By: Waetie Sanaa Cooper Burnette
So, it’s November, but I refuse to believe that, just because October has passed, I have missed a chance to highlight Domestic Violence Awareness or a few of my kids' many awesome Halloween costumes. Because, as it turns out, there is a strong, often unnoticed, connection between these two celebrations. Let me explain.
In all of my early childhood graduate studies at Lesley University, I am coming to see more and more deeply how important play and experimentation is to every child and adult’s sense of self and feelings of safety. When we are playing, we are most ourselves, and most lost in the moment, something that can be hard or almost impossible to do if we don’t feel a certain amount of safety. Halloween, by its nature, while it can have a scary focus for those who are older, has a different focus for most of the little guys. For those who don’t seek out fear, or the many children with special needs who have limited tolerance for spooky events, Halloween is often about reinvention and stepping out of the role of young and powerless child and into the role of super hero, or some other fantastic person from history or our cultural imagination. And, truly, all survivors of domestic violence in its many forms, and there are many of us, know what it means to be afraid and/or unable to fully show up and offer the very best of ourselves because of the present or past demons that haunt us. There comes a time when it takes courage to even pretend to fully show up when we know we would rather just stay home under the covers or scrolling on our phones! Because even when the sources of our painful experiences are no longer present, we need to begin the scary but important journey of figuring out who we are, separate from simply being a survivor. It takes the shedding of old skin, which may often feel like putting on a costume, as we try out new ways of being.
Knowing how important lots of uninhibited time to play and experiment is for all of us, I have loved having the opportunity to see my children’s personalities grow and develop from the highly dependent babies that they once were and transition into more interdependent young people with their own unique and fascinating interests. Whether it’s Halloween or not, when my kids ask to play dress up, my answer is usually a resounding, “Yes!” Because I know intrinsically that, no matter how young or small they may be, experimenting with being powerful, capable, and invisible is great practice at any age.
In fact, today, when we got ready for our trip to the Boston Children’s Museum, my son wanted to go in his Batman costume, and this decision inspired my daughter to go in her Princess dress. These were easy requests to make happen, and they loved all the attention they received throughout the day on the train and bus rides into the heart of the city. Over the course of our time at the museum, I watched as they played, dreamed, explored, and climbed on the various exhibits, and thought about all of the ways I have tried to create an environment in which they feel completely safe and free to be whoever their hearts’ desire. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to be at home with them for a significant portion of each of their lives, and that I have been able to advocate for and persist in my expectation that they deserve high quality educational opportunities and/or care when I am at work. Watching them soak up the many benefits of all that we have already done and seen in their early years has been more powerful than I could have imagined.
As African-Americans, it is also far from lost on me that, in the context of our country’s history of enslavement, that only a few generations ago, the many small, simple pleasures and protections that my children enjoy—freedom to explore, to pursue their interests, and to take for granted that they will remain connected to a large extended community of family and friends-- were impossible for so many of our people to attain. So, as I think about how we increase maternal wellness, breastfeeding rates, and reproductive justice for our segment of the population, I am also required to factor in that legacy of oppression along with the many studies that report on the major and persistent health inequities between women of color and white women. For example, “African-American women and Latinas [still] experience higher rates of intimate partner violence and abuse, up to 35 percent more than white women, making the intimacy of breastfeeding and nurturing an infant much more difficult.” (You can read more about why these two issues of violence and breastfeeding are intrinsically connected here at Rewire News). And, over a long and repeated period of time, all types of violence will eventually get in the way of our capacity to stay light-hearted and maintain the kind of playful and loving environment in which we all thrive.
The idea that how we parent, how we relate to one another as adults, and the environment we create in our families, schools, and communities will impact the kind of adults, community members, and leaders our society produces is not a new one, but it still seems that many in our society do not see that babies and young children who see peace of mind and the assumption of safety as a birthright will be adults who extend those peaceful structures in a variety of ways. Recognizing the importance of all of these various experiences and settings helps me remember that the spontaneity, joy, levity, peace, and freedom to create and re-invent, all which I seek for myself and my children, cannot be fostered in an environment in which family or community members feel perpetually unsafe. Even when home isn’t safe, there are many who find safe havens in places like our YMCA’s, boys’ and girls’ clubs, churches, mosques, synagogues, schools, and other community gathering places that provide the supportive space to explore and just be. For our youngest community members, we need to create and support more and more places where they can reliably go and know that they will be safe from violence and chaos of all kinds, including corporal punishment or other oppressive strategies of gaining compliance from our children. I say this fully cognizant of the fact that while African- Americans have a variety of view-points on various parenting practices, corporal punishment continues to be a common and widely accepted approach across many different segments of our communities. While younger generations seem more open to other practices, many hold onto this tradition due to the belief that if we spare the rod, we will spoil our children. Our desire to ensure that our children are highly disciplined as they navigate the challenges of being people of color outside of our homes can then lead us to be overly rigid in our expectations, regardless of our children's developmental stages and needs. This is in spite of the fact that there is significant research, like from the American Psychological Association and this fascinating discussion in Slate magazine, that explores why corporal punishment simply does not work in the long term.
