When Meah El, SFW, TCP, CBE, a Full-Spectrum Doula, Education Specialist, Doula Team Leader and Cribs for Kids Coordinator at The Foundation for Delaware County, was just eight years old, she landed her first job. On summer trips to New England, El would help her aunt in her in-home daycare. When her aunt gave birth to a premature baby in her late forties, El was the only one her aunt trusted in helping out with the baby.
“I always say that my career found me,” El reflects.
“I loved it ever since,” she says. “Birth work is the crème de la crème.”
El remembers one of her first clients, a 15-year-old mother, and struggles to put into words just how amazing it felt to help a birthing mother.
To enhance her ability to support lactating and breastfeeding clients, El took a breastfeeding course with Nikki Lee and now, she is one of the latest recipients to earn the Accessing the Milky Way scholarship which covers the Lactation Counselor Training Course (LCTC). A colleague of hers is also working through the LCTC, so they have scheduled a weekly meet up to review the course material together.
El is dedicated to helping BIPOC families reach their breastfeeding goals and dedicated to improving overall health within BIPOC communities through healthy infant feeding.
While Chester and Delaware counties have relatively high breastfeeding initiation rates, the overall infant feeding culture “hushes” breastfeeding, and BIPOC families are up against barriers to breastfeeding like lack of education, familial support, and skilled lactation care, as El explains.
During Black Breastfeeding Week (BBW) 2023, El facilitated a celebration complete with henna artists, reiki sessions, infant foot massage, aromatouch hand massages for parents, brunch and a breastfeeding photo shoot. El will curate the images from the photo shoot into an art installation during next year’s BBW celebration.
Moreover, El is working to establish a lactation cafe, a peer breastfeeding support group run by breastfeeding champions in the community, and mini trainings for staff at The Foundation.
In order to combat breastfeeding misinformation on social media, El will create social media “shorts” with practical breastfeeding information that will be disseminated through the organizations channels. El is also in the process of working with the Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to recognize breastfeeding-friendly businesses.
All of these efforts are part of El’s goal to create a supportive environment around breastfeeding.
“If there’s no community support and no support at home, [the system] is built to fail,” El begins. “I want everyone to win.”
El encourages Our Milky Way readers to share their breastfeeding photos on social media and tag #delcobreastfeeds in order to normalize breastfeeding. She also reminds readers to explore the multitude of programs available at The Foundation for Delaware County. You can contact El directly for direction.
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.
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.
Monica Haywood is a researcher by nature. When she became pregnant with her daughter, she read all of the baby books.
She read about prenatal vitamins, proper nutrition, prenatal appointments, etc., etc., etc.
“I wanted to do everything right,” Haywood says.
Sometime during her second trimester, her focus narrowed in on breastfeeding. She was familiar with the stories her mother told about breastfeeding her, but she wanted to know more. Haywood attended La Leche League of Louisville meetings and scoured websites for infant feeding information.
She felt prepared and laid out a plan to breastfeed her baby for three months.
“Little did I know, the journey was slightly different,” she laughs. “You can read, read, read, but be prepared to pivot on things that you may have read about.”
Baby Noelle was born in 2017 and instead of breastfeeding for the planned three months, Noelle and Haywood nursed for 34 months.
Haywood says that while exclusive, natural-term breastfeeding was sometimes challenging like balancing her baby’s needs and self-care and managing other people’s perceptions mostly, breastfeeding created a sense of empowerment and bonding.
Haywood shared another connection with Noelle through her love of books early on.
“She was only a couple months old and my husband and I were reading books to her,” she shares.
“[Reading] helps with language development, and we also thought it was important to find books that she could relate to… characters that look like her and that can relate to her experience,” Haywood continues.
She found that most children’s breastfeeding books were geared toward weaning, but she was looking for something that celebrates the breastfeeding journey, something that could capture what she and Noelle were doing.
And when she couldn’t find it, she created it. Haywood wrote Noey Loves Nursing, a colorful book that commemorates her nursing journey, celebrates a diverse character, and educates and brings awareness to extended breastfeeding.
“I wish I could get it in the hands of every breastfeeding mother!” Haywood exclaims.
The book is highly admired by younger readers including her daughter who Haywood says is really excited by the book.
“When I saw [the video], it literally brought me to tears,” Haywood says. “It’s just awesome.”
Before COVID-19, Haywood enjoyed sharing Noey Loves Nursing at in-person gatherings like LLL Louisville’s Live Love Latch during National Breastfeeding Month and Healthy Children Project’s International Breastfeeding Conference. She’s also shared her story with local WIC offices.
This summer, Haywood adapted to Zoom and Facebook Live events to celebrate Black Breastfeeding Week and National Breastfeeding Month with her book.
“Black History Month in the breastfeeding community is normally littered with posts and articles about the dark history of African American Breastfeeding in this country. I firmly believe that in order to understand where you are going, you must first understand where you have been. However, Black Mothers in today’s society face a very different dilemma: actually being Black History.”
Joy R. Gibson, MSEd is an early childhood educator and advocate and the mother of five, ranging from age 18 months to 13 years. She gave unmedicated birth to all five of her children in Pittsburg, Pa., practiced the Lamaze method, and talked to her babies as she labored with them.
“We can’t wait to see you,” she gently called.
Gibson went on to breastfeed all of her children until they self-weaned.
“I think [breastfeeding was] best for my babies, and I love the bond that it creates. I love when it gets to be that one-on-one time to focus on the child,” Gibson shares.
She goes on to share that early on, she and her first child struggled to find a comfortable latch. After visiting with a hospital-based lactation care provider, Gibson and her baby were able to work through the challenges. Beyond that, she recalls her babies not appreciating being covered in public while they nursed, which felt more like an inconvenience than a challenge, she describes.
Gibson felt supported through her breastfeeding journey.
“Always from family and friends and even from my job when I had to pump,” Gibson says.
While working in a child care center, Gibson would feed her baby who was also at the center and then return to work.
Having felt empowered through her birth and infant feeding experience, Gibson says she wants to become more involved in maternal child health advocacy and connect with other mothers through their challenges and triumphs. She is currently involved with Healthy Start, Inc. Pittsburgh/Allegheny County’s Community Health Advocate Training Program where she will be able to exercise her passion and help improve the health outcomes of other mothers in her community.
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