Photo: University of the Sunshine Coast/Facebook
Jacci Sharkey juggled motherhood and schoolwork for most of her three and a half years at the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) in Queensland, Australia. So the 24-year-old mother of two thought it only fitting to thank the university for supporting her and her family (who sometimes even went to lectures with her) by sharing a photo in which she was breastfeeding her then-6-week-old son Alek in her cap and gown, just before the graduation ceremony.
"I’m extremely proud that with the support of the uni, during my degree I was able to have 2 babies and still finish my degree," Sharkey explained in a note with the Oct. 2 photo. “Thanks USC!”
Now the school can thank her for shining the spotlight on them. Since the university posted her photo on Facebook on Nov. 2, it’s gone viral, with 184,000 likes and more than 5,400 shares.
"I thought I’d be really happy if it got 100 likes, and then it’s just gone out of control," the human resources management major, whose other son, Ari, is 20 months old, told Australia’s ABC News. “I never expected it to go crazy!”
Also unexpected was the idea that she had sent it to promote breastfeeding. “It wasn’t a statement [on breastfeeding] or anything like that,” Sharkey insisted. “I would have sent the same picture to the uni had [Alek] had a bottle or a sandwich.”
The thought she wanted to share was “just the fact that I’m a mum, it’s not I’m a breastfeeding mum, just I’m a mum,” she explained. “It was really a message of thanks and that other mums can do it as well.”
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Elaborating to the Daily Mail Australia, Sharkey — who currently works as a wedding and events planner — declared, “You don’t have to give up the career to have kids, and you don’t have to give up kids to have the career … you can have it all.”
Nevertheless, the photo has been a boon to breastfeeding proponents. “Breastfeeding moms feel excited about seeing that,” La Leche League’s Diana West tells Yahoo Parenting. “In our world, breastfeeding is not considered acceptable everywhere. It’s changing a lot, but it’s still an adjustment for a lot of people to accept. A picture like this shows that this is normal. And it’s a cool way to show her bringing together her two worlds.”
With all the recent celebrity breastfeeding photo shares on social media, including ones from Alyssa Milano, Jaime King, and Gisele Bündchen, West says she’s not surprised that Sharkey’s went viral. “It’s breasts,” she admits. “They’re always going to be sexualized and get notice, but this image still serves the breastfeeding cause well because the more we talk about it, the more we discuss the issues around it.”
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Sharkey says she has gotten some negative feedback about breastfeeding in public — much like Karlesha Thurman, 25, who received a slew of Twitter slams in June after a photo of her breastfeeding her 4-month-old daughter during her graduation from California State University, Long Beach, was posted on social media. But the overwhelming response has been positive.
"Studying is HARD," Kristie Morris commented in one rave post on USC’s Facebook page. "Studying with kids is HARDER, studying whilst growing a baby, giving birth and breast feeding is EXTREMELY HARD!!! Doing all of this while staying healthy for 2 physically, mentally and getting to the finish line is a massive achievement. BE SO PROUD MUMMA!!!!"
Echoed Larissa Misa Johnson: “I congratulate her for having the courage to stand up and get a picture for her work. I’m not a mother so I don’t understand how hard it must be to both study and have a child hanging off your boob, it must be really hard. All this picture is doing is showing support and encouraging mothers that they can still get both support and study at the same time. How many mothers out there have sacrificed their career to bring up their child?”
The reason this image resonates with so many is that it’s a symbol, explains Vicki Shabo of the National Partnership & Women and Families. “This photo encapsulates the dual demands placed on women increasingly taking on the role of breadwinners in families and also committed to giving their kids the right start,” she tells Yahoo Parenting. “It shows a lot of the dualities women face every day.”