First off, let me tell you this: despite that I had every intention of breastfeeding my first child, the hospital where I gave birth—specifically, its nurses—did absolutely nothing to help a sistah get the job done. Maybe they were too busy to be bothered. Or perhaps they thought a lactation consultant would magically find her way to my room to help me figure it all out. Personally, I think they took one look at me and made the calculations: young, black, poor, single, ignorant, formula.
Nobody expects black mothers to breastfeed. Indeed, let the statistics tell it and only about half of us actually breastfeed for any period of time in our children’s young lives. Cue the formula swag bags.
Thank sweet baby Jesus my little darling wasn’t aware of the stats—couldn’t see the judgmental glares that pierced like daggers when the nurses bothered to check up on us, or hear the loud thud when one dropped a bag with two industrial-sized bottles of Similac or Enfamil or whatever it was on the floor next to my bed. My baby was too busy trying to get herself some ninny to care.
But I cared. I cared that the assumptions were made, and that nurses had no faith in my desire to do what I thought best for my child and that none, save for one, thought me and my baby important enough for proper breastfeeding instruction, even though I was clearly scared, overwhelmed, exhausted, clueless and making so many mistakes in the first feedings that my nipples were nearly shredded.
This. This is what I remembered when I first read about New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s new breastfeeding initiative, Latch On NYC, what is being billed as the most restrictive pro-breastmilk program in the nation. Under the program, hospitals will keep and track bottles of formula in out-of-the-way secure storerooms or locked boxes, to be taken out only if it’s deemed medically necessary to feed it to a baby or a mother requests it. Under the program, mothers who receive formula will hear all about the health benefits of breast milk and told why it’s best to offer the breast to her baby instead of artificial milk.
One might think that based on my breastfeeding experience after the birth of my first child and my staunchly pro-breastfeeding stance—I breastfed my two daughters for a year each—that I’d be all for Latch On NYC. Quite the contrary, I’m not. Because just as much as I don’t think the nurses I faced had the right to ignore my desire to breastfeed my child, I don’t think Mayor Bloomberg, hospitals or the nurses who work there have the right to assume that a mother is too dumb to have weighed her baby’s feeding options before she hit the maternity ward or that she needs a good talking-to if she asks for a bottle of formula for her baby.
I’m a firm believer that mothers must have the right to choose their baby’s food on their own accord, sans judgment, even if their choice doesn’t necessarily jibe with the next woman’s choice. Treating formula like it’s some kind of nutrient-packed rat poison that needs to be under lock and key and dealt with like contraband does quick work of eroding a mother’s confidence and making her feel every bit as crappy about her choice to formula feed as I did while facing off against nurses, friends and family members who thought my choice to breastfeed was disgusting and dumb. In each instance, a mother’s right to have her choice respected is taken away by others who think it’s their mission to coerce, badger and guilt moms into feeding babies the way others see fit.
The key word here is choice. No mother, in the middle of all the confusion and emotions and elation and crazy of bringing a new life into the world, needs nurses standing over her, treating her like she’s a total failure because she chose to formula feed, no matter what her reasoning is. Think it doesn’t happen? Consider what a friend of mine, who is black, wrote on the MyBrownBaby.com Facebook page when I gave my opinions about Latch On NYC earlier this week:
“Due to a medically necessary breast reduction four years prior to giving birth, and my daughter's inability to suckle due to neurological developmental issues, my attempts at what was supposed to be a beautiful bonding moment turned into screams of a hungry baby, and tears of ‘failing’ mother. For the four days we spent in the hospital I was grudgingly ‘massaged’ (or violated depending on how you look at it), told I wasn't trying hard enough, told to relax, and handed pamphlet after pamphlet on the benefits of breast milk over formula—as if I hadn't already done the research. When they realized that Emory wasn't getting enough from my breasts during each feeding (yes, I tried and tried and tried and cried and cried and cried), the mini 2oz bottles were set on the table next to me in silence, and I watched as the lactation specialist just walked away.
I felt judged. I felt like a horrible mother. I.felt.like.a.FAILURE. So I tried again when we got home. I decided enough was enough when one day I was attempting to breastfeed my very hungry daughter and she couldn't latch on consistently, and I couldn't provide enough milk for her. She looked at me and screamed bloody murder. And I burst into tears. And that was the last day I attempted breastfeeding. My breasts were standing in the way of my bond, and that, not formula, was unacceptable.”
Mark my words: this will happen again and again. The assumptions and the judging will be particularly distinct for African-American moms because the assumption already is that we're uneducated and disinterested and need to be treated like children completely incapable of making decisions for our children. Think that’s not real? Read this.
Of course, I’m sure diehard breastfeeding advocates might take away my pro-breastfeeding card for my stance, but I honestly look at a woman’s choice to breastfeed much in the same way I do a woman’s right to abortion: I am anti-abortion for myself, but do not think it is my business, my right or my duty to tell another woman when and how she should become a mom. Just as I made the choice not to abort my pregnancies and to breastfeed my babies, the next woman has the right to choose to have an abortion if she’s not ready to be a mom and, when she has a baby, to buy formula by the truckload to feed to her child if she wants to.
Thank God I stood my ground and breastfed my babies. Formula-feeding mothers have that right, too.