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.
Daily Milk hosts articles, posts and ideas from various members of our breastfeeding coalition!