A few weeks ago, one of my friends texted me to tell me she had a friend who was interested in birth photography. I had been planning on adding birth as one of my genres from the get-go. I feel like it's a really underserved genre and I would absolutely love to help women capture these precious and sacred moments when they bring their babies into the world.
However, I had just had a baby about 2 months prior to her texting me. I wasn't sure how being on-call for a birth would work out with a newborn. I was nervous, but something in my gut told me I had to at least talk to her friend before making any decisions.
A week later I hopped on the phone for a discovery call with the potential birth client (her name is Sandy, by the way) and I knew I had to help her tell her birth story. We hit it off so great over the phone and she told me she missed the opportunity to have the birth of her first daughter photographed because of the COVID-19 restrictions in place at the time. She also told me she was going to be having an unmedicated, at home birth. Um, HELLO?! Can you say dream client? I was sold. I had to do this session.
Sunday, June 11th, I was headed down from Denver to Larkspur with my family for a networking picnic. I texted Sandy on my way down to let her know that I was going to be in Larkspur, just in case if anything happened. She was 39 weeks along so I knew she could go any day at any moment.
We enjoyed our time at the picnic and on the way home, about 5:30pm, I got a text from Sandy saying she was experiencing some light bleeding and light, irregular contractions. This is something known as "the bloody show" and it happens closely behind labor when you lose your mucous plug. I knew labor would be starting soon. Since my husband would have to go to work Monday morning, I called my support person who volunteered to watch my children for me to let her know that I was expecting my birth client to go into labor and to have her phone turned up and close by in case if I needed her to come over.
I woke up to a text from Sandy's husband, Wade, letting me know that they were up for the day and a screenshot of her contraction timer. Her contractions were between 5-6 minutes apart so I got ready to leave. Wade told me they'd let me know when they called their doula team to come over and for me to just stay put for now as Sandy wanted it to still be just them for now.
Around noon, Wade let me know that their doulas had arrived to provide laboring support. I was anxiously sitting by my phone waiting for the green light to head down. Hours passed with no news. Finally, around 4, Wade texted me and told me to inform me that the doulas had left to allow Sandy to rest and let her body do the labor work on its own. Her contractions had slowed and she was at a bit of a stall.
Around 6pm, I was at the grocery store when I got another text from Wade to let me know their midwife would be there within the hour and that Sandy felt like the baby would be here that night. I told him I just had to make dinner for my family and then I'd be down to them around 7pm.
I arrived at Sandy and Wade's home right around 7:30pm. I was greeted by one of their doulas downstairs and was told she was currently having a cervical check done. I waited a couple of minutes to give her some privacy and double checked all of my camera settings.
When I went upstairs to enter her birthing space in the master bedroom, the room was very very dark. All of the shades were drawn and the only light that was on was a closet light that gave off just enough light so that we wouldn't run into each other. I quietly introduced myself to Sandy's midwives and her doula and asked if I could crack the shades just a bit to let in some more light. They were fine with it.
Sandy was on the bed, her feet at the top and her head towards the bottom, completely in the nude except for socks to keep her feet warm. Wade was sitting at the head of the bed with her feet on his lap, giving her a massage. Her primary doula (Merrie) was laying with her on the bed, massaging her hips and providing counter-pressure for her during her contractions. The primary midwife (Sena) was kneeling on the floor in front of Sandy's belly with the Dopler, measuring baby's heartrate. The secondary midwife, Ambrosia, was seated by the closet with a tablet, recording data. I let them all know that I would do my best to stay out of everyone's way and be as unobtrusive as possible and if I was in the way, they could ask me to move.
Sandy labored on her bed for about 45 minutes. It was beautiful watching how Merrie held her and comforted her through the contractions. Sena would sing to her softly and give her words of encouragement to push through the contractions. Sandy spoke quietly and kept her eyes closed. She would repeat affirmations like, "I can do anything for one minute." When a contraction would hit, she would take deep, low breaths. Her water broke after one particularly powerful contraction and Sandy got so excited that she didn't have to have it ruptured.
