“My mission is to document and provide education that supports diverse variations of normal breastfeeding”
MP: Let´s start at the beginning, did your mother nurse you when you were a baby?
Yes, my mother was alone when I was born. My Dad was in Ghana and my mother did not have much support. She nursed me for 1 year. I didn’t like the bottle so she would come nurse me on her lunch break from work and express milk for me if I was still hungry after she left.
MP: Did you see a lot of nursing women growing up?
I only saw my close friend nurse her first baby. I was 21 years old. I was in town visiting her and had the opportunity to accompany her to her first well-baby appointment. She told me about the struggle of trying to get her baby to latch. I remember her telling me how amazing nipple cream was! However, at such a young age I just couldn’t understand the great responsibility of having a baby. A few months later she moved back to California and I babysat her daughter. It was my first experience with sleeplessness, skin to skin, and co-sleeping. She allowed me to photograph her nursing her second daughter as a toddler for my Breastfeeding Awareness Media Campaign sitting at her dining room table.
MP: Who is your breastfeeding role model?
My mother, hands down. She breastfed my older brother even though he had a lethargic latch, she continued breastfeeding me after I bit her several times, and she breastfed my younger sister who suffered from colic for the first 12 weeks of life, who would wake up screaming at 3am every single night. And she nursed us and pumped milk as a full-time working mother. Hearing these stories growing up gave me the understanding that no matter what, breast is best for our babies.
Margaret Isliker-Smith: ” Vanessa enjoyed breastfeeding as a baby. She sometimes stopped feeding and looked around the room for a while and return to the breast. When she was full she would raise her hands up to signal she was done and satisfied. “
MP: I know you are a mother. How many children do you have?
I have 3 children. A 7 year old son, a 4 year old daughter, and a 1 year old son. I breastfed my two older children, though I struggled very much to do so. Now I have been breastfeeding my youngest exclusively for the past year. Being able to breastfeed has always been incredibly important to me.”
After my first baby was born I suffered from postpartum depression and even a post partum psychoses. When my second baby was born I got the point of exhaustion and feared a relapse. So I would pump a bottle, my husband would mix it with formula. That way I could get close to 4 hours of sleep altogether without being woken up. I could have pumped more milk instead, but I was so exhausted and pumping took time away from sleeping. I lived in FEAR that I would be hospitalized again. Those are probably the scariest memories I have made in my entire life. Forcefully separated from my breastfed baby and husband because of a psychosis. I was willing to do anything to prevent it to happen again.”
MP: Can we write about this?
“Please do! This is NORMAL! “
MP: Did you know about donor milk?
“No, but I wish I had – my husband and I were discussing this last night. He had said that he wished he knew about donor milk because he was stressed out trying to figure out how to get me to pump milk while I was hospitalized.”
MP: Do you regret using formula?
“My only regret regarding supplementing with formula was that my supply eventually depleted and my daughter went on a nursing strike, and finally she weaned at 11 months. Back then I didn’t know about nursing strikes, but I am positive she had one because I never pumped while she was away. She is still, at 4 years old, incredibly clingy and needy, like wanting to lay on my chest, especially while my youngest son is nursing.”
MP: Does your partner support your choice to breastfeed?
My partner was not breastfed and because of it he has many allergies. He has always supported my decision to breastfeed. He also supported my decision to supplement when I felt exhausted. Although not everyone understood my decision to breastfeed, everyone has supported my choice to nurse my children.
“Breastfeeding is not intimate, or even sexual, it is as normal as a baby being held, except the breast is exposed to nourish the child.”
MP: Why do you want to show breastfeeding mothers in your work?
As Canadian Pediatrician, Jack Newman, describes that, “The more we see babies at the breast, the more normal it will become.” Breastfeeding is not intimate, or even sexual, it is as normal as a baby being held, except the breast is exposed to nourish the child.
My mission is to document and provide education that supports diverse variations of normal breastfeeding. When I refer to diversity, I am referring to black breastfeeding women becoming more visible in motherhood related media in an effort to close the gap of disparities in communities of color. However, I am also referring to the diversity among breastfeeding mothers and the style that mothers choose to provide breast milk for their children. For example, pumping exclusively, tandem breastfeeding, extended breastfeeding, child led weaning, supplemental nursing systems, wet nursing, and donated breast milk — I think all of these styles are variations of normal breastfeeding. As a community, we first need to normalize the many methods of providing breast milk for our children in order to unite with each other for the good of this cause instead of stirring up hate because one mom exclusively latches their baby to the breast and the other exclusively pumps their breast milk to bottle feed.
“It is important that as black women, we see positive images of ourselves in the media that show us breastfeeding our babies.”
MP: Why is it extra important to show that black women do breastfeed?
Women of color are up against so much when it comes to breastfeeding, and the statistics prove that external support for our community is needed from women around the world to make an impact. Black Breastfeeding Week was created not to divide, but to seek the support of mothers everywhere to stand in the gap for black mothers who receive the least amount of professional and family support to breastfeed and show lower statistics for breastfeeding in comparison to white mothers: black mothers breastfeeding at 58.9% versus their white counterparts at 75%, according to the CDC. I always reach out to groups that focus on Black Women breastfeeding because it is important that as black women, we see positive images of ourselves in the media that show us breastfeeding our babies and supporting our families who choose to breastfeed.
(red: read here more about the history of why black women breastfeed less)
“Human milk is always better for human babies”
MP: Is there any other subject you want to normalize?
“Right now it seems like donated breast milk is not received by the general public as a normal way for a baby to be nourished in the absence of the mother. This is something that needs to change, especially considering that after 1 year of age we trust the milk of a cow to nourish a human. I recently shot photos for the Milk for Brixton Project. After a mothers sudden dead her friends and family donated enough milk to feed her baby. Most importantly, it needs to be understood, that human milk is always better for human babies.
Author: Yael Haller