Photos and writing by Dayna Yin
I never thought that breastfeeding would become such a big part of my life.
Before you think congratulations are in order, no, I’m not a new mother. I have barely explored the world of dating, let alone motherhood.
But somehow, breastfeeding has taken over the bulk of my interests and school work since last semester, simply because I wanted to fight the stigma of public breastfeeding among mothers in Singapore.
It all began when one of my school assignments was to come up with a social media campaign based on a social issue. Looking at the pool of options out there, nothing hit me quite as hard as the physical, emotional and mental toll motherhood had taken on my sister as a first-time mother.
The one thing she was most concerned about was having to breastfeed in public. As her first son fussed under nursing covers, my sister was always forced to choose to either have a child hungry and crying, or get stares for breastfeeding without a cover. Times like these made frantic searches for nursing rooms a common affair, even affecting her milk supply at times from stress.
It broke my heart to see how my sister was being “attacked” on all fronts, having to face public judgement for indecent exposure or suffer through her painful eczema breakouts caused by hormonal imbalance from breastfeeding. At times it just seemed easier for her to stop breastfeeding altogether, so that she could heal and feel like herself again.
Thankfully, she was not alone. In Singapore, the 2011 National Breastfeeding Survey found that both working and stay-at-home mothers stopped breastfeeding earlier than expected due to their inability to produce enough milk.
These shorter breastfeeding periods are likely due to the stressful environments mothers are exposed to, as revealed in a 2012 study by the University of Rochester.
From research and conversations with breastfeeding mothers, it was evident that the fear of judgement from non-mothers, and men especially, were stopping them from feeding their own children.
I felt that if a band of mothers in Singapore were to come together through our campaign, we could show that public breastfeeding is a mother’s right. Then, public acceptance could be greater, because mothers would be sharing their side of the story.
Thus, the Bare It For Baby campaign was born.
Bare-ly understood: the gaps in public knowledge
Over the course of eight weeks, our campaign featured mothers from all walks of life breastfeeding in some of Singapore’s most common public spaces. From parks to swimming pools and even in an arcade, I went around Singapore to take these photos and to talk to these mothers about their breastfeeding journey.
As I came to understand the complexity of this problem, I realised that if non-mothers were not crossing paths with mothers, they would always perceive public breastfeeding as a controversial talking point.
Bare It For Baby began as a positive online movement advocating for a mother’s right to breastfeed anywhere in Singapore. The movement subsequently received media coverage in Mothership, Shin Min Daily News and The Smart Local’s sister site, Zula.
With more media coverage, more people took notice of the campaign, leading to more mothers coming forward to be part of the photo series.
Yet, based on first impressions that I gathered, it was baffling to find that many non-mothers were unaware of the basic rights of a mother in Singapore.
Some thought that public breastfeeding was illegal, and raised concerns as to whether I was allowed to post such material.
I was not surprised by that response because I, too, googled whether public breastfeeding was legal in Singapore.
To my surprise, search results showed that every mother has the right to publicly breastfeed and there is no law against it in Singapore. In fact, the Health Promotion Board has been actively promoting breastfeeding among mothers, with advertisements from as early as the 1980s.
The fact that my friends or me were uncertain about a mother’s rights and questioned their breastfeeding choices showed the need for concerted efforts to empower mothers in Singapore.
Another issue that came to light recently were online comments made by keyboard warriors about the campaign.
Ever since online content site, Mothership, covered the campaign on their site, men (and even mothers) made several derogatory comments and accused our campaign of glamourising the act of breastfeeding, sexualising breasts in an unnecessary manner.
These comments only serve to reflect the backward thinking of society and how we should instead, encourage greater acceptance of public breastfeeding.
While I do encourage all to visit the Bare it for Baby website, at times I receive insensitive comments that question our effort towards the campaign and undermine a mother’s act of love towards her child.
I intend to drive conversations towards public breastfeeding, but such negativity and unnecessary remarks deter many others from standing up for something they believe in.
At the end of it all, before we can talk about society looking out for mothers, we need to find out a whole lot more about motherhood and how tough it really is.
If this campaign taught me anything, it is the importance of speaking to a mother and asking her about her experiences. There is no excuse, we all know one.