Black Breastfeeding: A Conversation with Asabea Britton & Nikki Silvestri

An interview with Swedish Midwife Asabea Britton and DEI Coach Nikki Silvestri on breastfeeding as a Black mother in a pandemic.

Solid Starts: How are you doing? How are you coping with pandemic parenting?

Nikki: Um…(laughs)…I don’t even know how to answer that question. It’s probably all things. I’m coping—I’m not necessarily thriving. Well, there is a part of me that is thriving. I am all things. That is the real answer. The part of me that’s thriving is the part of me that is really pleased with how I am learning to erect boundaries and clearly state what I want and need. Times are so critical right now that if I am not stable and the core stability isn’t there for my family, then it’s just not going to work. So, I’m having to be radically attentive to myself. And in that way, I am thriving, and I’m going to be able to take that with me forever.

On the other hand, I am dealing with a tremendous amount of grief and loss and all of the things that everybody else is dealing with. And I feel it really acutely because I am in a breastfeeding-high-emotional-state-body.

Asabea: I’m doing well. Living in Sweden with small children is really a privilege. I’m on paid maternity with my youngest and will be for about a year total when his dad takes over for another year or so. Daycare isn’t free but pretty cheap compared to other countries (about $100 a month with all food and diapers included). So, I can’t complain, really.

Solid Starts: Will you tell us about your decision to breastfeed? What contributed to the start of your breastfeeding journey? 

Nikki: My mom always talked really fondly of breastfeeding us when we were babies—from a health perspective as well as from a bonding perspective. And it just never felt like it was an option to not breastfeed when I was growing up. It’s like if you can, you do. You only use formula if you absolutely have to. And so that was the kind of psychological meme for me around breastfeeding.

Asabea: I’m a midwife, so I’ve assisted other women in their breastfeeding and I was very curious as to what the experience would feel like for me. I also longed for that bonding experience with my child. The health benefits were definitely a factor as well, perhaps the main one. Also, I felt like it would ease my children’s transition to life outside of the womb if they could keep that connection to me. Also, I felt it was the most practical and cost-efficient choice for me.

Solid Starts: Let’s talk about the traumatic history of Black enslaved mothers being forced to breastfeed babies of their oppressors. Will you talk about your personal experience in the context of this history? How does it affect your opinions about breastfeeding today?

Nikki: Well, I have a master’s degree in African American studies, so I feel very connected to that history. Again, it feels multi-faceted. On the one hand, I am connected to the beauty and the love of what it is to have nursed this country in some ways—like to have been able to feed everyone, not just our own children but everyone from our bodies even though we were forced to. The act of it means that we were nourishing even when we ourselves were not being nourished…The mother-archetype that that is and the power we can pull from that—I’m so glad that we have that. 

And of course, on the other hand, we were forced to take milk from our own children and feed it to the people that were actively killing and torturing us. And that is…(pause)…there are just no words for that. So, I feel like every moment that I breastfeed my children is an opportunity to heal from that legacy. It’s an opportunity to have agency and choice over something where the agency and choice was stolen before.

Nikki Silvestri holds her infant

Nikki Silvestri after feeding her baby.

Asabea Britton nurses her infant

Asabea Britton feeding her baby.

Asabea: As a Black woman, I can feel that pain, but not in the same way I probably could if I were a Black American woman. However, because of the effect that the U.S. has on our western culture, I feel that normalizing breastfeeding amongst Black women there will indirectly affect us positively here in Sweden, too. I feel that me being open with breastfeeding is particularly important because I am non-white, and it’s not so common seeing a woman like me breastfeed publicly. 

My mother is from Ghana, where many slaves were taken from during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, so I have some personal connection to the history in that way. But Ghana is one of the places where I have felt the most comfortable breastfeeding. I would say that they are generally very pro-breastfeeding there and see boobs as having that purpose, which is really liberating. It’s a clear indication of what breastfeeding could have been for Black American women if they had not been exploited the way they were.

Solid Starts: Do you have any memories of your mother breastfeeding you? Have you talked about it? What about your grandmother? 

Nikki: That’s a good question with my grandmother—I’m pretty sure my grandmother breastfed. I have talked about it with my mom, and my mom absolutely breasted us. She continues to talk about it to this day—it was one of the highlights of her life.

