This is a guest post from award-winning Texas birth photographer, Leilani Rogers. She wrote this article about “The Public Breastfeeding Awareness Project” for Holistic Parenting Magazine, Issue 10 (July/August 2015). I am thrilled to share it with you. Feed your babies everywhere, beautiful mamas!
I began my photography business in 2009. After documenting the birth of my niece in 2011, I knew I had found my calling. Today I specialize in birth and breastfeeding photography in the Austin, TX area. I am passionate about my work and am grateful to take part in so many women’s motherhood journeys.
My husband (of 18 years) and I have 4 children, ages 9 to 16. I breastfed them all, but it was a tough journey. My first 2 babies were premature, which presented some unique challenges. Anxiety, coupled with not knowing my options, caused me to blindly follow the doctor and nurses’ lead. 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 advocating for us, and the staff had no problem insisting that they knew what was best for my baby.
Recovering from the birth myself left me feeling pretty vulnerable, and by the time I’d dealt with latch issues, plugged milk ducts, mastitis, thrush, and later reflux and dairy allergies, my supply began to suffer and I threw in the towel at 3 months with the first baby, and 6 months with the second. Despite dealing again with latch issues, thrush and dietary sensitivities, I went on to breastfeed my third child for 12 months and fourth for 18 months. The biggest difference was in the amount of support I had with those last 2 babies. I sought the help of a lactation consultant to help me accomplish my breastfeeding goals.
I never got comfortable with breastfeeding in public, however. I didn’t have a lot of support outside of professional circles. I stayed to myself a lot in those early mothering years and I was nervous about what other people would think or say, and if they would stare at me, if I fed my baby out in the open. So I just breastfed at home (and on occasion, the car). This of course meant arranging my life entirely around my babies’ feeding schedule.
Austin is considered a mother friendly city, and Texas law supports the public breastfeeding mother, but it doesn’t protect her. Billboards are popping up all over, commercials can be seen on TV and heard on the radio encouraging breastfeeding. But 40% of mothers listed breastfeeding in public as their top worry about breastfeeding in the Lansinoh 2012 breastfeeding study. So I know that the fears I had so many years ago were not uncommon, and that there is so much more to be done to normalize breastfeeding.
Statistics show that 75% of all mothers initiate breastfeeding, which is recommended by the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) for 6 months then with foods for a year, at birth. 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 capture mothers’ breastfeeding journeys from the beginning. Which serves as a constant reminder of what an accomplishment it is. Because of that, coupled with my own (previous) inhibitions, I’ve developed a passion for breastfeeding photography. I love preserving this beautiful and natural bond for mothers, but I’ve also seen that through exposure, society becomes more accepting of it and it becomes more “normal” in their eyes. Furthermore, other mothers see the images and feel that sense of community and support that we largely lack.
I started a personal public breastfeeding project on a whim in 2013, when I had the realization 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 big, and (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) were very vocal and generated some intense conversations.
Moms, dads, grandmothers and photographers all chimed in. Young 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 these conversations feeling more confident and empowered enough to not place so much importance on society’s misguided views about breasts. And that’s what generated my desire to take this project to the next level. In 2014 I decided to join forces with other breastfeeding photographers and make this a worldwide effort.
The “Public Breastfeeding Awareness Project” was born and word spread like wildfire. Feeling bolder than ever, and inspired by the interest of nearly 60 photographers in the US as well as Ireland, Venezuela, Australia, Canada and Italy, I broadened my perspective to include all breastMILK feeding moms, as I like to call it, in my sessions. And I encouraged my photographers to do the same.
What we ended up with are hundreds of photos of mothers breastfeeding in public, of course, but also working mothers who pump on the job, stay at home moms who pump and donate their extra milk to milk banks, mothers whose only choices are to bottle-feed, cup-feed or tube-feed their breastmilk 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 photos also include a wide variety of cultures, backgrounds and ages of babies/children who breastfeed or are breastmilk fed.
We have attracted national attention from news stations, newspapers, and several online news sources. 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, in some way.
Because breastfeeding can be a challenge and because breastfeeding mamas 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 what started as a simple idea, reinforces my vision to effect actual change – not just in our attitude but in our state laws which are currently limited to support, but not legal protection, for breastfeeding mothers. Our project also aims to break down the barriers to that protection, which include: a) that the female body can be openly shown as sexual, but not functional b) that breastfeeding mothers are flaunting/drawing attention to themselves by breastfeeding in public uncovered and c) the great divide between mothers who have had successful breastfeeding journeys and those that have not.
My hope is that PBAP continues to inspire moms to feel more confident breastfeeding in public rather than hiding in restrooms (or worse, at home) by showcasing that breastfeeding happens in real life all around us. I also hope the exposure to the images conditions our society to be more accepting when they turn their head in the grocery store and see it happening right in front of them. We must all work together, especially as a community of women, to normalize this.
The Public Breastfeeding Awareness Project continues to grow! We are now at 75 photographers worldwide! To see more of our images, search the hashtags #PBAP2014 and #PBAP2015 on social media including facebook, twitter, instagram and pinterest. PBAP also has a business page and an instagram account.
All photography in this article by Leilani Rogers. Find more on her website.