But, despite all of this data, cultural practices still die hard, and going against the grain does take courage. And yet I persist in thinking that greater awareness and understanding of the many things we can do to assist families to thrive and don’t cost a dime are important to reiterate. Because I find an amazing parallel between the many barriers which make it difficult for us to commit to breastfeeding and family dinners (two protective practices which evidence routinely finds to be a bonus for babies and families) and those that prevent us from finding the time and patience to research and implement discipline measures that are not physical. In both cases, our adherence to intergenerational traditions and pressure to do things in the way that they have always been done can truly be counterproductive. Confronting and transforming these patterns is delicate and labor-intensive work that does not happen overnight. But, when I look at my Batman and my little princess, I know that I cannot succeed in teaching them that the human body is beloved, precious, and to be treasured while using or affirming that physical discipline is an acceptable way to direct and control their behavior. The Kingdom and Queendom that I imagine for these two is filled with opportunities for communication, support, negotiation, compromise, and, of course, lots of play! So while it is a challenge to build and nurture these spaces, it’s the kind of challenge that seems large enough and worthwhile enough for me and my family to focus upon for many years and generations to come!
If you are interested in continuing this conversation, join us at Vital Village’s Network Connection Meeting “Courageous Conversations on Child Discipline”, which will be co-hosted by the Suffolk County Sheriff's Department and Father’s Uplift on February 12, 2018 from 6-8 PM at 72 East Concord Street.
By: Waetie Sanaa Cooper Burnette
It was the first day at a training and we were exploring race, entitlement, class, and power when something so different happened that it has virtually changed the way I enter a room ever since. Right after the organizer was sure that everyone was seated and comfortable in this group that was about 50% people of color and 50% white, ranging in age from 18 to 70 or so, she asked everyone to take note of where they were seated and why. (Most of us had not consciously thought about it that day and our discussions over lunch and the rest of the event were extremely fascinating). The room was set up with a semi-circle of about 4 couches in the center of the room with about 3 or 4 spots in each one. Flanked around all of these seats were many folding chairs and a few bean bags on the floor. The room was filled to capacity, and because there were not enough seats for everyone, there were quite a few people sitting on the floor as well. She chose to ask the participants if they felt comfortable revealing their class and ethnic backgrounds, and it was revealed that every single person sitting on the couch was middle to upper class and most were white. We continued around the room and discovered that several people on the floor, but not all, were working class or raised poor and people of color. The organizer then asked for everyone to shift around and that those in the couches get up and give their seats to some of the people on the floor and we continued on with the training. The thoughts and feelings that this opening exercise brought to the surface were raw and powerful, and one of the most effective explorations of entitlement that I have ever seen. Why? Because I was sitting on the floor on a beanie bag, and I could clearly see that what seemed like the natural order of things, or at least what felt fine and comfortable to me, would not always be in my best interest. Can you see how this story is intimately connected to Black Breastfeeding Week? If not, please let me explain further.
Where we each sit or stand or are permitted to breastfeed in peace within our society is a combination of so many factors, but this telling story taught me that my own cooperation and internalization of the values of that system can be problematic. It highlights for me that allowing others to direct me or tacitly shame me in order to define where it is ok for me to breastfeed is just as unhealthy as being explicitly ordered to sit in the back of the bus. Many of our laws no longer overtly tell nursing moms where to sit or stand, but we must be aware of the ways we are complicit in a set up that prevents us from using our gifts and skills and keep us isolated or silent when we should be leading, connected, in the center, or, at the very least, present, with or without our children at our breasts. Even worse, we must face the fact that these ongoing efforts to circumscribe where we can breastfeed is deeply linked with the reason that so many of us struggle to reach our own breastfeeding goals.
In my case, as a result of sheer repetition, I am now much better at sizing up who is in the room and choosing (or negotiating) a spot that maximizes my ability to be a participant and a breastfeeding mom/ parent who may need to step out at various times. Sadly, requesting that another person make space, finding a different kind of chair, or making room for a seat on the aisle should be a pretty simple request. But one never knows when this small shift in set up will ruffle feathers or be completely welcomed and seamless. Let me give you a few examples in my journey as a black breastfeeding mom.