Asabea: I don’t remember it, but my mother has talked a lot about it. I was surprised when I asked how long she breastfed; she said it was only for about nine months since her milk suddenly disappeared at that point with me and my youngest older sister. With my oldest sister, she breastfed for just a couple of months, I think. I was surprised that she hadn’t breastfed longer and that her knowledge of milk supply wasn’t better. I didn’t tell her that, though. I had never met my maternal grandmother since she died before I was born, but I believe she breastfed all her 11 children. My paternal grandmother, I have no idea—I need to ask my dad—but she had small children in the 1930s, so I assume she breastfed.

Solid Starts: Tell us about your breastfeeding journey. What are some highlights? What about lowlights?

Nikki: I’ll start with the lowlights and end with the highlights. The lowlights are just it hurts. I wasn’t expecting that—I mean, people told me. But I didn’t really know what that meant because I can handle a lot of nipple stimulation, or at least I could back when I was a snack instead of being an actual snack. (Laughs) But now, you know chewing and biting just doesn’t have the same resonance. It’s not the same. So, I was surprised by the pain and the worry about thrush, mastitis; there are just so many things that I experienced that I didn’t have context for, even though I heard about them. And so those were some of the lowlights—having to deal with all of those practicalities.

But the highlights have been being able to feed my children from my body. It’s so miraculous. And even like now. I’m tandem nursing my 4-month-old and my 3-year-old. Just watching my 3-year-old reach out for nursing and connection when he’s upset or struggling and knowing that I can still provide for him, it’s just so beautiful. I love it.

Asabea: It has been the most wonderful experience of my life to breastfeed my firstborn. I can hardly explain the bond and calm it has given me. Being able to comfort him so easily in that way has been such a blessing. I was lucky to be well-informed about breastfeeding, which I think really helped us start out on a good path. I then nursed him for 2 years and 8 months. We stopped just about a month ago. I struggled with my reasons for quitting. I’m ashamed to say other people’s opinions about breastfeeding an older child affected me more than I would have liked. Quitting was painful for both of us. We both cried about it. But now we have both landed in this new situation, and I am so amazed at his acceptance of me continuing to nurse his little brother. One would have thought he would resent him for it, but not at all. 

Breastfeeding has been easy for me except during the mid-and end of my pregnancy. In mid-pregnancy, my boobs were really tender, so it was majorly painful. At the end of pregnancy, I had some breastfeeding aversion which was horrible. So that was a lowlight. A definite highlight, though, was that my son induced the birth of his little brother through him breastfeeding and making my contractions start. Another highlight was tandem nursing for six months—I feel like it really strengthened the bond between my sons and eased the transition to this new situation for my oldest.

Solid Starts: Are you planning how long you might breastfeed?

Nikki: As long as they’re willing to. I feel like I’ve read so many things from different cultures who breastfeed for a really long time. Ikenna, my oldest, stopped nursing for nourishment on his own around 15-16 months, and then it was down to two times a day, and it was really only for comfort. And I am noticing that when he regresses because he is in a time of hardship, he wants to nurse more. And I think, it’s such a short period of time, and it’s such a short phase of life, and we’re in a pandemic—I am so glad that I can provide that kind of comfort for him. With my 4-month-old, I think it’s going to be similar, just as long as she wants to.

Asabea: No plan. I want to continue as long as my little one and I want to. I hope I completely disregard other people’s opinions this time around.

Solid Starts: What advice would you like to share with Black mothers-to-be? 

Nikki: If you want to breastfeed, then take all of this in. And if you don’t, then don’t. 

Breastfeeding is a part of motherhood. You’re going to face so many other challenges, just one after another, so just take breastfeeding as one aspect of being a mom. And if you want to do it and you’re committed to doing it, there’s support to do it. Just know that it’s probably not going to be easy, because it’s just one of those things, and that’s okay—it’s not easy for anybody, no matter what Instagram says. 

And if you don’t want to do it and if you end up not doing it, that’s totally fine. Hold your baby. Just hold them, love them, give them all of your presence, and they will be fine. 

Asabea: Your body has what your baby needs. Even though patriarchy, history, and capitalism try to make you think differently. If you don’t want to breastfeed, that’s fine, but let it be a choice you make for yourself—not for anyone else. 

If you wish to breastfeed, surround yourself with people who support you in that journey. Support should really not be underestimated when discussing how to achieve successful breastfeeding. If you can’t find support amongst the people around you, look for support in an online community. Also, fill your Instagram feed with Black breastfeeding mothers because representation really matters.

This conversation was posted in celebration of Juneteenth, a holiday that celebrates the end of slavery in the United States. 

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