When Dublin-based photographer Johanna King set out to document breastfeeding mothers, she came across a family with a rather unique story.
Last year, King photographed around 10 breastfeeding mothers and their families in their natural environments. One such family was Cliona and Sue, a married lesbian couple who both breastfeed their toddler daughter and infant triplets ― a boy and two girls.
A breastfeeding mother herself, King came across Cliona and Sue’s story through a parenting and breastfeeding support group called Cuidiu. When she reached out about photographing them in their home, they were delighted to participate.
King told HuffPost photographing the family was a very relaxed experience. “I felt instantly welcome when Cliona opened the door, and I believe they felt at ease too,” she said.
The photographer documented the family as Sue rotated their then-6-month-old triplets to nurse two at a time.
“Cliona and Sue’s session wasn’t really different from any of the other sessions apart from the fact that their family is quite extraordinary,” King recalled. “I don’t think you will come across many families of two mothers feeding simultaneously four children with four boobs!”
Still, she added, it was like other photo shoots in its focus on capturing the reality of the family’s life in that moment, so they could look back years later and remember how it felt.
Sue gave birth to their triplets and Cliona delivered their first daughter, Aoife. Both women struggled at the start of their breastfeeding journeys. When Aoife was born, Cliona turned to formula due to latch issues. Once they discovered the baby had tongue tie, lactation consultants helped Cliona deal with the issue and relactate.
Their triplets were born two months early and spent about a month in the hospital. “Doctors and nurses wanted to establish a routine and know exactly how much the babies were getting,” said Cliona. “Sue expressed around the clock, despite the fact that she was exhausted, recovering from a C-section, suffering from serious nipple damage, and at one point got mastitis.”
All of the triplets also had tongue tie, but eventually, “after a lot of tears,” Sue managed to nurse the three babies.
Having another breastfeeding mom in the family can be an asset for Sue, though she does the vast majority of the triplets’ feedings.
“It is great that I am able to help out now and again ― for example if one of them has a hospital appointment, I can bring them in and know that I can breastfeed them if they get upset, and we don’t need to bother bringing a bottle of expressed milk with us,” Cliona explained. “Sue has also fed the older child a few times, although she doesn’t show much interest as she says it is ‘too spicy!’”
On the day of the photo shoot, King stayed for two hours documenting the family. She told HuffPost she was struck by Sue’s methodical approach to rotating between all three babies as she nursed.
“It was quite amazing to see how much she cared that they all got enough, even if it meant no break for her. The babies were 6 months old and exclusively breastfed. I don’t think Sue got more than 30 minutes a day (and night) without a baby latched on.”
As a sleep-deprived mother herself, King felt for Sue but said she was glad to see how much support she gets from Cliona and her own mother as well.
The couple loved the finished photos of their family. “I think they reflect what our house is like ― the madness and sheer chaos of it,” said Cliona. “Like I said to Johanna, it is easy to forget with all the stress and exhaustion that there are beautiful moments too. I am so happy that we will have these gorgeous photos to remind us what it was like when the gang was so young.”
Cliona hopes that people who see their photos learn that it’s possible to breastfeed triplets, though it may take perseverance.
“There is no easy way to feed triplets ― when they were on bottles it was a nightmare doing all the cleaning and managing feeds ― but this is definitely the best way for our family,” she said.
“I also hope that people see the happiness in our family, even if the house is messy and our hair hasn’t been washed in days!” she added.
The photographer said she was honored to work with Cliona, Sue and their family. “I love taking breastfeeding photos because of what it means to the mothers,” she explained, adding that she hopes people feel the love in their home. And as with her other breastfeeding photo sessions, she wants to help other nursing moms feel empowered.
“I think every breastfeeding journey is different, and every mum faces different challenges,” Cliona told HuffPost “I don’t think either of us were prepared for how life-changing and empowering it would be to breastfeed our babies. Before we had children, we just viewed it as ‘food,’ but it is so much more than that.”