Within 30 minutes of the delivering my son, a lactation nurse was in my room giving me information about breastfeeding. She was adamant about convincing me to at least see if my baby would latch on to my breast, but I was tired and she was pushy, so I asked her to leave. She gave me some reading materials on the advantages of breastfeeding and left. I tossed the pamphlets aside, rolled over and fell asleep.
I woke to a nurse bringing me my baby. She asked if I needed formula for him or if I was going to try nursing. Without hesitation, I asked for formula because what the lactation nurse didn’t know was that I had decided very early in my pregnancy that I wouldn’t breastfeed.
Sadly, that decision was being made for me long before I ever even thought about having a child. My mother has five children, none of whom were breastfed. My sister breastfed my nephew very briefly, but gave up on it making sure to freely share with me how much it hurt. I frequently heard adults around me talk about how “something in the formula” was responsible for how quickly kids were growing and developing. Programs like WIC pushed poor women, most relevantly poor black women, to feed their babies formula instead of breast milk. In my mind, breastfeeding was a thing of the past, all but eradicated by the invention of formula, which provided all the nutrition of breast milk without the chore of pumping or discomfort of actually nursing.
Now that I’m just about ready to have another baby, I’m forced to think about my greatest parenting successes and biggest regrets. Confidently, I can declare that I’ve done a great job with my son so far, but that declaration is sullied by the realization that I robbed both myself and my child of all the benefits of breastfeeding. And digging deeper, I realize that the real reason I did not breastfeed, is rooted, at least partially, in slavery.
During my teen years, I read and learned a lot about slavery in America. One of the images that stuck with me was of a black woman nursing a white baby. Of all the customary violations of black bodies during that time, this one haunted me most. That a black woman’s breasts, organs meant to grow and sustain the life of her own children, would be used as tools to grow the babies of white enslavers — babies who’d one day grow to be the enslavers of the same black women who had used their breasts to nourish them — was inconceivable to me. It is a sickeningly ironic concept that adds to the pile of evidence proving that black women have never been entitled to our own bodies in this country.
So while all of the propaganda against it certainly helped to demonize breastfeeding in my mind, I now understand that my refusal to nurse was my subconscious act of revolution. I was taking back the power stolen from black women like me. I would have a choice over how my body was used.
But what is revolution at the expense of my son? What revolution is there in buying formula, pumping money into the same economy built on the backs — or breasts — of the black women who didn’t have a choice how their bodies were used? Was it really revolutionary to take the “microwave” route and do what was easier for me over what was best for my baby? Was I rebelling against the establishment or doing exactly what they wanted?
The real revolutionary act would have been to go against the racist capitalist conditioning I’d been consuming for decades and feed my baby at my breast, bonding and nurturing him. I would have been the warrior I wanted to be had I sat and learned from that nurse all about breastfeeding. A real revolution would have been declaring my breasts not as objects solely meant for sexual pleasure, but as instruments of nourishment for the most important person in my world. I was not revolting, I was conforming.
Black women are still being pushed, however subtly, not to breastfeed. The breasts that fed and grew entire generations we’re now being told are not the best source of sustenance for our own babies. Too many medical professionals are telling us formula is better, or at least, as good as what the same body that made the child produces. There is a deliberate effort to convince us not to do what’s natural, what we did forcefully for dozens of babies for centuries.
I’m ready to be what I once thought I was. I’m committed to giving my next child what I tragically denied my son. I want to revel in the sisterhood created by black women who are truly rebels, building support networks to share the beautiful stories of the transcendent love they feel passing life to their babies from their own bodies. I will honor all the enslaved black women who never had a choice. I choose to be revolutionary. I choose to breastfeed.