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.”