At one point, her secondary doula (Dacia) had entered the room and she and Ambrosia began drawing a bath in the tub in the bathroom. When the bath was ready, Sena told Sandy that they were going to help her move to the bath. Sandy pushed back a little bit, unsure if she could physically move herself to the tub. Sena was not having any of that. She told her, "yes you can, you're strong. We will help you, but you can absolutely do it."
Slowly, everyone helped Sandy cross the room to the bathroom. She had two contractions on the way there and Sena instructed her to drop into it. Sandy would squat low, Wade supporting her from behind and her doulas offering support from the sides. When the contraction would pass they would continue working their way into the bathroom.
The bathroom is set up in a way that I was struggling to get a view of Sandy in the tub. I was trying my best to get shots whenever the opportunity presented itself, but if I'm honest, it was not ideal. Sena had a mirror and was watching for the baby's head as Sandy labored in the tub. Excitedly, she turned to me and announced that Sandy had what was known as "the purple line." I had never heard of this before and I was unfamiliar with the significance of it. Sena explained that in underdeveloped countries, the purple line is used as a measurement of labor progression, similarly to cervical dilation. Not everyone gets it, but Sandy did. She offered to move to allow me to get a picture of it. When I got closer to the tub, I noticed there was a decent amount of room behind the tub in the corner that I could stand on. I would be out of the way while having a phenomenal view of Sandy from above. I asked if it would be alright for me to stand there and Sena laughed and said, "if you can get there, that would be perfect!" She helped me climb on the edge of the tiling around the tub and held my hand so that I wouldn't slip. I settled into my spot in the corner and snapped away.
On the tile in front of the tub, Sandy had a vase of white roses, a locket with a photo of her mother who had passed years prior, and a list of women's names who had successfully birthed at home. She held a metal comb in her hand that she would squeeze during contractions to help distract her from the pain.
Transition is the period of time when labor progresses from prodromal (passive labor) to active labor. It is also one of the most difficult moments during labor and is often when women begin to question if they can do it, if their bodies are capable of birthing a baby, and if they are strong enough. It's a scary moment for the mother, and it is extremely painful. This was the moment during both of my labors when I caved and asked for an epidural because I just couldn't handle the pain.
Sandy entered transition after about 20 minutes in the bathtub. Her moans grew louder as her contractions became more intense. She began to doubt if she could make it through her labor without pain interventions. Merrie and Sena were there coaching her through her breathing and Wade would remind her that she's doing a great job and that she was made to do this. He'd remind her of how strong she was and excitedly say that they'd be meeting their baby soon.
After every contraction, Sandy would hold her belly and say softly, "good job, baby." I could hear the love in her voice when she would say this and it was enough to make my eyes well with tears every time she would say it. I knew, for Sandy, nobody else was in that bathroom. It was her and her baby. She had gone so far inward that she was able to recognize that she and her baby were a team, laboring together, and that her baby needed her encouragement. It was inspiring to witness.
Dacia and Ambrosia were hurriedly getting the birthing tub ready in the bedroom. The water from the shower was cool and Dacia would run downstairs to boil water to help warm the water up. Sena performed another cervical check and announced that she could feel the baby's head and that it was time to move to the birthing tub. Once again, everyone supported Sandy as she moved back into the bedroom and climbed into the blue tub.
Sandy sat in the birthing tub on her knees, resting her arms and upper body on the side of the tub. Wade stayed by her face, rubbing her arms and giving her kisses, constantly telling her how beautiful and strong and incredible she was. Reminding her that she was doing a great job bringing their baby into the world. Merrie sat next to her, periodically pouring warm water over her back and helping her with her breathing, while Sena and Ambrosia sat behind her, watching for the baby's head to crown.
Once she began crowning, Sena called Wade down to catch the baby and instructed him on how to do so. Sandy pushed through several contractions and the baby's head emerged. Merrie had moved in front of Sandy to coach her through pushing. Sandy pushed one more time and her baby was out.
