My son was only a few days old. Skin soft and pink, his face still puffy, and his eyes often closed in the deepness of sleep. He was perfect, and for days my husband and I simply sat and stared at him, awestruck by this tiny wonder that we created. This tiny wonder that now lay in the palms of my hands, his little chest rising and falling, his tiny lips parted in a perfect little "o" as he traveled the peaceful lands of deep slumber.
Before long it was his hunger that scared me; his tiny jaw would open and clamp down on my breast as he eagerly tried to suckle away. I would hold my breath from the pain as my toes curled. I'd look up at the ceiling of our living room and try to just breathe while he ate, tears running down my face as I begged for it to end. It was a day, perhaps, when I could take the pain no longer, in sobs as he latched, my arms shaking as I tried to hold him on. My mother sat with me, and my sister watched me, both wincing. "OK, this can't be normal," my sister said. She picked up her purse and flew out the door, returning moments later with a handful of nipple shields. She had grabbed them all, every size and type.
That nipple shield would allow me to continue breastfeeding long enough to get to a breastfeeding support group. It turned out, breastfeeding wasn't supposed to hurt and my son was latching improperly. How could I have known this? I could easily credit the breastfeeding support group with saving my breastfeeding experience, and providing a solace in the isolation of new motherhood. In the early days, I didn't know if I could possibly make it a week breastfeeding.
And now, almost a year later, I am still breastfeeding my son. I joke that I have breastfed this baby everywhere in the city; that if you live in St. Louis, there is a good chance you have seen my boobs. Those first few days are all but forgotten. And as we will shortly begin the weaning process, I am saddened, nostalgic and grateful for the bond it has provided us.
And so began my project, "Breastfeeding is Beautiful" -- as an exploration of the breastfeeding experience in modern America. I photographed willing breastfeeding mothers, and talked to them about their experiences. They described their time breastfeeding with words like peaceful, frustrating, cure-all. I heard the words "magic" and "powerful" to describe the calming effect of a baby at the breast. They told me about the support, or lack thereof, that they had from family members. I heard about doctors pushing formula, about lactation consultants advocating for those who didn't know the first thing about what "enough" milk looked like. Some talked about embarrassment at feeding their baby in public, others scarcely gave it a second thought. More than one thread of similarity connected these new mothers, but the greatest of all was this: the awareness that something in our society needed to change.
In the 1950s, in a changing America, breastfeeding faced a steep decline; initiation rates were only at 25 percent, meaning that 75 percent of women were choosing not to breastfeed, rather than not breastfeeding because they were unable to do so successfully.
While there are a number of factors for this, including free formula programs that discouraged breastfeeding, a lack of education and awareness, and little breastfeeding support post-birth, there was also another simple factor: breastfeeding became seen as only a necessity for the lower class. After all, if we can make a "perfect" formula, why wouldn't we use that? If you had to breastfeed your child, you clearly didn't have the money for this perfect formula. In short, breastfeeding became, well, un-classy. In the 1970s, breastfeeding rates began to increase once again, as more studies emphasized the nutritional benefits and awareness campaigns spread across the U.S.
And here we are today; so many years have gone by since shame was first stamped on a breastfeeding mother. The country stopped seeing breastfeeding as a regular part of motherhood, simply allowing it to become less normalized. Almost 75 years later, and we still feel the remnants of that shame. No longer for the act itself -- as education has taken us away from the misleading suggestion that breast milk is not as nutrition-rich for infants -- but instead, we feel the ripples of the many years when women felt the need to cover up the fact that they breastfed. We feel the ripples of many years of hiding -- so much so, that it can create a scene in public. The natural and beautiful act of breastfeeding has been stripped of its beauty by a public sphere of people who want to make the issue one of sexuality.
As a breastfeeding mother who feeds her infant unabashedly anytime and anywhere, I would dare anyone to challenge me. As mothers, we are doing the most natural thing in the world -- and in one of the most intellectually advanced nations in the world. And yet, we are being asked to justify it, to cover it up. How is it that for a nation that prides itself on advancements in its development, education and growth of sciences, one of the most basic, yet incredible things a woman's body does -- something that has allowed for and propelled the human species for thousands of years -- gets an awkward look, and a question of decency? The simple fact that feeding a helpless infant the way in which nature has perfected for us to do so makes individuals in our society uncomfortable is a telltale sign that we are not doing something right.
These photos are for our world. They are for anyone who sees breastfeeding as indecent or sexualized. For anyone who questions its beauty, its naturalness. If the Western world needs to see it over and over in the public sphere to get it back to "normal," let us start with these bold moms. It turns out, Breastfeeding is Beautiful.
I truly hope you will enjoy the photos in my "Breastfeeding is Beautiful" series. I also hope that you'll share it, pass it on, and propel this message into our culture.
This post first appeared at SheByShe, a new women's opinion site dedicated to sharing women's voices.