A Mum of three little ones, Stacey Harley is now in her 5th year of breastfeeding and currently tandem feeding her toddler and a one year old. Drawing creative inspiration from the magical properties of breastmilk, Stacey started using it in her art. Taking vibrant colours and contrasts, she is able to capture the ethereal fluidity of breastmilk in still images.
The result? Mesmerising abstract artworks that now adorn walls in homes all over the world.
But the most amazing part? When you commission an artwork from Stacey, she can use your own breastmilk. Meaning that each unique piece Stacey creates becomes the ultimate breastfeeding keepsake and a way to commemorate your breastfeeding journey within the very walls of your own home.
More than just building an online platform for her art, @the_milk_project is a space for Stacey to advocate for breastfeeding. A true ‘lactivist’, she wants to normalise breastfeeding at #anyage #anywhere. Her IG feed is a beguiling patchwork of her limited edition art, interspersed with breastfeeding facts, quotes, stories and inspiration.
We wanted to sit down for a cosy chat with Stacey to find out more about the story behind @the_milk_project and her own personal breastfeeding stories.
Q: Hi Stacey! Thanks for agreeing to chat with us! Can you tell us a bit about you and who makes up your family?
Thank you for having me, I have been looking forward to this!
After a whirlwind romance my now husband and I got married in April 2014 and by November we were pregnant with our first daughter. Edith was born via emergency c-section in August 2015.
After trying for what felt like an eternity we fell pregnant with Ivy. She was born May 4th, 2018 (I am not a Star Wars fan and begged them to reschedule my c-section to any other date!).
We were so grateful for our two girls that we decided we weren’t going to have a third but the universe had other plans! October 2019 we found out we were expecting a boy, SURPRISE!! This time I wanted a VBA2C (vaginal birth after 2 c-sections). Unfortunately the way the world changed in 2020 and the anxiety surrounding so much of the unknown I decided a scheduled c-section would be the best option. Lawson was born May 2020. We are now a family of six, including Minnie, our much-loved English Staffy, living in a tiny Edwardian cottage in Melbourne’s inner north and we would not have it any other way.
“Extroverted introvert” is probably the best way to describe me. I am terrible at small talk, I would rather dive straight into a deep conversation. If we are not going to dissect life’s big questions, discuss new ideas or laugh hysterically then I would rather be a silent observer.
This is probably why I was drawn to photography from childhood, I was able to observe the world through my lens and communicate my thoughts without words. At age 10 I announced I was going to be a fashion photographer in London.
I studied a Bachelor of Applied Science (Photography). I chose the science path as I needed to know technical applications to photography, I needed answers to all the how’s and why’s.It’s no surprise that my social media accounts are a mix of art and evidence based research content!
Q: Many women say they feel really totally unprepared and unsupported in their first breastfeeding journey. Was this the case for you? What are some differences between feeding your first and your last?
Oh gosh, I was so naive about breastfeeding! I always knew it was going to be an important part of my parenting journey but I thought the baby was born and you just breastfeed - laughable now knowing how hard breastfeeding can be to establish.
I think the hardest part of establishing breastfeeding is that you are handed your baby after labour or surgery or both, you are exhausted – sometimes in shock, sometimes in pain - and then you are expected to help your baby latch! Often every midwife that comes to do observations tells you something different. We are at our most vulnerable and the inconsistent information can be confusing and overwhelming.
Then if your baby struggles to gain back their birth weight you are told to top up with formula. It really blows my mind that I hear this same story over and over again. We have more options than just direct feeding and formula – there needs to be more conversations about expressing your own milk for top ups (I chose this option) and donor milk.
I have now been breastfeeding continuously since August 2015. I have conceived and breastfed through two pregnancies. If you had told me back in 2015 that nearly 6 years later I would be tandem feeding I would never have believed you! Those early days trying to feed a newborn are so tiring, emotional and lonely that it’s almost unthinkable that you will come out the other side.
