By Alexa Spencer | Word In Black

This story is part four of a Black breastfeeding series that highlights real-life stories of Black mothers and lactation specialists navigating disparities and creating solutions in today’s maternal health climate. 

Credit: Illustration by Alexa Imani Spencer/Photo Courtesy of Debra Gray

(WIB) – Living a “crunchy mom” lifestyle — where moms practice natural parenting, such as breastfeeding for years at home — isn’t always accessible to Black moms, but Debra Gray was determined to have it. 

She breastfed all three of her children from the comfort of her home, allowing them to nurse for as long as they wanted. 

“I was in the midst of just super ‘crunchy mom,’” the 36-year-old based in Virginia Beach, Virginia says. 

“I stayed at home with my kids for the first month of their life. Granted I didn’t have to go to work anyway, but I just really believed that my body needed to rest.”

A 2021 report shows that Black mothers received 3.6 fewer weeks of full-pay during their parental leaves than white mothers.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that breastfeeding moms feed their babies breast milk exclusively for the first six months of their life. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), breastfeeding can protect the mother and child from illnesses and diseases. 

Gray was able to feed well beyond the recommendation with all of her children but says work-related barriers make it hard for other Black moms to do the same. 

“It’s not everybody’s story and especially, I think, with Black families. And the maternity leave that you get is atrocious in the U.S.,” she says. 

While the U.S. is among the wealthiest nations, it’s the only one not offering national paid parental leave. 

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) offers working parents 12 weeks of unpaid leave, burdening families with the need to supplement months worth of income. 

This is particularly devastating for Black mothers who are more likely than other groups to be impoverished and less likely to receive parental leave pay. 

2021 report shows that Black mothers received 3.6 fewer weeks of full-pay during their parental leaves than white mothers. The report states systemic and interpersonal racism as causes. 

Some states and private employers offer paid leave programs, but not all.

Paid parental leave offers many health benefits for the birthing person and child. 

The report goes on to state that it “enables workers to take time away from work to recover from childbirth and care for a new baby [and] is associated with decreased low-birth-weight births and infant mortality, increased breastfeeding, and improved maternal mental health.”

President Joe Biden proposed a federal four-week paid leave benefit for Americans as part of the Build Back Better package, but it fell through.

Additionally, some states and private employers offer paid leave programs, but not all. 

At a time when Black moms are suffering from low breastfeeding rates and high maternal and infant mortality rates, Gray says that in a perfect world, “society would recognize feeding children as a top priority.” 

Now a working mother, she imagines workplaces that meet the needs of employed moms in an enthusiastic way. 

“If a mom wants to work, then a mom can go to work, but…there should be no ‘Oh, well, I guess we’ll make a spot for you to pump. And here you can have this raggedy old fridge,’” she says. “It just needs to be: you’re building a new office building, then you’re building a lactation room, right there with a fridge, and you’re making it comfortable. And you’re putting moms at ease.”