What The ‘Tree of Life’ Brelfies Tell Us About Breastfeeding Moms

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We really want to share our breastfeeding moments.

Nursing our children is incredibly important to us. We’re proud, grateful, sometimes hesitant, always brave. See how quickly we all LEAPED at a chance to share some of our most treasured breastfeeding moments?

That moment when our babies gave us the big ol’ doe eyes, thanking us from somewhere deep in their souls for nourishing them? We couldn’t ignore it. And we’re so happy about it, we want others to notice too.

An innocently cute brelfie (breastfeeding selfie) trend like this should go viral and incite mad passion — even the World Health Organization said so in a UN briefing for this year’s World Breastfeeding Week.

We’ve been patient. So very patient. But we’re starting to get antsy in our nursing gliders and uncomfortable under the paisley tent-covers. It takes this degree of overwhelming social media with Tree of Life brelfies to normalize breastfeeding by tomorrow, when it really should have happened yesterday.

We’re super creative.

There’s no ‘right’ way to represent a bond as personal and unique as the one between a nursling and his mother.

Besides just the basic tree root clip art, I’ve seen mothers use blooming flowers, heart-shaped roots, starbursts, and even the chemical strand for oxytocin (the love hormone released during letdown). Some mothers added quotes and poetry, others added a caption detailing their breastfeeding journey thus far.

In many images, the baby was peacefully sleep-nursing. Or looking up at his mother adoringly. Or grabbing her hair, or laying a tiny hand on her breast or fingering an SNS feeding tube.

We saw first latches and final latches.

One baby clutched a rejected bottle of milk as he nursed on his preferred breast.

One mother posted a photo nursing her baby for the first time after being extubated in the hospital as part of his treatment for severe brain injury.

Other images merely hinted at the traditional concept of breastfeeding: Tree of Life stickers showed up on photos of mothers who were busy double-expressing, branches into breasts and roots into bottles connected to pump flanges.

Some foreshadowed breastfeeding as the continuation of a new life cycle by showing an unborn baby as the fruit of his mother’s womb tree, tethered by an umbilical branch inside her swollen belly.

Clearly, we have a lot of creative energy build-up when it comes to breastfeeding. It makes sense, after all, as generating milk around the clock, the epitome of creation and livelihood, is certainly no inactive endeavor.

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We’re protective of our breastfeeding relationships.

We enjoyed our ‘trending moment’ for merely a long weekend before the parodies and competing memes showed up. We started seeing complaints about the images, decrying them as attempts to shame non-breastfeeding families or to rub their noses in our joy, or dismissing the whole thing as stupid.

These are all valid feelings of which anyone is welcome to have and communicate — but please know, they do hurt us.

We saw a few photos made by formula-feeding parents (as an act of rebellion rather than baby-feeding commiseration) along with “What about our bond?”

Then came the X-rated images. The ones showing men receiving oral sex from women or penetrating them doggie-style, complete with a filter we now associate with breastfeeding whimsy and that sacred Tree of Life standing in for ejaculate.

“Just feeding my girl,” one was captioned.

On their own, in my opinion the sexual images could positively highlight the special share of energy during sex. Maybe we can even appreciate the representation of shared intimate energies with the Tree of Life imposed upon a graphic sexual image, not unlike a work by Alex Grey.

However, these particular ones were presumably created to ‘compete’ with and demean the breastfeeding originals.

Though translating sexual acts into art can be empowering in its own right, doing so in response to a celebration of mother-baby nurturing does nothing to help our cause for breastfeeding acceptance. Bad timing, worse intent.

Here’s the thing: ejaculate is not equal to breast milk. A woman being “fed” a man’s ejaculate is not equivalent to an infant being fed breast milk.

I’m sure I’m not alone in my distinction that breastfeeding has no equivalent human behavior across the sexes. I feel protective of it, as though this is really no place for a man to interfere with, “Okay, my turn now.”