My determination to breastfeed really comes from the way I birthed my first child. Too many unnecessary medical interventions led to an emergency c-section. I truly felt in my heart, caused by postnatal anxiety, that I failed my daughter. If I couldn’t birth her how could I ever be a good mother? I felt if I could just breastfeed her then it would compensate for not birthing her the way I thought she should enter the world. So I breastfed through bleeding nipples, never ending pain and slow weight gain. I didn’t know what an IBCLC (International Board Certified Lactation Consultant) was and didn’t know they could help us. My wonderfully supportive husband spent hours watching YouTube videos about how to get your baby to latch without pain. He knows so much about breastfeeding that he could become a lactation consultant! This struggle we went through became a huge driver for wanting to find a way to support other families. I wanted to take everything I had learnt and struggled through and put it out there in the hope other families would feel less alone and know there are actual health professionals who specifically study breastfeeding – they are the best ones to turn to.
I still feel small pangs of guilt but I worked with a psychologist to recognise I needed to grieve the birth I didn’t get, untangle all those feelings of guilt and stop the intrusive thoughts. Breastfeeding can’t redeem what happened but I’m glad it’s part of my healing.
Q: Tandem breastfeeding is something many women never experience, and most of us look at tandem-feeding Mamas with a sense of awe! Can you tell us a bit about how it has been for you? Do you have any tips for Mamas who might be thinking about or preparing to tandem feed?
I used to look at tandem-feeding like that too, now I’m in awe of the triandem (breastfeeding 3 children) families. As a tandem mum I don’t feel very awe-inspiring to be honest - it’s just a small part of our daily life. I wouldn’t say I love tandem-feeding but I’m also not ready to wean Ivy and neither is she, so for now we will keep going.
Ivy was only 15 months when I fell pregnant with Lawson and my goal is always 2 years breastfeeding each child. So we continued breastfeeding through pregnancy. Breastfeeding through pregnancy was tough – my nipples were extremely sensitive, even clothing irritated them, and I experienced nursing aversion.
I knew my aversions were intensified when I was tired and dehydrated. I tried to rest when I could (not easy with 2 little ones!) – and to stay on top of my fluid intake.
Ivy turned 2 the month Lawson was born so I had boundaries in place from the beginning. She is not demand fed, breastmilk is not her main source of nutrition so it’s ok to say ‘no’. Breastfeeding is a relationship and both people need to feel comfortable and content. Having boundaries in place with Ivy has allowed our breastfeeding relationship to continue.
Q: We are truly mesmerised by your use of breastmilk as an artform and subject! We’re so intrigued to know how it came about!
Aww thank you so much, I really appreciate the kind words.
One night I was running a bath for Edie and I poured in QV bath oil. It looks incredible when it hits the water, it goes milky white as it abstracts through the warm water. From there I wondered what breastmilk would look like (when you are breastfeeding everything comes back to breastmilk, haha!). I sat on the idea for a year or two. I researched the best photography and lighting techniques, I tested different options for adding colours, and I did so many test shots with my own milk before putting my art out into the world.
I honestly thought I would get more requests for non-breastmilk commissions but to date I have only had one! As far as I know, I’m the only breastmilk photographer in the world, which is not a bad title to hold!
The part I find really satisfying with the commission process is connecting with my clients and listening to their breastfeeding journey. I have learnt so much from their lived experiences. I’m hearing about a really vulnerable chapter in their lives – I feel a sense of gratitude and appreciation for their honesty. They trust me to forever capture their story. It’s a cathartic experience for both of us.
Q: We love the space you have created over at the @the_milk_project! What does @the_milk_project mean to you?
@the_milk_project has allowed me to create and connect with a community who want to learn, promote and normalise breastfeeding. I can share my experiences of feeding beyond infancy and breastfeeding more than one child in a very relatable way. My Instagram stories are a real snapshot of our daily life; the good, the bad and the unfiltered.
I straddle this line of art and breastfeeding support – my followers are able to learn from my experiences and from one another through conversations in my posts. Sometimes it’s conversations about art and other times about magical breastmilk!
It’s given me my creative outlet, which is something I needed to feel personally fulfilled. It has also given me the opportunity to stay home with my children a little longer. I know that’s not something every family has the option of doing. I’m very grateful that my husband has been incredibly supportive and encouraging. He wants me to succeed as much as I do and he really values what I can give to our children by being able to stay home with them.
Through the @the_milk_project I have built a community of like-minded people and I am so thankful for all the friendships, support and DM chats. I have made friends around the globe – sometimes it’s a message of solidarity, sometimes celebration and sometimes grieving. Social media is pretty amazing – we connect with people we are unlikely to ever meet face to face but that doesn’t mean your friendship is any less valuable.
Thanks so much for joining us, Stacey! It’s been wonderful.
Interview by Lauren.