This month, I did something I never thought I’d do: pose topless.
I’m not an exhibitionist. I joined a photo shoot of black breastfeeding mamas. It’s a part of photographer Erin White’s “Women in the Wild” project to raise awareness about breastfeeding.
White is traveling around the U.S. this summer photographing mothers and babies, and Kansas City was one of her stops.
I signed up — August is National Breastfeeding Awareness Month after all — and I want to show other women, particularly black women whose breastfeeding rates lag white women by 16 percent, that we do breastfeed.
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Nursing moms need all the encouragement they can get.
Only 18.8 percent of U.S. babies, including my son, enjoy the benefit of the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation: breastfeeding, no formula, for the first six months. In Missouri, that number was 14.1 percent; in Kansas, only 11.4 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
I understand why moms don’t breastfeed longer, and I don’t blame them. For some women, breastfeeding comes easily, for others, it doesn’t work out. And there are a lot of people in the middle, like me.
When my son was born, I struggled to get the hang of nursing. You’d think it was second nature. Women have been doing it for centuries, right? Well, for me it was painful, and I couldn’t figure out how to get the baby to latch on correctly. I wanted to give up.
Tommy had to stay in the hospital for six days after he was born, and I got one-on-one help from every nurse and lactation consultant I met at St. Luke’s.
After we left the hospital, it still wasn’t easy, so I toted my 18-day-old son to a La Leche League meeting to get advice. I also joined Uzazi Village, a Kansas City nonprofit that offers breastfeeding support groups and free walk-in breastfeeding clinics to help nursing moms.
I learned to set little goals for myself. I planned to breastfeed for six weeks, then 12 weeks, then six months, then nine months. My ultimate goal is to nurse for at least a year.
Some days I’m not sure if I can make it. But I’m lucky that my family, in-laws, friends, support groups and even my employer have been supportive.
A friend of mine at work recently finished her year of breastfeeding, and I told her she had been an inspiration to me.
We used the same pumping room, and she always made time to go — even when a meeting ran late or she was super busy at her desk.
If she did it for a year, I can too, I tell myself on hectic days.
My son is pretty good at nursing now, and so am I. We nurse before he goes to day care in the morning and as soon as we get home. I pump three times at work to have enough to send to school. Sometimes I get up at 4:30 a.m. to pump if I didn’t get enough the day before.
For me it’s worth it. I do it because it’s what’s best for him and because I can. I didn’t stay home with him for 12 weeks like many moms do, but this I can give him.
The moms participating in the photo shoot were asked to send in their stories. I shared what I’ve told you. I told White that I wanted to help show that breastfeeding is hard work, but it’s also natural, normal and beautiful. Black women do breastfeed. I do this. And so can you.
To reach Pamela E. Spencer, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.