Becoming a mother: In pictures
Becoming a mother is a momentous thing. We chat with a photographer capturing birth in its many beautiful forms.
A few years ago, as part of a birthing class, my pregnant peers and I were asked to stand at our chosen point on an imaginary line. Those electing for a caesarean section were to stand at one end, and those hoping to go au naturale at the other. The bulk of us huddled in the middle – a vaginal birth, please, with a side of epidural, thank you very much! – and I sometimes wonder, what would this line look like postpartum?
Across the globe 21 percent of babies, or nearly 30 million per year, are delivered by caesarean section. Thirty percent of laboring mothers opt for an epidural, three quarters take some form of pain relief, and a quarter don’t so much as pop an aspirin. Babies are delivered in birthing centers, hospitals and homes, on beds, in baths and, very occasionally, the back seats of cars (around 6,600 per year in the US, at last count).
No matter the story behind it, becoming a mother is nothing short of a monumental, miraculous and one-of-a-kind experience – as Australian birth photographer Melissa Jean will tell you. “No two births will ever be the same”, says the Sunshine Coast local and stepmother to four “wildlings”, who recommends expectant parents read Birth Without Fear by January Harshe. “Educating yourself, knowing your choices and surrendering is key.”
A former wedding photographer who shifted her focus to childbirth, Melissa describes her first photography session at the business end of the birth canal as “intense”. “I hadn’t met the mother before her big day, and when I arrived at the hospital I could hear her screaming down the hallway that she wanted to die. Not the most ideal moment to introduce yourself to someone! She had a beautiful healthy girl and of course survived the experience,” Melissa smiles.
How does she strike that delicate balance between staying in the background and capturing the most intimate of shots? “I am very aware of my role to hold space for a family while they labor,” she says. “I take my shoes off and tip toe around with very little interaction.”
Melissa keeps her camera shutter on silent – “which still seems so noisy when there is complete silence” – and waits til the baby is crowning before getting up close and personal. “Many women labor with their eyes closed and are focusing inward, so it is very easy to respect their space. And once the baby is here they are in a bubble of oxytocin overwhelm and aren’t bothered by my presence at all.”
She’s experienced some “touch and go” situations, but says the midwives and doctors save the day every time. “Unfortunately public hospitals don’t allow caesareans to be captured so I have to wait in the recovery room to photograph the baby. In natural labor, if intervention needs to take place and it becomes ‘a procedure’ then I’m asked to stop taking photos. They are the slowest minutes of my life when I don’t have a role to play other than smiling at the mother so she knows that everything is going to be okay.”
The most unusual birth scenario she’s witnessed was a woman silently laboring outdoors, under the full moon, before serenely stepping into a bath and “laughing her baby out”. Another memorable shoot was that of her best friend, Jodi, whose fifth bub kindly hung tight until Melissa returned from traveling overseas. “I flew home and Jodi came to visit me the next day. [I gave] a few rubs of her belly to let him know he could come out now, and that very night he was here. [It’s] such an incredible experience to watch one of your best friends grow from a teenager to a mother of five.”
Many of Melissa’s clients are now also dear friends, and she follows their family’s journeys, camera in hand, year after year. “One of the first babies I ever photographed is now ten and it’s been such a privilege to record her growth,” she says. “I mean, can you think of a greater honor?”
See more from Melissa Jean