Why Don’t Black Women Want to Breastfeed?

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When you teach sex ed and parenting skills you’ll find yourself in the middle of all kinds of controversial conversations ignited by people’s personal values and fueled by judgment.  A few weeks ago I was sent to market a parenting program to patients anxiously awaiting their pre-natal appointments in a clinic located in a low-income neighborhood of Philadelphia.  This clinic was frequented by a population of African-Americans, women from the Caribbean islands and women of African descent.  In an effort to entertain and educate a room full of impatient, pregnant woman, the nurse practitioner took it upon herself to highlight different pregnancy and childbirth discussions each week.  Today she took a funny but informative look at breastfeeding.

“I just can’t imagine breastfeeding my child with the same organs I use to satisfy my man,” remarked a young woman who appeared completely disgusted.  “Instead of having one crying and hungry mouth, I’ll have two.  I’ll pass,” commented another young mother.  I found myself questioning my own feelings about breastfeeding, which before that day I had inconclusively assumed was not for me.  My mom was just finishing up school and starting her career when she had me so she didn’t breastfeed me.  And besides my annoying allergy-induced asthma and a shellfish allergy, I had turned out OK.

Still the predominant trend in the waiting room that day was most of the women’s inability to overcome the sexual barriers that they had placed on their breasts.  Most of them couldn’t see past their breast as sources of sexual amusement for their men and pleasure for themselves, and as a primary feeding source for their newborn children.  The only exception was one girl who was probably all of 17 years-old who came in the center late that afternoon with her mom and little sister in tow.  She stayed quiet for most of the conversation as she helped her sister pick out stickers for the baby book they were creating for the tenant in her perfectly bubbled belly. She softly and confidently commented, “I don’t see what woman wouldn’t want to breastfeed her child.  In my native country of Sierra Leone, women don’t fuss with formulas and all of that mess.  I crack up when my friends ask me if I’m getting an epidural.  In my country women have babies naturally every day.”  Her mother just smiled and nodded with pride.

The young girl’s confidence and nonchalance made me feel weak honestly. All of us were sitting around giggling about birth, breasts and sexually satisfying men and this girl who was younger than many of us in the room couldn’t fathom any other way to experience pregnancy and child-birth than the way nature intended.

Before I get accused of singling my sistas out, keep in mind that women lie, men lie but numbers don’t.  A survey conducted by the CDC in 2005 took a look at the rates of breastfeeding according to age and race.  Although 59% of black mothers reported they were breastfeeding, Asian-American mothers were most likely to breastfeed, followed by Latina/Hispanic mothers at 79%, 75% of white mothers and 67% of Native American mothers.  Before we debate about the challenging schedule of a busy career woman, the study also revealed that 63% of women with less than a high school diploma breast-fed as compared to 84% of college graduates.  Only half of young mothers under the age of 20 breastfed, but 68% of mothers between the ages of 20 and 29 breastfed. 77% of older mothers over the age of 30 were the ones most likely to breastfeed.

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