I have 4 children, ages 8 to 15. I breastfed them all, but it was a tough journey. Breastfeeding was very important to me, it just did not come easy. My first 2 babies were premature, and that presented some unique challenges. Advocating for my baby and myself did not come easily, being that I am a soft-spoken person and that I was quite anxious about the well being of my babies. So, I would show up at the NICU, pumped milk in hand, only to discover that they had already given my baby formula. This was not ok with me, but I had a hard time getting through to the nurses, and they had no problem making me feel like they knew what was best for my baby… not me.
By the time I’d dealt with latch issues, plugged milk ducts, mastitis, thrush, not to mention reflux and dairy allergies, my supply began to suffer and I threw in the towel at 3 months with the first, and 6 months with the second. I went on to breastfeed my third child for 12 months and fourth for 18 months, but again the journey was peppered with latch issues, thrush and sensitivities.
I finally sought the help of a lactation consultant and with that support was able to accomplish my breastfeeding goals. But I was never comfortable breastfeeding in public. That kind of support was not there. I was nervous about what other people would think of me, and if they would stare at me, or worse – if they would say something to me. So I just avoided the confrontation wherever possible. This of course meant arranging my schedule entirely around my babies.
Austin, TX (where I live) is considered a mother friendly city now, and TX law protects the public breastfeeding mother. Billboards are popping up all over, commercials can be seen on TV and heard on the radio supporting breastfeeding mothers. But 40% of mothers listed breastfeeding in public as their top worry about breastfeeding in the Lansinoh 2012 breastfeeding study. So I know now that the fears I had 8-15 years ago were not uncommon.
We know the statistics: About 75% of mothers initiate breastfeeding, which is recommended by the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) for 6 months then with foods for a year. The WHO (World Health Organization) recommends breastfeeding until 2 years, because of decreased risk for obesity, diabetes, and more. But how can mothers meet these recommendations if they don’t feel supported enough to breastfeed their babies outside of their homes or on demand?
As a birth photographer, I am capturing mothers’ breastfeeding journeys from the very tender beginning. And I’m constantly reminded of what an accomplishment it is. Because of that coupled my own (previous) inhibitions, I’ve developed a passion for breastfeeding photography. I love preserving this beautiful and natural bond for mothers, and I’ve seen that through exposure, society becomes more accepting of it and it becomes more “normal” in their eyes. Not only that, but other mothers see the images and feel a stronger sense of community and support.
I started a public breastfeeding project on a whim in 2013, when it dawned on me that I could target specific situations where mothers felt uncomfortable nursing in public by photographing them in those situations. It was World Breastfeeding Week and I wanted to take advantage of the increased interest in breastfeeding to get my message out there. I ran a poll on my Facebook page asking “What is the one place you feel the most uncomfortable NIP (nursing in public)?” and used the answers to schedule my sessions. With about 10 moms in all, I set out to a local church, grocery store, the park, the pool, a mother’s workplace and restaurant.
The response to my images was mostly positive. The majority of people seemed to support and even applaud the project, but the minority (who tend to troll these types of conversations anyway) was very vocal and generated some intense conversations.
Moms, dads, grandmothers and photographers all chimed in. Current mothers seemed to find courage in the photos. A few of them even emailed me, thanking me for sharing the project. They walked away from the conversations about these images with more confidence, and feeling empowered enough to not place so much importance on their society’s misguided views about breasts.
Grandmothers and older women generally felt the most strongly about using discretion/covering up. Photographers clearly loved the idea behind the project, as they were commenting on the photos, asking questions and even sharing the images on their pages. When I began noticing similar sessions pop up in my Facebook feed from photographers that I followed, it occurred to me to join forces and make this a worldwide effort.
I felt inspired to make a few changes to the project this year. I’ve brainstormed some new locations, but I also wanted the sessions to feel more inclusive all breastMILK feeding moms, as I like to call it. This includes working mothers who pump on the job, stay at home moms who pump and donate their extra milk to milk banks, as well as mothers who’s only choices are to bottle feed, cup feed or tube-feed their breast milk to their babies. All of these mamas are essentially breastfeeding, and yet they don’t always feel like they have a place IN the breastfeeding community.
The biggest change of course is that I recruited about 60 photographers to participate in the now called “Public Breastfeeding Awareness Project”. I’ve encouraged them to include a variety of cultures, backgrounds and ages of babies/children who breastfeed or breastmilk feed in their sessions, which have taken place all over the US as well as Ireland, Venezuela, Australia, Italy, the UK and Canada. The photographs have attracted national attention from news stations, newspapers, and several online news sources. I never imagined this would go viral. Many of my photographers are or have been breastfeeding mothers themselves. So it’s not just about the pictures, but also about an issue that resonates with us all personally.
Because breastfeeding can be a challenge and because breastfeeding mamas do have so many hurdles to overcome, it’s a relationship worth celebrating. That’s the key, I feel, to understanding why a week or month must be dedicated to the “simple “ act (as some like to call it) of breastfeeding.
I had a wheelchair bound mother participate in one of my sessions. She was in a terrible car accident after she’d already signed up to both model for me, and be a photographer herself. Her breastfeeding relationship was cut short due to complications from a car accident, and she told me she didn’t think she was a good fit for the project anymore. I told her to come anyway, if anything to honor the dedication she had to breastfeeding her now 21 month old for nearly 20 months. Something she worked hard for was now over and I understood, because of my own experiences, how hard that must have been for her. She deserved to be recognized just as all women who work hard to meet their breastfeeding goals deserve to be recognized, and applauded!
It’s been amazing to watch this project grow and touch so many different people. To hear words like “campaign” ,”movement” and “initiative” be associated with it reinforce my vision. I hope to continue to inspire more moms to feel more confident breastfeeding in public rather than hiding in restrooms, or worse, at home. Both by showing that breastfeeding happens in real life and by supporting it when we turn our head in the grocery store and see it happening right in front of us.
This project will continue to grow, because we have some serious barriers to break down: a) that the female body is sexual, not functional b) that breastfeeding mothers are flaunting themselves in public unless they are cloaked and c) the great divide between mothers who have not had successful breastfeeding journeys and those that have. We must all work together, especially as a community of women. We stand in our own way (with regards to so many issues that affect us as women) when we allow our insecurities to get the best of us.
To see more images from the Public Breastfeeding Awareness Project, search the hashtag #PBAP2015 on social media including facebook, twitter, instagram and pinterest. More images are featured on the project’s Facebook page.
Thanks to all the photographers!
Leilani Rogers (photosbylei.com)
Jessica Peterson (onetreephotography.com)
Laura Eckert (newcreationphotography.com)
Vannessa Brown (vannessabrown.com)
Jackie Price (belliestobabies.wordpress.com)