For Overwhelmed Black Mothers Who’ve Been Told Their Breastmilk Isn’t Enough
Illustration created by Veronica Wells-Puoane
I spent the summer of 2021 in transit. I transitioned from pregnant woman to mother. I traveled back and forth from my home to the NICU. And in an interaction with another Black mother, I went from righteous and wronged to understanding and compassionate.
During labor, my son was in distress and passed meconium (the first bowel movement) while still in utero. When the doctors pulled him from my abdomen and held his slippery body above my freshly sliced womb, his cries were muffled by the thick tar-like substance in his lungs.
I had planned a homebirth and envisioned holding my son against my body for his first earthside moments. Instead, I watched from an operating table across the room as doctors and nurses darted around my brand new baby. In the midst of all this chaos, my son wore a look of confusion and then resignation. I remember looking at him, thinking, ‘He’s so chill.’
In the days that followed, I would realize perhaps he was a bit too chill. Most children born with meconium aspiration syndrome are released from the hospital around 3-5 days. My son took his time healing and breathing strongly on his own. So we were there for 12.
Those nearly two weeks provided a particular type of education I might not have received had he gotten to come home with us right away. I learned how to hold my baby like a football to bathe him. I learned which types of diaper changing techniques cause diaper rash. And I learned that sometimes what feels like judgmental advice comes from a place where care, concern, pain and disappointment meet.
If there was one element of my birth that went according to plan, it was the fact that my milk came in the day after my son was born. And after he was taken off of the feeding tube, I was able to breastfeed him. First through a bottle and then, eventually, from my breast. It was a relief to know this wouldn’t be another hurdle we’d have to cross. Still, there was the added pressure of pumping and transporting milk to the hospital every day and every night for a newborn with a growing appetite.
Everyday, we had to check with the nurses to see how much milk he had left in storage to determine how much I’d have to pump to feed him for the day. It was a lot but I was managing. And to be honest, I took pride in at least being able to complete this one aspect of mothering while my child and I were away from one another.
But one day, even that was called into question.
The nurse tending to my son that day, a traveling one, told me that there was no breast milk in storage. And my son would be out of food by 3 am the next morning.
I remember being a bit shocked to hear this. I had been pumping milk since before my son was even able to drink on his own. To think that there was so little left was jarring. I expressed this to the nurse and even asked if we could go back in the fridge to count for ourselves.
She assured us that she had just looked and that was all that was there. Seeing the disbelief and dejection on my face, she offered this advice.
“I can tell that your son is going to have a pretty big appetite. And you might want to consider giving him formula in order to keep up. You might not be able to produce enough.” Seeing the changes in my visage, she added, “You know, there’s nothing wrong with formula.”
She was right. There is nothing wrong with formula if that’s the choice you make for you and your child. But that wasn’t what we had decided. And I felt her unsolicited projection about a reality we had yet to reach was uncalled for, not to mention extremely unsettling for a woman whose primary mothering started and ended with supplying breast milk.
As a little girl, I had a knack for shutting people down with my words but as a grown woman I learned to be more tactful with that skill. I felt like now was the time to exercise that restraint since I would have to leave my beloved baby bundle with this woman. My face may have held a look of contempt but I kept quiet while my husband asked her how many ounces we would need and by when.
She told us that in order to cover feedings until 12pm the next day, I’d have to pump 12 ounces before 2 am just to be safe.
It was 6 pm. I got home and went to work. Looking back, I can’t even remember if I hit the goal. Turns out, I didn’t need to.
Suspecting that this nurse had been mistaken about the amount of milk I still had in storage, my husband called the nurse on the night shift and asked her how much we had back there.
She told him what he had in storage was enough to get him to 12pm the next day. I don’t know what the traveling nurse saw when she looked in the fridge, but she had missed all the containers of milk I had tediously pumped and carefully labeled.
While I was relieved to know that he would be fed, I was further incensed not only by this woman’s presumption that I wouldn’t be able to feed my child but by her inability to read and count.
The next day, still deep in my feelings, I told another, more senior nurse, about the conversation and asked if someone could speak to the traveling nurse about her approach. I told the older nurse her comments were extremely unhelpful given the already stressful nature of our situation.
The senior nurse agreed and told me she would speak to her.
But that would not be the end of our interactions. Days later, I saw her again as she was assigned to my son. By this time, he was breathing more independently and required far less care and testing than before. When I visited him now, I was able to sit and hold him for hours as I wished.
During one of these extended cuddle sessions, the traveling nurse and I were the only adults in the NICU with my son and the other babies nestled in their incubators. I spent the first few minutes of our time together attempting to gauge how she might have felt about being reprimanded for her unwanted advice. But if she had any ill feelings, she didn’t display them. And with nothing but time to kill, I asked questions.
This traveling nurse began her motherhood journey very differently than I had. My family members clamored to see who was going to be in the delivery room with me while this woman took an Uber to the hospital alone.
I didn’t have to make any inferences about the amount of support she had in raising her daughter. She told me, it was virtually non-existent. The child’s father wasn’t entirely present, she didn’t have family near her and even if they were, they might not have been willing or able to lend a hand.
And then it came out. In a moment where her spirit spoke before her brain had a chance to edit, she said: “Breastfeeding just got to be too much for me. I did it for six months and then I thought, how much more of my body do I have to give? When will it be enough?”
Holding my own child against my chest, on the precipice of the path she had already walked, I understood now that her warning about my breastmilk wasn’t a condemnation of my ability to feed my child. It was an invitation to save myself from the guilt and feelings of failure that might come with the supplementation of formula.
Hearing her admission, I felt like Dr. Seuss’ Grinch whose heart, which was initially two sizes too small, expands once he learns the real meaning of Christmas.
I would have loved to hold on to the notion that the traveling nurse was trying to curse me with her proclamations. Playing the victim is incredibly satisfying and absolutely delectable to the ego.
But the real growth was in seeing and hearing another Black woman in her vulnerability and holding space for her truth, even if it didn’t look exactly like my own.
In the months since our baby graduated from the NICU, I’ve thought about the traveling nurse and the other Black mothers like her. I’ve been a Black mother like her, asking myself if what I have to give to my child, whether it’s energy, attention, enthusiasm, or patience is enough for that day.
I’m sure these are questions I’ll ponder for the rest of my life. When those questions arise, I’ll remember the traveling nurse, a fellow Black woman, and the lesson I learned from her. Remember to extend grace to myself and others on our journeys.