“Breast is best” was a phrase I had heard long before I pushed my 6-pound, 12-ounce son into the world. Very few people, including the labor and delivery nursing staff, made it a point to simply ask if I even planned on breastfeeding — it was assumed I would. So when my newborn arrived after more than 24 hours of intense and painful labor, he was immediately pushed toward my breasts. To be honest, even the joy of seeing his face for the very first time did not erase the fatigue of that moment, nor the slight sliver of resentment I felt at the thought of instantly becoming my son’s de facto milk bottle.
I hated breastfeeding. Loathed it. It was nothing short of a herculean feat that I managed to breastfeed my son for seven months — despite the sleepless nights, spilled milk, biting, scratching, clogged milk ducts and hours spent attached to breast pumps. So as I watched a commercial from Frida Mom air during Sunday night’s Golden Globes, it was hardly surprising when the frustration, exhaustion and discontent that can and often does accompany breastfeeding came rushing back.
The commercial begins with a close-up of an exhausted-looking Black mother and the sounds of a crying newborn. “You’ve got this,” the voice-over says, as the camera pans down to the mom’s breasts as she attempts to get her newborn to latch. “Latch. And latch better. Oh God, unlatch!” the voice-over continues, as we see a wide variety of moms breastfeeding, attempting to breastfeed, dealing with breast milk leakage and pumping — all described in the first-person in a constant stream of narration. We see a mom attempting to work out a clogged milk duct in the shower. We watch a mom use cabbage to help with engorgement. We witness moms questioning if they’re a good mother.
“I just want to feed my baby,” the voice-over concludes.
I’m sure the commercial will resonate profoundly with other moms across the country. A reported 80 percent of United States moms breastfeed their newborns, according to a 2016 survey, but only one-third of them will continue breastfeeding their babies for one year, per the American Academy of Pediatrics. In a country that refuses to provide parents with mandatory paid family leave, access to affordable child care and other support systems that would relieve the financial, physical, emotional and mental burdens of parenthood, breastfeeding is, for many lactating parents, simply unsustainable.
Other high-profile women have been talking about these challenges more openly, including Chrissy Teigen, Kelly Rowland and Amy Schumer. But seeing these difficulties on display during a major awards show felt novel; it felt validating. The more these common yet often whispered-about difficulties of nursing are discussed, the better we as parents, as communities and as a society can work to support moms when and if they experience them.
The issue is systemic, and the challenges of breastfeeding are particularly true for Black mothers. Only 66 percent of Black moms breastfeed their infants, compared with 82 percent of White and Latinx moms, according to 2012 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. As Andrea Freeman, a law professor and author of the 2019 book “Skimmed: Breastfeeding, Race, and Injustice,” told NPR a year ago, the same inequity and racism that makes Black moms three times more likely to die of pregnancy- and birth-related complications makes it that much harder for Black moms to successfully breastfeed their babies.
The near-constant pressure to breastfeed creates another barrier as well. In the well-meaning efforts to normalize breastfeeding, moms can feel obligated, even bullied, into nursing, and even when it causes harm to their overall mental health. One 2011 study published in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology found that moms who had negative breastfeeding experiences were more likely to develop postpartum depression, and the rise in drug-related maternal deaths and deaths by suicide have been linked to the intense pressure to breastfeed.
“For some, breastfeeding can be a wonderful experience, until it isn’t,” says Jessica Zucker, a psychologist specializing in maternal mental health and author of “I Had A Miscarriage: A Memoir, a Movement.” “It has the potential to fuel feelings of guilt and an internalized feeling of failure for not being able or not wanting to meet these often unattainable parenting expectations. These feelings can make matters worse — further provoking mental health challenges.”
In this country, mothers are offered lip service and little else, a fact made all the more apparent as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately impacted working mothers, specifically Black and Latina mothers. Breastfeeding can be difficult because our bodies are sentient flesh bags that rarely work in the ways we want and need them to. But it’s also made difficult by a lack of systemic support, pervasive racism and inadequate information that could otherwise empower and uplift moms at a time when they’re bombarded by myriad decisions and choices.
Make no mistake, the fact that Frida’s commercial mirrored the experiences of so many mothers wasn’t just a byproduct of clever marketing. It was an example of how this country continues to fail lactating parents — a failure all of us experience at some point to varying degrees. Us moms need more than Frida’s call for us to “care for your breast, not just your baby.” We need more than well-meaning ideas for self-care that still give us another item list to check off on our never-ending to-do list. We need help.
So help us.