When I was in my late teens, I overheard an elder relative make a disparaging comment about one of my uncle’s wives and how her “old nasty breast milk” was to blame for some minor ailment my baby cousin had.
I knew nothing about breastfeeding at the time and had never really known anyone who had chosen to nurse their babies. What struck me, however, was the level of force that this relative used to spew such venom. Little did I know, those three words would continue their assault on me nearly ten years later when I began my own motherhood journey.
I walked away from that conversation with some negative ideas about breastfeeding. Thankfully, that all changed when my daughter was born. Knowledge of the benefits of breastfeeding had helped me to erase the stigma that my relative had unwittingly attached to the act. I came to realize was nursing one of the best things I could do for my baby. And though it has its challenging moments, the benefits have outweighed the difficulties. Still, my relative’s words would continue to haunt me.
“And then, she said it was because of her ‘old nasty breast milk,’” I recalled to my husband as we sat in our living room tearing into some takeout and shooting the breeze — a rare occurrence since the birth of our daughter. Taking care of a brand new baby didn’t leave us with much time to sit down and eat together, let alone engage one another in meaningful conversation.
“I didn’t recognize the full magnitude of her comments at the time, but it feels like an extremely mean thing to say in retrospect,” I continued. “I don’t know what I would do if someone said that to me. I’d probably cry.”
No sooner than the words left my mouth, could I feel tears stinging my eyes. I tried to put on a strong face. Hormones had been running amok on my emotions and the mere thought of certain things could turn me into a weeping willow in a matter of seconds.
“Let’s change the subject,” my spouse said, seeing where things were going.
Just a couple of weeks later, I learned that the same relative was back on her anti-breastfeeding campaign because someone had told her I was nursing my daughter. Over the next several months, my decision to breastfeed would be blamed for any difficulty we experienced.
Baby not sleeping through the night, yet?
Girl, it’s that breast milk.
Baby got a little gas?
It’s definitely the breast milk.
Baby a little clingy?
Chile, I’m trying to tell you it’s that breast milk!
I now recognize that my relative’s comments were less rooted in malice and more so the result of a lack of understanding, but that didn’t make her words less hurtful, emotionally exhausting, or discouraging.
Last month, results of a governmental study published by the Center for Disease Control confirmed that large racial disparities still exist in regard to mothers who breastfeed. Collecting their data from the National Immunization Survey-Child, researches found that 83 percent of moms in the United States breastfeed their babies. Unfortunately, only 69 percent of Black mothers reported that they breastfeed their babies in comparison to 85 percent of white women who reported that they did. In addition to having the lowest breastfeeding rates, on average, Black women also breastfeed for the shortest duration of time: 6.5 weeks. It’s recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics that Black women exclusively breastfeed their babies for at least the first six months of life and then combine breastfeeding with solids up until 12 months of age.
Reasons for the racial disparity among breastfeeding mothers ranges from Black women returning to work earlier, having limited access to professional support, and not receiving as much information about breastfeeding from their healthcare providers to a lack of support within their communities.
Despite this uncomfortable back and forth with my loved one, I was able to persevere. I continued breastfeeding through my daughter’s first year of life and I intend to continue until she is at least 12 months old as recommended by the AAP. Here’s what I’ve learned about staying motivated on this journey when your loved ones are not being supportive.
Surround yourself with likeminded women
Joining a local mommy group took me out of my bubble and exposed me to other moms. The sense of comradery that we were able to build helped to keep me motivated in this journey. It also helped me realize I wasn’t the only one being discouraged by the off-color comments of loved ones. We were all going through it regardless of our racial backgrounds. Community is so important in this regard. Online platforms such as Baby Center, which allow you to connect with other breastfeeding moms, were also helpful.
Listen to the loved ones who support you on this journey
My mother and a former coworker have been my biggest supporters on this journey. When times were particularly challenging, I leaned on them.
Stop the information train
If there are relatives who are particularly unsupportive, stop giving them information about what you’re going through. They can’t comment on what they don’t know.
Get with a lactation consultant
Breastfeeding for the first time comes with its share of hiccups, lactation consultants can help and their services are covered by most insurance plans.
Knowledge is power. As you continue to learn, it will lessen the likelihood of you being swayed by the opinions of others. Articles, podcasts, books, and breastfeeding-related social media accounts are all great resources.
Recognize that this too shall pass
Breastfeeding is hard as hell when you first begin but take comfort in knowing that it won’t always be this difficult.