By Khushbu Srivastava, Evaluator for the Brooklyn Breastfeeding Empowerment Zone
As the mother of two young children, I’ve spent much of the last three years of my life breastfeeding. In addition, I work for a New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene program, the Brooklyn Breastfeeding Empowerment Zone that promotes breastfeeding. When I’m not breastfeeding, I am thinking about breastfeeding.
The Empowerment Zone works in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brownsville, two neighborhoods in our city, that like many, face intersecting challenges including poverty, high unemployment rates, violence and lack of access to health services.
Having worked in over fifteen countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Liberia, I often wonder what exactly makes breastfeeding so truly difficult in the United States, especially compared to countries where armed conflict and hunger are daily realities (like the two just mentioned). Only 16.4% of mothers in America were exclusively breastfeeding at 6 months, compared to 37% in DRC and 55% in Liberia.
The United States ranked lowest on the 2012 Save the Children Breastfeeding Policy Scorecard for Developed Countries. We have the dubious distinction of being the only developed country that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave. Most American women are also not paid for work time breaks to pump or breastfeed. In conducting interviews with community stakeholders in Central Brooklyn, I learned that one of the biggest barriers to breastfeeding was returning to work.
For mothers who we work with, who predominantly work in blue collar work-like retail, factories, fast food restaurants and childcare, “luxuries” like paid maternity leave, break times, lactation rooms, part-time/flexible schedules, workplace breastfeeding support programs, and compassionate, breastfeeding-friendly bosses and colleagues mostly do not exist. As a WIC breastfeeding counselor told me, breastfeeding mothers are put in the same category as smokers— people who are wasting time when they should be working.
Despite all of my privileges, I have never had access to a designated lactation room at work. I’ve had coworkers refuse to vacate offices, and have had to pump under a desk to hide from construction workers outside. Sadly, as seen in the recent Supreme Court case on Angela Ames where a breastfeeding mother was fired three hours after being back at work, the courts have a terrible track record for supporting the rights of breastfeeding mothers.
In New York City, we have a tale of two breastfeeding cities: On one hand, we have the land of Park Slope breastfeeding, where mothers have cherub-like babies strapped to their bodies as they jog through the park to get to a mommy’s breastfeeding support group. And then we have the land of neighborhoods like in Brownsville, where simply walking down the street is dangerous, where mothers return to work weeks after giving birth, where there are few places to buy fresh produce, and where there are even fewer breastfeeding role models.
Recent data from the Health Department states that in 2013, babies born to mothers from the richest neighborhoods in New York city were 1.6 times more likely to be exclusively breastfed within the first five days of birth compared to babies from the poorest neighborhoods.
I am likely one of the luckiest breastfeeding mothers in New York City when it comes to work. I have two part-time jobs, my bosses are feminists, I can take work meetings at home while breastfeeding and my partner cleans my pump.
The little dirty secret that nobody wants to talk about is that exclusively breastfeeding for six months is much easier when the baby is frequently sucking at the breast, when babies are close to their mothers and when mothers aren’t stressed. Feminism in our country is based on women’s rights within the context of work– women can be just like men, especially if we leave our babies behind.
In our country, we don’t have rights as mothers and as nurturers. Men’s rights at nurturers? Not a chance. We lament low breastfeeding rates amongst African-American communities, but are afraid to talk about how slavery systematically, as at matter of policy, separated mothers from their infants to promote the labor that this very nation is built on.
Our national health goal is that by 2020, a quarter of infants (25.5%) should be exclusively breastfed at six months. If we really want mothers and families to succeed in this, and if we believe that all mothers should have equal opportunities regardless of which neighborhood they live in or the color of their skin, then we need to be willing to change how mothers work. Paid family leave should be mandatory for all employees, as should be breaks to feed your baby or to pump.
A recent study demonstrated that we would save $3.6 billion annually in healthcare costs for treating for diseases and conditions preventable by breastfeeding. Allowing mothers to work, to support their families financially, while ensuring that their young have the best start to life not just a matter of sound economic policy, but equally, a fundamental human right. Keeping mothers close to their babies is the key to building a healthier tomorrow.
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