A few months after my son was born, after my confidence in breastfeeding him had grown, I began to get out quite a bit and was amazed at how often random people felt comfortable instructing me about what was and was not ok about breastfeeding. It got to the point where I would express milk for a bottle in advance so that I wouldn’t have to deal with so many comments or find myself isolated and feeding my son in a separate space that was away from the event I was supposed to be attending. I remember visiting a new church and, despite being covered and having a quiet baby nursing under a cover, there was always the well-meaning older woman who would offer to direct me to the cry room or the equivalent in a back room. Initially, I would often take the offer to be seated elsewhere, feeling shamed, caught, as if I had broken some unspoken rule. But, when I learned that one of the number one reasons that women of color continue to have a hard time breastfeeding is because of discomfort doing so in a variety of public settings, I became an evangelist of sorts of breastfeeding in public. The very next time someone felt comfortable enough to ask me to go somewhere else while I was breastfeeding, I did not skip a beat in asking, “Does my feeding my baby here make you uncomfortable?” Asking this question, has allowed me to identify and question the elephant in the room directly. Usually, the person is so surprised that I am not immediately compliant that they just stammer and walk away. No one has yet to respond with any reasonable reason that a quiet, happily feeding baby is a problem in any environment, but it doesn’t mean that anyone necessarily apologizes either. After all, it is I who seems to be the major transgressor or the one who simply won’t be obedient to our socially constructed rules that keep us cloistered and separated for large parts of the day.
The more I learned about breastfeeding and how stressed out moms of all kinds of backgrounds are feeling about the comments, stares, and re-directions they constantly receive in regards to their bodies and breastfeeding, the more interested I became in informing myself and sharing more information about why it is important for me to be able to breastfeed my baby in any place that I need or want to be as a mom.
By the time my daughter was born, I was much more comfortable breastfeeding and adapting to all kinds of situations so that she would be fed and I could still be connected to the group. I remember being at the doctor’s office getting one of her first rounds of required shots and explaining to the nurse that I wanted her to nurse while she got the shot so that it could be a pain reliever. She looked at me incredulously and told me that she would need to check with her supervisor. I said that that was fine and explained that I had thought of this because of a recent study I had read on the subject. She returned to the room with two additional staff members who wanted to hear more about this idea, but stared at me as if I had two heads as I explained how I could just kneel on the ground so that I could be connected to her while they gave her the shot. For some reason, it was their protocol to strap infants down for the shot, something that hadn’t been the case with my son at another provider, and they explained that they were not convinced that it could work or that she would stay latched, but I could try. So, we went forward with the plan, and after the needle was inserted she let out one little yelp before lunging back for the breast. I had them immediately unstrap her and she nursed vigorously for another 20 minutes afterwards with an occasional tear dripping down her face. While, in the moment, I knew I was doing what was right for me and my family, it is only recently that we have irrefutable evidence that these kinds of practices are truly best for babies. See here from the Daily Mail “Breastfeeding helps babies feel less pain” or here from “Kelly Mom.”
This was just one of the many times since I have begun my parenting journey where I have had to adapt my life, my body, the protocol, the set up, etc. to meet my child’s needs based on my knowledge of best practices. Remembering that I will often have to go out of my way in order to ensure that I can balance my children’s and my own needs along with the organization or group we are dealing with makes me think critically about who is in the room and how things can or should be improved to make all who breastfeed more at peace as we do the simple and nurturing act of feeding our children.
Join me and the Boston Breastfeeding Coalition as we celebrate Black Breastfeeding Week and we Lift Every Baby at The Hood Milk Bottle by the Boston Children’s Museum at 10am on Thursday, 8/31. More information here.
By: Waetie Sanaa Cooper Burnette
Waetie Sanaa and her 2.5 year old nursing and enjoying pizza at Dudley Dough, Roxbury
It’s Black Breastfeeding Week and I have been charged by the Black Mamas Matter Alliance and our mission at Vital Village, to examine and promote all of the different ways that black mothers excel and thrive at mothering in spite of sexism, racism, and institutional oppression. We highlight breastfeeding during this week in an attempt to encourage more moms to find the support to meet their own goals, but acknowledge that breastfeeding is far from the only way that we can excel at giving our families the very best that we can. Ultimately, part of that work as BMMA has defined it is: challenging the negative stereotypes that communicate that black women are capable and best at mothering everyone else’s children but their own. One of the ways we can do this is by sharing our own mothering narratives. Today, I offer a part of my story and what motivates me to do this work.
