Educate, motivate, normalize: one mom’s experience harnessing harassment into empowerment

Chenae Marie is an Author, Maternal Mental Health & Breastfeeding Advocate and Speaker.  In November 2018, she released a coloring book entitled Breastfeeding Mamas. The book was created in response to being ridiculed for breastfeeding.

She says it is an honor to see her work circulating. 

“This was such a purpose project for me and to see it still circulating 4 years later, wow,” Chenae Marie begins.  “You hope for the best, you hope people not only love it but deem it just as necessary as you; so seeing its impact has been so deeply rewarding.” 

Since its release, over 3,000 copies have been sold. 

Earlier this year, Chenae Marie was awarded the USBC Emerging Leader Award

We’re so thrilled to be sharing this interview with such a force on Our Milky Way! Read on. 

 

On Chenae Marie’s journey into motherhood…

Whew, where do I even begin? I found out I was pregnant during separation from my then husband. It was certainly a shock. We tried to work it out but the more we forced it, the more it became obvious that we were growing in two different directions. I ended up moving from New Orleans where we were living, back to my hometown of Baltimore, MD. It was imperative for me to be close to my village during such a profound life transition. It’s funny, because looking back I remember having so much anxiety prior to moving to MD. I wasn’t sure if it was nerves, or maybe the shock was still wearing down, or it was normal feelings to feel after finding out you are pregnant. But it’s like the moment that I touched down and hugged my mama, that deep sinking anxiety feeling went away. I finally felt safe again- emotionally and spiritually safe. My appetite came back, I was sleeping regularly and at a decent hour, and I was finally recognizing the woman looking back at me in the mirror. I missed her so much and it was a breath of fresh air to be in a space that I could get to know her again- prior to the arrival of my baby girl. 

Finally, the time had come for me to meet my Leilani Marie. It’s hard for me to even put into words how that first moment of looking into her eyes felt. It was like my world stopped for a moment and all I saw was her, all I felt was her, and I needed was her. If I could bottle that moment up, I certainly would. 

Now my journey had begun and all of who I was and all of who I had yet to become was ready to take on this journey called motherhood. 

 

On being ridiculed for a breastfeeding image she shared…

After noticing how underrepresented black women were as it pertains to motherhood and breastfeeding, I decided I’d start sharing images and partnering each one with either a clever little caption or a more thought-out caption detailing some of my thoughts and where I was on my motherhood journey at that time. 

One afternoon, I was eating ice cream while simultaneously breastfeeding and my mom snapped a picture of it. We were both wearing my handmade mustard yellow bonnets and we were in our own little world. I loved the picture and decided to share it. 

About an hour later I began to get what felt like nonstop notifications on my phone. I remember that I was putting my daughter down for a nap at the time so I placed my phone down away from me so the vibrations wouldn’t awake her. Finally, she was asleep, and I checked my phone. I was so confused because I saw an extremely large number of notifications and was so confused as to what was happening. Apparently, the picture went from Instagram to Twitter and then back to Instagram again. It went viral

From that day, I was getting hundreds of followers, hundreds of comments, and nonstop messages. Some of the comments and messages were full of love and support while others were full of negative comments, judgements, and unsolicited/obscene pictures. It’s like on one hand I felt supported and empowered but on the other hand, I was so incredibly bothered by the amount of ignorance I was reading on a day to day. 

I have always been someone who never let anyone make me feel inferior without my consent and this was one of those moments I had to take my power back. I took a long shower that involved lots of thinking and strategy. How can I take advantage of a moment that a lot of eyes were on me? How can I change the narrative? How can I use this moment to educate? 

Thus, the idea to create an adult coloring book!

 

On her partnership with the illustrator… 

Many are surprised when I tell them that I found my illustrator Mariana, on Upwork! I took a gamble and posted an ad describing my project and what I was looking for. She sent me some of her previous work and I knew she’d be the perfect fit! She was not only an incredible illustrator, but she completely understood my vision. 

 

On the feedback she’s gotten since the book’s release…

I’ve received great feedback since its release, but I’d have to say my favorite was when a mother told me she used my images to put on her wall during her at home water birth. She told me they were incredibly motivational and just what she needed to see to remind her of her strength. 

 

On receiving the USBC Emerging Leader Award…

It feels incredible! I haven’t met a single person in this industry who goes into it seeking rewards or recognition. You go into it because there is a fire burning in you for CHANGE! You go into it because you have a passion for women, for MOTHERS! So to be able to stop for a moment and truly reflect on my journey and also take a deep dive into all the work that has been done and still needs to be done, was beautiful and necessary. USBC does INCREDIBLE work, so to be recognized by them was honestly unexpected but an honor, nonetheless. Receiving this kind of award gave me that extra push I didn’t even know I needed to go harder. To keep having the uncomfortable but necessary conversations, and to keep pushing for change. 

