I became pregnant with my now 16-year-old son during the summer of 1997. I completed the requirements for my undergraduate degree in English in November of that same year. My son was born in March 5, 1998, and I participated in commencement ceremonies in May 1998. And I was a breastfeeding mother. Prior to the ceremony, I pumped but the longer that I sat in the University of West Alabama’s Tiger Stadium listening to speech after speech, the more uncomfortable I became. Nature had plans all its own. Regardless of the pumping that had taken place prior to the ceremony, my breasts filled with milk and I had no recourse other than to sit there and wait. As soon as the ceremony was over, I quickly grabbed my son to relieve my breasts of the milky tension. I unzipped my gown, pulled the shoulder strap from my dress, threw a blanket over his head and fed him. And I did this all while I smiled with my friends and family. This was not the first or last time that I had to rush to relieve my breasts from the stinging discomfort that results when the milk is ready to nourish a hungry baby. I recall that once I sped home from work hoping my son’s godmother hadn’t fed him because I was seriously in pain. Of course, she had fed him and I had to squeeze my breasts and release the milk into the bathroom sink for some relief.
What I learned from being a young, breastfeeding mother was that no matter how much planning you think you’ve done, the milk and your baby will alter those plans without notice. So yes, I totally understand why Long Beach State University GRADUATE Karlesha Thurman fed her baby at her commencement ceremony. And no, I don’t see thing wrong with it. According to an ABC News blog, Thurman felt the picture was a thoughtful display of mothering [And I agree.] and posted it to the Facebook group Black Women do Breastfeed. The picture quickly went viral. Since then, there has been much written, Tweeted, Facebook’d, and Instagram’d about Thurman’s intentions when the picture was taken and posted. Some claim that she did it for attention, and others suggest she was only doing what mothers do. I contend the latter is more accurate. However, even if she did make a purposeful attempt to feed her baby at the ceremony, breastfeeding a baby is a natural occurrence that we need to stop stigmatizing. Not only was she able to provide food for her baby, but she also helped to get the #NormalizeBreastfeeding message across through her photo.
A mother breastfeeding her baby at a commencement ceremony, in the mall, at her home, in the post office is completely normal. Our reactions are not natural and contribute to further alienating mothers who want to breastfeed their children. Thurman noted that when she became pregnant, she thought about leaving school temporarily or permanently. However, she decided to stay in school with hopes of securing a better future for her and her daughter. That’s what her picture represents. Thurman stands in her cap and gown, breastfeeding her daughter with an infectious smile on her face. She accomplished what many of us who’ve juggled motherhood, education, employment – life – have accomplished. Undoubtedly, she knows the anxiety of wondering whether she could do it all. The picture is proof that she did. Her joy and success illuminate from the picture, but the public is only worried about the appropriateness of a breast being visible in public. We’re worried about a breast being used to feed a baby and foster a bond between the mother and daughter. If the appropriateness of the timing of feeding a baby is our most significant concern when we view Thurman’s photo, we don’t have shit else to do with our lives. Let’s stop worrying about this young mother doing what she’s supposed to do for her daughter – be a mother. Period.
What would should do is educate ourselves on the disparities and benefits related to breastfeeding. A report by the Centers of Disease Control (CDC) indicated that the percentage of Black women that breastfed their children increased from 47% to 60% from 2000 to 2008. However, “Black infants consistently had the lowest rates of breastfeeding initiation and duration across all study years” (CDC, 2013). We should also be concerned with how breastfeeding benefits infants and mothers. For example, the CDC (2009) noted that breastfeeding lowers an infant’s risk for respiratory and ear infections, Type 2 diabetes, and sudden infant death syndrome. Benefits for mothers include lowered risk of breast and ovarian cancer and Type 2 diabetes. Mothers also benefit from a tightened uterus, diminished post-birth bleeding, and suppressed ovulation. We also should celebrate the fact that Thurman is a young mother who’s breastfeeding her daughter as the rates of mothers under the age of 30 that breastfeed their children are significantly low.
Motherhood can be a challenging, daunting, isolating, rewarding, satisfying, loving experience. Continuing to shame mothers for their breastfeeding choices is a practice that we must discontinue. Karlesha Thurman breastfeeding her daughter was natural and normal. It’s our reactions that are not.