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The Beauty of Motherhood

Lisa Elliott Blaschke
New Braunfels, TX, USA
From: New Beginnings, Vol. 29 No. 4, 2009, pp. 10-11

"Why would you want something like that?"

I can still hear the words of the photographer, echoing from more than ten years ago, as I stood in the lobby of her studio, where I had gone to inquire about the possibility of a photo session to capture images of me breastfeeding my newborn baby. Still weak and feeling vulnerable in those early weeks of learning how to breastfeed -- when I was fighting off criticism and pressure to bottle feed -- I hightailed it out of there, turning red in the cheeks, and wishing I could disappear.

Was it really so unusual to want a quality, professional portrait of me and my baby doing something so natural and ordinary, yet so amazing and exquisite? Artistic impressions of mother and child engaged in the act of breastfeeding abound in fine art by geniuses such as Picasso and Michelangelo, yet the photographers at the major studios all over town couldn't imagine why anyone would want an image like this.

At the time, I was dabbling in photography and had worked for several years as a journalist. I was no stranger to photojournalism and had acquired some skill behind the lens -- although most of my work featured athletes engaged in their game or news events unfolding before me as I reported for the newspaper. Several times I attempted to set up the vision I had in my mind for these portraits with the use of a tripod and my dear husband -- "Now which button am I supposed to push?" Alas, I simply could not create what I hoped to create as a self-portrait.

I eventually gave up on the concept and dove into my new life as a stay-at-home mom and part-time home daycare provider. Photography began to slip out of the forefront of my mind as I busied myself with playgroups, La Leche League leadership, moving to a new city, juggling a tight budget, and raising my firstborn, then my second born, then finally my third. I continued to shoot photos -- but my photography subjects were mostly my own children. I filled dozens of photo albums, shelf after shelf, of every aspect of their lives -- except one. Oh sure, there were a handful of snapshots of me nursing my children -- you've probably seen them or photos like them -- baby suckling on mom, who sits in the recliner, hair disheveled, and skin splotchy, as she tries to muster a smile after the umpteenth sleepless night, a little bit of camera shake as dad tries to fight off an older sibling who is shouting, "Take my picture Daddy!" These snapshots are great reminders of a period in my life. But they simply don't invoke the emotions or capture the breastfeeding relationship in a way that makes me want to pull them out again and again and show them off to my friends and family, or frame them to hang on my wall.

As my youngest child grew older and the time to send him off to school grew closer, I jumped back into photography, investing a serious amount of money on equipment and time studying modern digital techniques. My creative juices began to flow again and I decided to do for other moms what I had wanted someone to do for me. I started in my circle of LLL friends, offering to take breastfeeding portraits. I was amazed at the number of moms who jumped up and said, "Pick me."

My co-Leader, Lisa, was the first to answer the call. She told me the main reason she jumped at the chance to have the portraits made was to capture the special nursing moment because it can be fleeting.

"I hear so many mothers complain about how long they nursed -- especially when they have their children back to back -- but when you look at how small that amount of time is in relation to one's lifetime, it is just a fraction of time we spent nursing," she said. "Just like we wanted to capture the memory of our wedding day or a special birthday, nursing will be a memory between mom and baby and to have a photo honoring that time is something we will treasure."

For me, each session became as unique as the mother and baby involved. I tried different poses and lighting techniques. I played with the setting and the backgrounds. For some shots I went for sweet and simple and for others I tried the glamour mom approach.

My friend Lindsey was my first glamour mom. She said she wanted portraits done to show her determination at succeeding in the art of breastfeeding.

"It was also a way of patting myself on the back for sticking it out, because Grant was a marathon nurser as a newborn, and I came very close to quitting completely," she said.

As the number of sessions grew, I learned new tricks for photographing babies -- slightly different than the standard portraits, because I didn't want to capture the baby smiling or sleeping, I wanted the baby to be happily interacting or nursing (not always an easy task). I love to collect classical breastfeeding art and often tried to duplicate poses and feelings invoked in those images.

Sometimes it didn't happen. I went to a couple of sessions where the baby just did not want to nurse. I think the perfect age for breastfeeding portraits is between two months and ten months -- younger than that and the baby can be hard to maneuver and mom may still be uncomfortable nursing, older than that and the baby is usually more interested in the camera and the strange lady behind it. But it's great if I can get portraits done outside those ages as well. I have had successful sessions with toddlers. One mom of a toddler told me she negotiated with the toddler to put her off a few hours by promising to let her nurse when the visitor (me) got there.

I've been an LLL Leader for seven years now. I still have a long way to go with my portraits. I have tons of ideas in my head for unusual sessions, but many require costuming, settings, and props I don't have access to. I'm hoping to get studio space in the future to enable me to get really creative and bring these images to life. My dream is to collect enough beautiful and unusual images and willing moms to put together an art book full of breastfeeding moms and babies. I also hope to set up a photography studio booth at the next Area LLL conference.

Could we see nursing portraits develop into a new trend? Anything that raises the exposure and popularity of breastfeeding could only be good for the health of babies and mothers. And I'm going to do my part to speed it along.

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