing pictures of quotes or people for your room help you to feel more at home. When you tour your hospital a few months before the birth, this is a good time to find out what they allow and get ideas of how to ease your nerves prior to the birth.
D. Notes/ requests for the hospital during your labor might include:
I prefer the use of the shower and to be immersed in water for as long as that helps with the pain.
I am requesting intermittent monitoring (instead of being hooked up which means you cannot get out of bed) so that I can labor in any position that seems helpful.
E. Notes/ requests for after the baby is born. Some of my requests included: Please delay cord clamping until the cord has stopped pulsating.
F. Newborn Care Requests: Examples include: I request that our baby receive nothing other than my breast milk by mouth without my specific permission (i.e. no formula, sugar solution, etc.) Offering the baby these other solutions has the capacity to interfere with their natural hunger and desire to focus on getting your colostrum or breast milk.
G. Unexpected Contingencies include: In the event that complications arise making a cesarean surgery necessary, I would like my sister to remain with me at all times including during any pre-op procedures/spinal insertion. I would also like to maintain at least one free arm to touch or hold our baby after delivery.
Once you create your plan, review it with your doctor/ midwife, and bring several copies to share with the people who will support you on the big day! A page of information is usually more than enough to capture the attention of your providers without being so long that they forget what is most important.
Waetie Sanaa Cooper Burnette has always been passionate about her faith, educational access, children’s rights, and community building. You can read more about her and her journey to embrace her call as a child and educational advocate here.