Inside the Life After Birth Project, a powerful exhibit of postpartum photos

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Joanna Griffiths, the Toronto-based entrepreneur behind Knixwear, makes silky-smooth underthings that put comfort and function first (a.k.a. you’ll find no underwire anywhere). After she had a baby last year, she didn’t post a newborn pic with an effusively joyous caption. Instead, she posted a raw selfie (below) highlighting her breastfeeding struggles.

She was overwhelmed by the supportive response from her followers and wanted to provide a platform for other women to share their postpartum stories—as bittersweet as they may be. So she launched the Life After Birth Project, a travelling photography exhibit, including snaps from Christy Turlington and Amy Schumer, that’s on at 630 Queen Street West until September 26. Here’s a look at a few of the images and stories on display.

Joanna Griffiths: “I took this photo during a hospital visit with a lactation consultant three days postpartum. She told me my breasts were as hard as soccer balls and handed me two ice packs to help with the swelling. Elsewhere, across town in those same few minutes, a team member stood in for me as Knixwear was honoured with one of our biggest industry awards to date. Mentally, the moment was a battle. I could build a company, but I was struggling to feed my child. I felt like such a failure. The nurse provided me with nipple shields, which saved me during that first month. In every image of breastfeeding I had seen, the women looked natural, at peace and happy. I shared this photo on Instagram and was overwhelmed when over 100 people responded with their own struggles. In that instant, the idea for the Life After Birth Project was born.”

Jillian Harris (photographed by Krista Evans Photography): “I look back at this picture and remember it being one of the best moments of my life. I’ve never felt so content with my body, my relationship and my life. I think about how full my heart was that day. How hard I worked growing the baby, carrying the baby, then delivering our sweet Leo. Luckily, with that pregnancy and delivery everything was perfect. Fast forward a few years and my pregnancy with Annie couldn’t have been more different. I had debilitating exhaustion, feelings of depression and a lack of interest in almost everything. I just wanted the pregnancy to be over. Motherhood can be a roller coaster of emotions. Every morning you wake up with a bursting feeling of love and appreciation, but by 10 a.m. you’re on a caffeine overdrive with nothing in your stomach and ready to run for the hills!”

Lori Yerry: “Do I like my postpartum body? Not particularly, but I am so proud of it—that it was able to carry twins to term and that now it provides what they need every single day. Nursing twins is not easy. It’s not often the magical, wonderful thing you hear breastfeeding mamas rave about. This is work, and there have been days when I was ready to quit. Then I remember how amazing it really is, the fact that I have been able to continuously nourish two humans with this stretched, saggy, scarred body of mine. And for that, I love my postpartum body.”

Anupa King: “My journey as a mother has changed me so dramatically as a person, finding the new me and reinventing how I see myself internally. It’s made me connect with myself on so many levels. I’m more in love with myself now than I’ve ever been—I’m kinder and gentler. I now see and enjoy the beauty in the little things around me. Like my bum dimples that I would always squish in disgust. I’ve all of a sudden fallen in love with them!”

Domino Kirke: “It takes time, you’re not born a parent. If someone had prepared me for how overwhelmed I’d be and how ill-prepared I was because of my own upbringing, I wouldn’t have spiralled as hard and fast as I did. I needed someone to normalize that immediate postpartum phase for me, tell me about it in a way that I couldn’t find in any book or hear from any elder.”

Jenny Bird: “Looking at this picture after I took it, I realized how yellow-ish and pale my skin was compared to hers, and that I looked how I felt: as if all of my life blood had drained from me into this beautiful new little creature who needed it so much, and that was just fine. She could have every last thing I had to give, now and forever.”

Nikki McKean: This photo was taken October 21, 2015. I had been going through treatment for stage 2b cervical cancer and had just finished five weeks of chemotherapy with 25 external rounds of radiation. This was the second week of what was, for me, the most difficult part of the treatment—brachytherapy, or internal radiation, which means a radioactive source is put into your vagina and up into the womb. This stays in for either hours or days (in my case, it was two days) to give an extra boost of treatment to the cancer and the nearby area. I was exhausted, completely depleted and felt like I was hanging on by a thread. At the time, Charlotte was 20 months old and Sofie was just four months old. The very thought of trying to be a mother was becoming a very distant memory; it was my full-time job to stay alive. The smile in the photo is fake—it’s a put-on-a-brave-smile smile. I remember feeling an excruciating pain in my heart that I couldn’t hold her properly. I couldn’t give her the comfort and love that I so badly wanted to give her. In that moment, the pain in my heart was worse than all the physical pain I had been tortured with. It was one of the most difficult days of my life.

Stories have been edited for length and clarity.