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.