Is ‘Right Now’ just too soon to truly change breastfeeding culture?

Over the past while I’ve really been thinking about what it means to truly change breastfeeding culture. More specifically, I’ve had thoughts on what it mean that so many promotions want changes in breastfeeding culture to usually happen right away. I often times come across, as well as, hear about statistics on who’s getting a baby to the breast and who is supposedly lagging behind and, even though I haven’t given as much thought to this area at this point I have had some things that sort of stick with me, in terms of wondering if the current breastfeeding ‘hype’ is truly a way that Black people can forge real, long-term changes.

When I say breastfeeding ‘hype’ what I mean by this is that, just like other things tend to flow in a general direction in certain time frames —  popular ideas of the day — it seems like there’s a trend in natural birth and breastfeeding. Of course I don’t think there’s anything wrong with natural birth and breastfeeding. The opposite is true, but I tend to look a little more in-depth at some things.

A few years back, I was at a fundraiser luncheon for one of the reproduction organizations here in Seattle. I can’t remember which one it was, but what I do recall is that the keynote speaker, a Black male, mentioned during his speech that I can only paraphrase here — is that in his day babies were born at home. He mentioned that it wasn’t because it was the trendy or popular thing to do at that time, like it seems to be today as he stated, but that it happened because that’s just the way it was. Not so long after that I remember going to see political figure, Angela Davis, when she was in town around here. During the Q & A I asked her a question about activists disconnecting for a moment due to burnout and also about frustrations from apathetic society and not seeing the changes that we want — and on political activism in general. I remember her answering and saying that the things we want — the changes that we seek — will not happen tomorrow. But we should act as if they were possible, and work with future generations in mind. Even though my question then did not necessarily fall within the boundaries of what my sentiments are now — one was about apathetic society the other was about about following a popular trend, it did stick with me about working with future generations. This, of course highlights that there is a lot of work to do that is difficult. It requires a deeper understanding to effect change on a larger, more concrete level.

In the early 2000s when I was somewhere in my almost late 20s or — maybe in my late 20s — I actually think I had just turned 27, I was in therapy. One of the biggest areas of emotional distress for me was not being able to deal with the fact that my mother had recently died. It was something we just were not expecting. Along with being subjected to all of the traumatic and dramatic events surrounding it, my marriage then was ripped apart at the seams at the same time my mom died — and this was all just the beginning. I actually saw a few different therapists, but one in particular — one day she and I were in a session. Here — again — I don’t remember exactly what I had discussed with her in that instance that had to do with my overall reasons for seeing her, but I do remember specifically that time in particular her telling me that true happiness comes from within. That it’s not about someone constantly providing you with compliments and effusive praise, telling you how great and beautiful you are and how wonderful they think you are [not that folks can’t be held in this regard by others. But really these are feel-good moments that last only until the ‘kudos’ stop rolling in]. But it is internal. Her statement may sound like it is mundane to some folks. And I know that there are some others who can relate when I say that for me — back then — I did not understand what she meant. I heard the words that she spoke, of course — I was sitting just feet across from her. But I didn’t have the overall capacity at that time to place what she said within a larger index of inner well-being. I could say that maybe it was because I was just young and naive. Or, I could also say that many — if not — most, and probably even most all of us have been conditioned to believe that our validation comes from external sources — and we’ve gone with the overarching narrative. This therapist ended up moving away so I didn’t continue my sessions with her. And maybe this is the reason that it wasn’t until some time later — probably about 5 years — when I had what I believe to be a spiritual revelation about some things that were about to change in my life for the better, is when I found out exactly what this meant and is when I learned how to get to the root of many of the things that plagued me. It was a process. And it took time. It wasn’t anything anyone else could offer me: I had to go deep within myself to examine those areas. I could receive guidance on how this could be accomplished, and also some encouragement which I did then and I still reference. But outside sources could not provide what I could provide for myself.

What I see a lot of today, at least I believe it is so, is following trends in breastfeeding and also wanting things to happen right away, and looking to the wrong sources — just like in my examples above. I’m not saying that breastfeeding advocacy and promotion shouldn’t happen and we should let women huff it out on their own, or not look to get breastfeeding relationships started now. That’s egregious. I’m also not saying there aren’t structural forces that also play a significant role in who’s breastfeeding and who isn’t, and why we’re even having this conversation to begin with. We know this. But what I do believe is not only that the overall social climate we see today mimics the way other dominant perspectives in different eras have been seen and performed — using Black women as wet nurses was once the trend, nursing on a fixed schedule was once the dominant ideology. And, although there are various efforts to move away from infant formula it is still the norm in many cases. Now that overarching sentiments tells us through so-called ‘scientific evidence’ that we need to breastfeed our children, everyone moves in that direction. When I have seen and have read statistics on breastfeeding and hear what entities such as the World Health Organization wants, or what UNICEF is saying and even how ‘XYZ’ organization is making suggestions and telling folks how we should do what, it seems like a vast majority of people move along that direction. It’s almost akin to the idea of celebrity promotion within breastfeeding. Aside from the problems of giving in to different power sources that I believe only continue to dominate people, what will arise if — and perhaps — when — the pendulum swings in a different direction (i.e. when society once again says we shouldn’t breastfeed?). It’s also a one-sided way of promoting.

I notice that for me I don’t necessarily work that way. I’ve noticed that I don’t necessarily work to change breastfeeding rates here and now. Of course I’m happy to see anyone breastfeeding their child, and the work that I do inevitably moves in that direction. But in my mind getting a baby to a breast just isn’t enough.

I believe that breastfeeding is a superficial act in the grand scheme of things. Yes, it’s biological and is extremely important and powerful. But I believe that it is simply a manifestation of a larger set of social, and cultural dynamics that could perhaps be examined in a new light, to get to the greater areas of significance. It requires a different approach for us and for our communities and extends beyond telling someone how great breastfeeding is for overall society and why they should be doing it. There are more critical approaches in breastfeeding promotion that need to be examined that will allow us to uproot these areas that have plagued Black breastfeeding and offer an overall level of well-being that will not only transform our breastfeeding circumstances but will aid in truly healing our communities. In order to get to this place it requires moving far beyond what mainstream bodies of knowledge can offer us. We must also recognize that the change is a process that won’t happen tomorrow, but that we need to take ourselves (our breastfeeding activists) where others just can’t take us –  within our communities and looking at internal, external, in the past as well as to the future. Things are different for Black women. We have a different story and it requires a different, more dynamic set of tools to work with.

I think that a starting point would be a good brainstorm in spaces that center Black breastfeeding. This will allow those who are interested in working these critical angles to begin to parse out different levels of understanding and offer different insights on ways that can traverse the superficial aspects in breastfeeding and reach beyond topical layers that too often only involve milk. I personally don’t think that actual, lasting and true positive transformation in Black breastfeeding culture can happen without recognizing this.

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