 

On current projects…

I am working to step full force into speaking. I am currently working with Mississippi Public Health to organize monthly virtual workshops/panels to discuss motherhood, mental health, self-care, and wellness. My goal is to create a space for like-minded individuals to come together to share their experiences and have the “uncomfortable” conversations in hopes to inspire and educate others, specifically mothers.


On plans during National Breastfeeding Month/ Black and World Breastfeeding Week(s)…

I’m all about spreading knowledge! Knowledge is power. National Breastfeeding Month/ Black and World Breastfeeding week(s) is a great opportunity to shed as much information as possible while the spotlight shines on the subject.

 

On future goals…

As for future goals, I would like to create another project. I’m not sure what as of yet, but I want to think of another creative way to educate, motivate, and normalize. 

Find Chenae Marie on Instagram here

Musings on unity beyond National Breastfeeding Month

This year’s National Breastfeeding Month (NBM) celebration has come to an end, but our momentum as maternal child health advocates– striving for equitable care for all– powers on. 

The 2020 NBM theme, Many Voices United, called on us to come together to identify and implement the policy and system changes that are needed to ensure that all families have the support and resources they need in order to feed their babies healthily. 

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
Colorful Hands 1 of 3 / George Fox students Annabelle Wombacher, Jared Mar, Sierra Ratcliff and Benjamin Cahoon collaborated on the mural. / Article: https://www.orartswatch.org/painting-the-town-in-newberg/

Achieving this shared goal requires daily self-work and individual introspection so that our collective can be as effective as ever. No matter how socially-conscious, open-minded, anti-racist, (insert adjective), we think we may be, we still have learned biases and prejudices that require near constant attention. Much like I remind my children to brush their teeth every morning and every night, as a white, binary woman, I must remind myself to examine my biases and my privilege daily.  

With NBM’s theme of unity in mind, this Upworthy video features an art installation that demonstrates our society’s interconnectedness. With a piece of string, the installation shows an intricate, densely-woven web created by individuals wrapping thread around 32 poles with identifiers arranged in a circle. 

“You can see that even though we all have different experiences and we all identify in different ways…We are really one,” the project’s creator says in the video. 

The sentiment and the product are truly beautiful and fascinating. While appreciating the beauty of unity, it’s important to keep our critical thinking and progressive attitude sharp, refraining from slipping into too comfortable a space where change cannot happen.  

Recently, I’ve seen a few statements on unity circulating social media that I’d like to embrace with a “Yes!” Instead, I find myself reacting, “Yes! But…” 

My worry is that these well-intentioned mantras we live by– much like some might argue certain microaggressions are well-intentioned– are also dismissive. 

  1. We all bleed the same blood. 
  1. Children are not born racist.
  1. I will teach my child to love your child. Period. 

Let’s break those down starting with “We all bleed the same blood.”  Some things to consider:

First, Ashley May for The Thirbly writes,

“Black breasts do not exist separate from Black bodies and the situated existence we navigate in this world nor the racialized experience of motherhood. Racism and classism intertwine to act as a containment, working to make some of us feel as if we are walking in quicksand. Add to this the complexities of new motherhood and the needs of the postpartum body and now we have a cocktail for failure. Literal milk plugs. So, although her precious body may be able to produce milk, her situation prevents her and her baby from receiving it. Even the intention to breastfeed cannot save the milk of the mother who cannot find time for pump breaks as she works the night shift as a security guard. Or, perhaps she cannot figure out why pumping is not working, but she doesn’t have the time to seek the educational or financial resources to help her problem solve.” (underline added by OMW) 

Racism affects People of Color (POC) at a cellular level. Studies show that the experience of racial discrimination accelerates the shortening of telomeres (the repetitive sequences of DNA at the ends of chromosomes that protect the cell) and ultimately contributes to an increase in people’s risks of developing diseases. 

It’s epigenetics; the environments POC of are growing in affect their biology.  

Children are not born racist, but white children are born into a racist society that they will benefit from. 

From the very beginning, white children have a better chance of survival than Children of Color; African Americans have 2.3 times the infant mortality rate as non-Hispanic whites

What’s more, Black children are three times more likely to die when cared for by white doctors, while the mortality rate for white babies is largely unaffected by the doctor’s race, a recent study found. 

White children are born into being part of the problem and just the same, can be part of equitable solutions. 

I will teach my child to love your child. Period. 

Love is action, and even if it’s easier said than done, there are so many ways to teach our children about race, inequities and injustice. Afterall, “If Black children are ‘old enough’ to experience racism then white children are ‘old enough’ to learn about it.” – Blair Amadeus Imani

  • Be careful what you say. As a young girl on my way to ballet class one day, my mom, while locking the car doors,  pointed out the barred doors and boarded windows in the neighborhood we rolled through. 

“That’s how you know this is not a safe neighborhood,” my mom warned me. 

