May 25, 2011 changed my life forever. That’s the day my son was born. Friends and family talked to me about labor and the delivery, the lack of sleep, but no one told me that breastfeeding would be so difficult. I thought it would be easy, instinctual and accepted — but I was wrong.
For me, breastfeeding was very challenging. It was a trying and painful process, so much so that I dreaded each time my son would cry out in hunger. But with the help of an amazing lactation nurse, we were able to overcome these difficulties. I felt fortunate to have the access and support I needed to get through the rough first months of breastfeeding. It was wonderful to be able to nurse and bond with my son pain-free, but I always still worried about feeding him in public. I didn’t grow up with any positive images of women of color breastfeeding. I don’t think I had ever seen a mother of color breastfeed in public until I myself had a baby. And yet, the idea of not breastfeeding didn’t even enter my mind.
We are told over and over that "breast is best" but when images of women breastfeeding openly come up in public, everyone is aghast. Last November, a woman was thrown out of a Target in Texas for feeding her baby, which prompted a national nurse-in. Unfortunately though, there are many cases of women being asked to leave public spaces for nursing their infants, even when 45 states have laws allowing women to breastfeed in any public or private location.
Then there was the "controversial" Time magazine cover that featured a mother nursing her 3-year-old son. Granted, I do think Time sensationalist and provocative, but many mothers do nurse their children until they are 2 or 3-years-old–it’s a way of connecting with your child in a comforting and nurturing way.
Breastfeeding is hard. It takes a huge toll on the mother physically and emotionally. Mothers are trying their best to make sure their children are healthy, happy and fed. It is a simple and necessary basic need that shouldn’t be twisted into something offensive and vulgar. We should support and applaud the millions of breastfeeding mothers who overcome so many difficulties — a lack of resources, unsupportive workplaces, lack of time, physical pain or even access to basics such as hot water to clean pumping supplies.
Here are some amazing mothers who shared their experiences with me and allowed me to photograph them while nursing or pumping.
"There are so many challenges. Breast-feeding is just one of those things. People have been doing it forever. There should be more resources. We should be more supportive. People should be more understanding. Pumping should be a right and something that everyone should be able to do. There are so many other challenges that women have, that pumping should be a given." –Maria, 32, nursing 4-month-old daughter Mayumi.
"For the first six months she wouldn’t go to her dad. She has to have me in sight. It’s still hard. Whenever I’m talking about nursing, she wants to do it. It’s mainly like an emotional thing for her. I just started trying to wean her. I said I would give her until she was two and she’s going to be two soon." –Ronnesha, 23, nursing her 21-month-old daughter Zwena
"It was definitely challenging in the beginning for both kids because it was really painful, and also my milk didn’t come in until like the fifth day with each of them. It was such a new thing. It’s not very intuitive, at least for me it wasn’t. That’s why it was so difficult because we all felt like we didn’t know what we were doing which made me more anxious.
"Some ways i feel like it’s great, because you get that bond with them. It’s scary when a baby needs you all the time. If I wasn’t breastfeeding, I don’t know what I would be like with [my kids]." –Momo, 34, nursing her daughter Lulu who recently turned 2.
"When I got pregnant, I knew that I wanted as natural experience as possible in birth and breast-feeding. I believe that our bodies were made to make it as natural and healthy as possible. I wanted that immediate bond for my child–breast-feeding as soon as she was born, and trusting the baby’s lead in knowing what she needed.
"There was a breastfeeding clinic at the hospital. I was the only black woman there, from East Oakland, which is challenging. I wasn’t really making a connection with the women. I had resources if I needed them, but really had to go out of my community and wasn’t exactly comfortable for me." –Julia Chinyere, 45, nursing her daughter Onyekachi who is now 2-years-old (photo provided by Julia Chinyere)
"Prior to Tlaneyi being born I had been told that I had inverted nipples. So I knew it would be kind of hard. I was having a really hard time with her nursing and I was in a lot of pain. We had this whole project going on next to the bed. Every time she was hungry I would have to pump milk to try to get the nipple out. I would have to put on a nipple shield. I would need to have hot water to put the shield in it. It went like this for about 8 weeks. It was about 10 weeks into it that I took off the nipple shield but she hurt me again. Then I used nipple cream and let he nurse. I did that until 5 months. She nurses fine now." –Cinthya nursing her 2-year-old daughter Tlanextli
"My problem was really not realizing how tight the cycle was until it happened. You nurse, change their diaper and then you’re nursing again. I didn’t understand what that would feel like or what that would mean. I had no idea how exhausting it would be. I became incredibly isolated and drained because I had a tough delivery." –Nadia, 38, nursing her 3-month-old daughter Eva
"I had [my son] at home. He was placed on my chest immediately. He nursed within the first half hour. My mom breast-fed me and my sister breast-fed all her kids. I had a lot of support.
"I’m queer and what was also really cool when he was younger, at the beginning he would take [my partner’s] breast too, more as for comfort. That was also really sweet that she got that opportunity to bond with him." –Mica, 29, nursing her 7-moth-old son Fundi Hayim
"I pump every 3-4 hours depending on work schedule and what time I get into the office. It usually ends up being about twice a day.
"The hardest thing about breast-feeding has been the traveling I’ve had to do for work–carrying breast milk through security, making sure the hotel has a fridge. Pumping on the road takes a toll. If I have to travel for more than one day, I will bring my baby." — Kimi, 40, pumping breast milk while working at the office