By Jarrah Foster, IBCLC
As first written in BabyTula
Lately, I’ve been leaning into feeling connected and noticing how much that heals, and as I sat down to write this, four statements came to mind: We are healers, we are spirit, we are connected, we are one. These are stand-alone concepts but also self-reinforcing ones. These themes hold significance in my life, particularly during Black History Month, where we celebrate our accomplishments and educate ourselves and others of truths in our shared history.
I am a lactation consultant (IBCLC) and babywearing educator. I came to the field of lactation and babies five years ago because I felt called to make a difference in the world of women’s health. I see parents and babies for lactation services for breast/chest/bodyfeeding consultations, bottle feeding, pumping, and weaning. My office is in a Black-owned birth center run by a midwife, and we offer lactation support groups monthly for all parents. The group, run by myself and two other black birth workers, has been a beacon of encouragement for many black mothers seeking to find a community of support on their breastfeeding journey.
As a lactation consultant, I am fortunate to work with many black families assisting with infant feeding and helping families make well-informed decisions about feeding–a fundamental right that was stolen from our ancestors and still affects our community. It is well documented that black breastfeeding rates in the United States are the poorest among other racial demographics. Likewise, black mothers have increased chances of death during pregnancy and labor(1,2). This is not due to race, ethnicity, education, or economic factors. That means a post-graduate black mother with a higher socioeconomic status can have the same risk of early breastfeeding cessation, or death during pregnancy, as an unhoused black mother who is unsure she will have money to pay for food week to week. The disparities don’t exist in Africa but start to present as early as 1st generation mothers who begin to face the effects of disparity in our society.
I recently watched the United States Breastfeeding Committee Racial Equity Webinar on the “B.L.A.C.K Course,” a lactation and breastfeeding education course for aspiring lactation consultants and others in the birthing world who want to support black breastfeeding. Two of the course creators, Ngozi D. Walker-Tibbs and TaNefer Camara, discuss the history of Black breastfeeding from Africa through slavery and the impact systemic racism has on Black breastfeeding. Perhaps most striking in the presentation was when they asked to imagine how one might start to talk about a child if knowledge of that child’s smarts, bravery, strength, or kindness would make him a target to be bought and sold. Naturally, we would want to protect the child and start downplaying, denying, and even degrading that child’s attributes. Now imagine how that might ripple in the family, in child, in society? Instinctually, we all want to survive, so we do what is necessary at the moment, not cognizant because it is often not relevant of how that can be imprinted. But those impacts are felt generationally, both in the oppressed and the oppressor.
While it can be striking when you realize this is a generational trauma, it can also be affirming and move one towards changing the tapestry. This is why it is important for me to work alongside other black-owned businesses supporting black families. I have often been the lone Black female in work, and while I didn’t feel “othered” often, it certainly didn’t have the same excitement as things do now. I find the greatest sense of nourishment when it’s a team of black care providers. It’s exhilarating working alongside Black professional women at the black-owned birth center where my office is located. I am working with my sisters, creating and collaborating. Some of our proudest moments are when we create end-to-end care. It is an interlocking quilt of support: from doula care to delivery to postpartum healing and infant feeding.
For our new parents, having the ability to receive care from providers with racial congruency allows for a trust that has often been fractured in the medical community. That trust opens your capacity to do things you thought were unattainable, like having the birthing experience you want or being the first in several generations to breastfeed your new baby, or not becoming another negative statistic. I cherish the community lactation support group we hold at the birth center. Being supported by providers and others with shared experiences in the birthing world brings a healing that might not be obvious at the outset. Labor and early breastfeeding can be such cosmic events. Bringing life into the world connects us to the past, present, and future. The midwives and birth workers become the village we had centuries ago. Our ancestors find healing by being present with the living as new life is created. We heal our collective trauma by creating new supportive memories in the present. Indeed, each member of the community are healers, are spirit, are connected, are one. The past isn’t rewritten or forgotten, but it’s no longer dictating the path in the future.
Sometimes I think of this collective of Black birth workers as being part of a new underground railroad. With each connection made, we liberate from poor health outcomes by providing more equitable beginnings at birth and through infancy.
There is no one to heal us. So it is up to us.