No questions asked, I noted the building facades, and then I noted the Black people. Because there wasn’t any further conversation, I made the connection that Black people must be “not safe” and ultimately, that there must be something wrong with Black people if they’re confined to neighborhoods “like this.” 

Imagine the impact we could make if we showed our children that there is nothing inherently wrong with Black people that ending racism can’t solve.

As a nation we are apathetic, made apparent by a recent poll. The survey shows that only 30 percent of white people have taken concrete action to better understand racial issues after George Floyd’s killing. 

The poll also shows that White Americans are also the least likely to support the Black Lives Matter movement, with 47 percent expressing support.

Is it because we don’t claim it as our problem? Is it because we misunderstand the problem? Is it because it’s easier to point fingers at others than ourselves? 

I’d like to leave you with this video of writer Kimberly Jones where she provides a brief history of the American economy told through an analogy using the board game Monopoly. I urge you to watch it, and then watch it again, and again, and again. 

There is no time for complacency within these truly abhorrent systems. When we start to lose sight of that, envision the tangle of yarn from the aforementioned unity art installation and remember that vastly different experiences are networked together.

Never underestimate a mother

This photograph brings the kind of smile to my face that lifts my ears up several millimeters and presses the tops of my cheeks into my bottom lashes. The athletes are so expressive, I almost squeal in excitement as if I’ve just witnessed their victory. 

The story behind the photo is summarized by Ann-Derrick Gaillot in 10 Women’s Sports Stories That Would Make Great Films:

“When the winners of the women’s 4x100m relay at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona were announced, no one was more thrilled to win than the bronze medalist team from Nigeria. Teammates Beatrice Utondu, Christy Opara-Thompson, Mary Onyali, and Faith Idehen were relative outsiders in the international running scene and were not expected to stack up against powerhouses like France and the United States. Though injury and traditional cultural gender norms would threaten their chances of competing in those Olympics at all, they would leave Barcelona that summer as the first Nigerian women to win Olympic medals. Onyali eventually went on to become one of Nigeria’s most successful runners, appearing at the Olympics four more times.”  

Underdog stories are always inspiring, and they’re happening every day when a woman becomes a mother. 

That’s Nurse-Family Partnership supervisor in Buffalo, N.Y. Daynell Rowell-Stephens’s MS, RN message.

“Stay open no matter what the circumstances the mother may be going through,” Rowell-Stephens offers. “[Mothers] have the ability and the capability to be the best moms, to flourish. Never underestimate a mother because motherhood drives women to be the best.”

Photo by Sai De Silva on Unsplash

She continues, “Support moms no matter what; whether it’s drug use or homelessness– I’ve seen it– motherhood really launches them into directions they never imagined they could go into.” 

Rowell-Stephens and her colleague’s agency is just over a year old, and in that short time, they’ve managed to make a great impact on the lives of mothers and their new families. 

“We are so excited about all that we are doing,” Rowell-Stephens says. 

It’s well-documented that people of color have less access to health care resources and are faced with structural barriers that inhibit good health outcomes. Amani Echols points out some of those barriers in The Challenges of Breastfeeding as a Black Person:

  • “Many Black people work, and breastfeeding at work is hard…
  • Black neighborhoods are also lacking in hospital practices supporting breastfeeding…
  • The societal stigma of breastfeeding is heightened for Black and brown people.” 

These are big gaps to fill, but Rowell-Stephens and her team readily take on the challenge.

They make sure their clients receive proper prenatal care by connecting them with various health care providers including midwives and doulas. They provide nutrition counseling. They help them secure housing and jobs and continued education. They impact decisions about cigarette and drug use. They support them through mental health crises. They educate on how to navigate different stressors. They support healthy infant feeding and bonding.

“All of the nurses on the team are very passionate about breastfeeding  so we love to see so many of our moms interested in learning to be successful at breastfeeding,” Rowell-Stephens comments. 

She’s the most recent member on her team to complete the Lactation Counselor Training Course (LCTC). She says the experience was “quite eye-opening.” 

“It is really going to change my practice overall,” she says. 

Maybe most importantly, the team teaches their clients how to healthfully engage with their children. 

“It makes me so excited to see these girls change their whole outlook on life,” Rowell-Stephens says of her clients when they become mothers. 

She celebrates the story of one of her clients who set a personal goal to complete a rehabilitation program and acquire a living place before the birth of her baby. 

“She accomplished that!” Rowell-Stephens reports.

Not long after, the mother’s roommate was using drugs in the home. 

“Her motherly instinct kicked in and she knew she needed to get out of that environment,” Rowell-Stephens begins. “She recently found another apartment and she’s providing for her child.”

Rowell-Stephens goes on, “She’s taken what might seem like very small steps, but for her, as we look back at just this past 9 months, she has done so many things. She has changed the world around her.”