When these images showed up, some of us laughed. We’re supposed to laugh, right? It’s all light-hearted fun, right? And we’re no prudes. But should we feel bad for failing to appreciate the ‘equalizing’ of a woman providing milk selflessly and a man providing semen for self-gratification?

Making such a comparison cheapens the importance and life-giving qualities of breast milk, and despite the surface reactions of childish hee-hawing at the X-rated versions, I feel most of us already knew this to be true.

We’ve learned a lot about breastfeeding since we started.

So, with the expected dose of negativity piggybacking the trend, we reacted with the defense of information.

We explained what the Tree of Life is meant to symbolize: immortality, eternal life, a reminder of/return to our roots/origins, the threshold between life and death, a representation of the Milky Way, and a love for all mankind.

In a more visual application, the Tree of Life literally depicts the actual anatomy of breastfeeding. The roots are strikingly similar to the milk duct network, the trunk relates to the baby’s mouth canal, and the branches/leaves are milk sprayed from nipple pores.

The following images predated the Tree of Life craze, but you’ll notice how a similar theme was used (please message me if you know the artists of the first two so I can give proper credit).

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Art by Alex Grey

We’ll forever remember how we felt during the nursing days.

Now, let’s talk about the filters. I’ll admit, in more than four years of breastfeeding I’ve never looked like a 1970s blacklight poster. So how do the crazy colors and moody tones help normalize breastfeeding, exactly?

Take a closer look at the last Tree of Life photo in your newsfeed. How do you feel about it? Are you taken into another place and time, somewhere surreal even? This is how that mother feels — in memory or in the moment, it depends on the day really — but that image is colored by emotion nonetheless.

Maybe it even captures how her baby feels, oxytocin buzzing and warmth surrounding. This is where he first really learned about oxytocin, warmth, love. In this place right here, on the breast, getting full and drunk in love, it is one of the few things that is so magical, such a dreamy blur, yet also painfully and undoubtedly, tangibly real.

That all said, when our Tree of Life pictures were taken, many of us were so damn exhausted. Our babies may have been inconsolable for the previous half hour. We were in our home-all-day-with-the-kids/at-work-all-day-then-straight-to-the-kids uniform: easy access nursing top, hair that will be brushed some other day, makeup sitting neglected in some drawer instead of applied to a face, stretchy pants, or more likely no pants because what mother has time for the bathroom when pants are involved?

I’ll wage a good bet that a majority of mothers snapped their photos in these conditions. And did so without question, because finally here was an opportunity to focus on the simple beauty of willingly and freely giving milk to their children.

So if it takes a galactic, shooting-star, or art pop Warholian filter for others to appreciate what is really happening here, we’ll take it.

We’re part of an insanely supportive community (that we may not know yet in real life).

On many threads where these photos were posted, at least one commenter asked if anyone could edit her photos for her. Maybe she didn’t have the app. Maybe she felt utterly lacking in creative skills. Whatever the case, she would’ve otherwise gone without this Tree of Life rendition of her favorite, most cherished nursing photo — perhaps even her only nursing photo.

You know how many of these requests went unanswered? I have yet to see one! People are so excited about these images that perfect strangers offered a few moments of their time create a Tree of Life photo for a mother who wanted to be included.

A friend of mine has always been too afraid to publicly share a photo of either of her babies nursing. Though sharing brelfies is no requirement by any means, she did frequently express regret and disappointment that she “couldn’t” share such a beautiful, normal part of her and her baby’s life.

And guess what? She did share a Tree of Life photo! Perhaps she feel safer behind the filter, or felt less exposed or less exhibitionist? Whatever the case, this avenue for sharing was her golden ticket to brelfie freedom.

So with these Tree of Life images, we see how mothers feel. We see what makes babies happy. For those who still don’t ‘get’ breastfeeding, here it is!

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Want to make your own Tree of Life photo? An easy tutorial (along with many beautiful examples of Tree of Life brelfies) is found at DrMomma.org.

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