When I imagined motherhood, before becoming a mother of two, I never anticipated how much time I would have to spend seeking out the many perspectives and voices who specialize in what it means to raise children of color to become healthy and whole. It took becoming a parent and reading a lot of parenting magazines to see how little our day to day concerns are featured in the national parenting dialogue. As a child of immigrants who was greatly formed by growing up in Cambridge, MA, and the example of my parents assisting so many adults and their children to resettle here after the Liberian civil war, I look back and realize how much our family has overcome without any road map and how much further we still have to go.
So, while it was my day off from parenting today, and I could have very well been walking in the streets as a part of the protest of the Free Speech Rally, organized by the Boston Free Speech Coalition, I am instead at home writing. I am very grateful that there are so many willing residents of Boston and activists from across the country who will be walking from Roxbury to the Boston Common to communicate their lack of support for the racist and anti-Semitic speech and thinking that fueled the recent outburst of violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. As an African American single mom, and a writer, my own activist journey begins and ends with fitting my activism around my children’s needs and priorities, and making sure I make it home safely each night. This is not so much out of fear but pragmatism.
March, or no march, I will continue to face an ongoing battle between challenging the structures of an oppressive and sometimes violent society and learning how to spread the mission of Christ in a way that extends love and understanding to those who are most marginalized as well as to those who are so successful or removed from the spirit that God (and social justice matters) seem irrelevant. Because, we black moms, like most parents, want to create enough sanctuary and peace for our children to grow up healthy and whole, but we cannot do that without addressing and facing the fact that there are real systematic barriers to overcome for our children to succeed and learn to lift as they climb. It is a complicated balance that I aim to strike, and one that I will continue to explore in this blog and elsewhere.
One of the reasons I love writing this blog is that I get to draw upon my over 15 years of experience recruiting, coaching, and working as a dorm parent in private, boarding school environments as well as my time working with recent immigrants and parents of young children in poor communities. I am dedicated to filling in more of the roadmap for families of color who struggle to see the resources that can be at our fingertips if we avail ourselves and share our knowledge. Some of those resources are institutional, but many of them are people in our Vital Village Network and beyond who have a wealth of insight to share. And, as I teach and share, I am in the process of both raising my children and continuing my own learning as a Masters student in Early Education and learning through the arts at Lesley University. I am learning so much in school about the bedrocks of child development in the early years, literacy, social emotional learning, and special needs students, but it has been my extremely varied life experiences living in very wealthy and very poor communities and advocating for my family and friends that have taught me that parenting has its real challenges no matter where you choose do it! It took my own failed marriage with two young children in tow for me to not only be greatly humbled but awakened to all of the questions and reflections that now form the crux of my life’s work: what is it about parenting that we can all do to raise our children of color well that is not simply about moving to a predominantly white neighborhood and creating the exclusive and expensive existence that seems to be heralded in article after article in so many parenting resources? Because, while more money can help, I think its also important to remember that our consistent and genuine efforts to create opportunities and seek out positive experiences for our children can matter just as much.
Actual parenthood has taught me how important it is for me and others to talk and write about how we nurture our children and give them not necessarily the best of everything, as society defines it, but the best chance at learning how to emerge from their younger years feeling loved, whole, and capable of sharing their unique gifts with the world. My hope is that this blog will offer a view point that explicitly and consistently acknowledges how race, class, and so many other factors can impact our parenting journeys. By interviewing our partners in the Vital village and expanding our base of resources, I hope to offer content that is written by, for, and about us, and helps to fill in what I see as a hole within many parenting magazines and online forums. During times like Black Breastfeeding Week, we get to acknowledge that there are aspects of being a black mom that are just like everyone else, but it is also ok to talk about those aspects which are altered by race and/or sex. We get to recognize that some of the decision making and support we need to make expert choices on behalf of our children of color is very unique to parenting in the United States. Black Breastfeeding Week is all about centering ourselves, our stories, and our successes, in spite of the fact that we are so often presented with a predominantly white, middle class, two-parent focused, heterosexual model of how our lives and parenting should look. This is a week where we get to look each other in the eyes and deeply affirm and highlight the reality of how our parenting journeys actually are and continue to support one another as we aspire to be the best parents we can be!
Join me and the Boston Breastfeeding Coalition as we celebrate Black Breastfeeding Week and we Lift Every Baby at The Hood Milk Bottle by the Boston Children’s Museum at 10am on Thursday, 8/31. More information here.
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.
Daily Milk hosts articles, posts and ideas from various members of our breastfeeding coalition! Our regular contributor, Waetie Sanaa, shares stories on children and parent's rights, maternal wellness, and all things breastfeeding.