Are we ready for this? Mum starts photo project to encourage breastfeeding in public
Photo series aims to highlight nursing mothers who face difficulties breastfeeding in public
After years of breastfeeding awareness initiatives, is Singapore ready for mothers who nurse their children in public?
For nursing mothers like photographer Jen Pan, 31, the answer is "no".
Ms Pan, who is in several private breastfeeding support groups, had read accounts of mothers with interrupted breastfeeding experiences, she told The New Paper.
Ms Pan, who nurses her 15-month-old daughter in public, said: "I'm a bit thick-skinned, so I'm not so offended (by stares in public). But in the breastfeeding community, many mothers are crying for help... Is it so shameful that we have to hide?"
Ms Pan, who runs Jen Pan Photography with her husband Ray, added: "(The mothers) have no one except other mothers to talk to, to seek comfort. But I feel that... there is no solution unless there is a voice (for their woes).
"So I decided to try to be this voice."
The end result is a three-part personal photo project titled The Magical World of Breastfeeding. The second part of her project, A Stand Against Workplace Discrimination, made waves after it was uploaded on Facebook last week.
Some netizens failed to see the point of the photos, asking if they were seeking attention for something that is part of life.
Others asked if the photos were too explicit.
To Mrs Audra Khoo, 34, the criticisms are a sign that breastfeeding is still not normalised in our society.
Mrs Khoo, a stay-at-home mum of three who modelled in Ms Pan's series, told TNP: "You see people trying to cover their children's eyes when they see mothers nursing in public, or asking their husbands 'What are you looking at?'.
"I'll put it very simply: The child is having his milk. It's just like how we don't expect an adult to cover his face when he is eating.
"It's supposed to be something very natural.
"Why are we looking at it like some kind of pornography?"
Ms Pan's project is yet another breastfeeding awareness initiative in the last few years.
In 2012, mothers gathered for a breastfeeding flash mob outside Ngee Ann City. It was jointly organised by the Breastfeeding Mothers' Support Group (BMSG), the Association for Breastfeeding Advocacy and the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative Singapore committee, and conveys the message that no mother should be made uncomfortable to nurse in public.
In 2014, BMSG organised the local edition of the Big Latch On, a synchronised breastfeeding event in multiple locations.
Did such events in the past years help to normalise nursing in public at all?
Dr Mythili Pandi, BMSG's president, said it still "takes a bit more work" for breastfeeding to be normalised.
But she quickly added that the perception of breastfeeding has gone through some positive changes over the years.
"I think it's a good thing that we have had a lot of success in breastfeeding affirmation as compared to say, 20 years ago. A lot more women feel empowered (to breastfeed). A lot of it stems from baby-friendly health movements," she said.
It has become more common to see mothers nursing their babies outside and not confined to a small room or toilet, she added.
This year, a group of four Nanyang Technological University students started Breast-feeding Friends, a non-profit social campaign that aims to promote an inclusive breastfeeding-friendly culture in Singapore, especially in public places. So far, 40 food and beverage establishments have pledged their support.
This sort of understanding among establishments in the F&B industry is something Dr Mythili thinks will help improve the acceptance of mothers nursing in public.
Adding that a baby has the right to be fed whenever and wherever needed, she said: "I don't think people are innately apprehensive (by nursing in public).
"A lot of it stems from not understanding what breastfeeding is about, and why a mother needs to breastfeed there and then, and not wait two hours later."
Photos criticised for being 'sexualised'
It was a personal project that Ms Jen Pan, 31, had pursued to celebrate motherhood and breastfeeding.
Titled The Magical World of Breastfeeding, it is a three-part series of photos of mothers nursing in public.
She did not expect her photos to make waves online, with many mothers sharing their experiences.
The second part, A Stand Against Workplace Discrimination, went viral with more than 3,500 likes and close to 900 shares on Facebook.
Set in Raffles Place, the photos show Mrs Audra Khoo, 34, nursing her youngest son with skyscrapers in the background.
The concept behind this set of pictures, Ms Pan explained, is to portray the reality for mothers when they return to work after their maternity leave.
The first part, Into The Woods, features a woman breastfeeding in a forested area. The third part will be revealed after Chinese New Year.
Ms Pan said: "It's quite bittersweet. I didn't expect the project to reach so far. But it's a bit sad that so many people are living the exact same story I'm telling with my photos...
"I didn't plan for (the project) to rally everyone together... I wanted to do something good, and I felt that taking pictures in a very gracious and beautiful manner would make mothers feel good about themselves.
"But it turned out to be a crusade for breastfeeding. I don't have a publicist and I don't know where this is headed, but I'm just going with the flow."
Mrs Khoo, a stay-at-home mother of three, had agreed to the project as she too was passionate about the topic.
Her 10-month-old son is the first of her children to be breastfed. She has another five-year-old son and a two-year-old daughter.
Mrs Khoo recalls having to lug bottles of milk around for her two elder children.
"I've always envied mums who can feed their children on the go... With my youngest son, it's the first time I could just grab a diaper and go," she told TNP.
Some netizens, however, questioned the photo series.
One wrote: "Attention seekers. Olden days, mothers fed so many babies also no drama. Nowadays everything also must exhibit. Have some self respect."
Another wrote: "Is there a need to show such an explicit photo of a mother breastfeeding in the middle of Raffles Place?"
Agreeing, one netizen said: "I feel the whole thing is sexualised. What with the false eyelashes, the make-up, the stilettos and the showing of thighs.
"I am not against breastfeeding but the pics expose more than is necessary. By the way, breastfeeding is an act of love and sacrifice on the part of the mother for her child."
To that, Ms Pan said: "It's just like how some people choose to eat with a fork, and others with chopsticks. Some mothers use a cover while some don't. It doesn't matter. What matters is that a hungry baby is fed.
Mrs Khoo admitted she was initially affected by the negative comments, but has learnt to let them go with the support of her husband.
"I alerted him that we are getting quite a fair bit of negativity... But he told me 'You're my wife, not theirs'," she said.
In a separate interview, her husband, Mr Khoo P.C., who is in his 40s, said: "If she feels that this is something she would like to create awareness for, she has my support."
He conceded that he used to feel awkward walking beside his wife while she nursed their son in public. No matter how discreet they tried to be, people stared, he said.
Very quickly, he realised it was more important to satiate their son's hunger.
"She once told me, 'It's my body, my baby'. I have to give her respect for that... Now I just walk closer beside her so that it just looks like my wife is holding our son close.
"When I see other mothers nursing their children in public, I even give them a thumbs up," he said with a laugh.
Attention seekers. Olden days, mothers fed so many babies also no drama. Nowadays everything also must exhibit. Have some self respect.