"You did it, Sandy! Oh, our beautiful baby! It's a girl! Little Covey!" Wade's voice rang through the room. I smiled through tears behind my camera. Merrie, Dacia, and Ambrosia were all crying as well. At one point we all looked at each other and smiled, all beaming with pride over what we just witnessed: an absolute powerhouse of a woman bringing new life into the world.
Sandy turned around to hold her baby as they worked to get her to cry. Baby Cove was a bit purple and still in shock from her exit. Finally, she let out a single loud cry and we all sighed with relief.
Everyone gathered around Sandy one last time to move her to the bed. Once they got settled on the bed, Dacia departed downstairs to grab a basket of snacks for all of us and we all gobbled down a few RX bars and fruit leather. I ran to the corner of the room where I knew my water bottle was and I must've downed at least half of the 40oz that were in it. I hadn't realized how thirsty I was.
Over on the bed, Sandy was cramping again. She still had to birth the placenta. Sena and Ambrosia helped her to deliver the placenta as she held Cove on her chest, skin to skin. Wade lay in the bed next to both of them, obviously enamored with both his daughter and his wife. Once the placenta was out, I could see a wave of relief wash over Sandy. She did it. She had her unmedicated home birth and she successfully delivered a gorgeous baby girl.
She asked Sena if she could eat because she felt incredibly hungry! Dacia ran downstairs to warm up one of her Mama Meals and came back upstairs with it. As Sandy ate her first postpartum meal she looked at me and laughed. "Hi, Amanda! It's nice to meet you!"
We hadn't met in person before her birth so it was pretty comical that our first in-person interaction was with her stark naked on her bed delivering a baby! She thanked me for being there and apologized for not saying hi when I had first arrived. Typical mom move to be more concerned with someone other than herself! I didn't mind. Obviously, she was already deep in the trenches when I arrived.
Over the course of the next couple hours Sandy moved into the bathroom a couple times to get cleaned up which allowed Wade some daddy daughter time with Cove. Sena performed the newborn exam, taking Coves measurements and weight and allowing Wade to cut the umbilical cord once it was apparent all the blood had drained from it.
I thanked them again for trusting me to capture this precious moment in their lives and instructed them to let me know when they wanted me to come back for Fresh 48 images. I left their home around midnight with tears streaming down my face once again and a grin from ear to ear. "That was so incredible," I said out loud in my car. I felt so honored to be a part of such a powerful experience.
It's been over a week since photographing this birth and I'm still emotional about it. I've cried several times while writing this post and I cried all throughout editing the photos. I just can't believe how tough Sandy was and I'm so proud of her and of all women who have given birth. It truly is such an incredible thing to witness and I'm so grateful I was able to be a part of that.
As I look through the photos from that night, I can't help but feel proud of myself as well. These are some of the best photos I've taken to date. I feel like I transcended in skill level throughout the shoot. The room was dark or dimly lit the entire time which is incredibly challenging to photograph in, but I rose to the occasion. I realized how much more comfortable I am with my camera now than I was in the past and I was able to remain calm throughout and get some really great shots. There were very few blurry or bad shots when I was culling through the almost 1500 photos that I took which made narrowing them down super difficult! But I wanted them to tell the story of her birth. So any image that I didn't feel like served that purpose to the fullest extent possible was deleted. I got it down to about 400 photos altogether that I feel extremely proud of and can't wait to show Sandy and Wade.
It's no mystery that I love mothers. I have such reverence for all that they do for their families and I respect the job of mothers above all else. I'm also a huge baby and I cry at least once during most of my shoots. But I don't usually cry during editing or this long after the fact. So that has me wondering why am I so emotional over this shoot?
I think the reason is because what I witnessed was love in its purest of forms. I saw the love between a mother and her unborn child, the love between husband and wife, father and daughter, but also the love between the doulas and Sandy, the love of childbirth, of women, of families, and of life. And it was one of the most beautiful things I've ever captured.
I cannot wait for my next birth client and I hope I just continue to get better and better.