A few years ago, while teaching at the Pacific Science Center, I was shocked to see a parent feeding her toddler in public. I didn’t know whether I should look at the child nursing happily, look the mom squarely in the face, or divert my gaze entirely.
Yet here I am. Starting Thursday, I’ll be nursing a three-year-old. I’m officially one of those moms that made me squirm with discomfort. And I have four bags of milk and a lot of joy to show for it.
But this journey wasn’t without challenges.
Over the past three years, I have had plugged ducts, searing pain, milk blisters, innocuous (but worrisome) galactoceles, nipple aversion like you wouldn’t believe, bite marks, and doubt.
Over the past three years, I have used nipple shields, double electric pumps, hospital grade pumps, manual pumps, and hand expression, all in the pursuit of “moving milk.” I have expressed milk in an exhibit hall at a Comicon, in about 100 different storage closets and restrooms, in cars, in inclusive quiet rooms, during class, and in questionable lactation stations. I have nursed my daughter with a cover, without a cover, while doing planks, upside down, while teaching class, and during meetings at work.
Over the past three years, I persisted and succeeded. I have continued to feed my child on demand. I have continued to pump and store milk, a practice that has allowed me to share milk with over a half a dozen local families. But this success is only partially the result of persistence.
Over the past three years, I have been privileged. Privileged to…
…live in a community that doesn’t come running at me with pitchforks and angry words at the sight of exposed flesh.
…have a safe place to express milk when I was away from my child.
…have supervisors that allowed me to express milk when I needed to, even past the one-year legal requirement.
…work at a job that allows me to work remotely, take sick days, and set my schedule to accommodate my needs as a lactating person and a parent.
…attend a graduate program that allowed me to bring my two-week-old to class (I will be eternally grateful for this).
…afford a doula to help initiate breastfeeding and help our family articulate our breastfeeding goals.
…have a health care provider that supported our breastfeeding plans.
…have access to a breastfeeding class, with an instructor who shared our ethnic background.
…have health insurance that enabled us to talk with a lactation consultant and acquire a breast pump to help me sustain breastfeeding when I returned to work.
I was privileged to be a member of a race for whom these privileges are so expected that we often forget not everyone has the same access. Access to support. Access to education. Access to care.
Not everyone has equitable access to breastfeed.
If any these advantages, privileges that I take for granted, fell through, our story might look very different. Without a doula, perhaps we never would have gotten my daughter to latch. Without access to education, perhaps we never would have learned the importance of breastfeeding. You see where I’m going with this.
My breastfeeding story has very little to do with dedication or persistence. But it has everything to do with privilege. A privilege that is not shared equitably across ethnic and racial lines.
A few years ago, there was a lot I didn’t know when I tried to reconcile the site of a mom in public, calmly nursing a happy three-year-old. I had a lot of blind spots. I had no idea that something I had so easily at my fingertips, was out of reach for so many others.
Breastfeeding is low hanging fruit. When we fail to recognize that our privilege to breastfeed is not shared by all, we’re missing an important opportunity.