Blog a la Cart

Category: Birth Photography

March 7, 2016

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I. One year ago today, labor began in earnest. After three weeks of false starts and grief induced contractions, an ugly fall on some ice followed by a day spent monitored in L&D, contractions finally began to come regularly and powerfully. It was time to welcome this new life as I grappled with the loss of one of my most dear.

I remember a day at home, worrying and laboring in the quiet of my bedroom, the place that had become my sanctuary during the scariest moments of my grief. I watched “Song of the Sea” with my girls, rocking and breathing on a yoga ball. The mother whispers to her child, “Remember me in your stories and in your songs. Know that I will always love you, always.” Tears streamed down my face in recognition.

The house was full of anticipation and yearning. My father’s watchful eye. The strong, assertive kicks from within. We all craved the arrival of this baby as a distraction, a celebration, a reminder of joy. And yet, his very arrival signaled the fierce reality of time plowing relentlessly ahead. While a part of my heart is forever trapped in February 14, 2016, this baby would not allow me to wholly stay stuck.

James and I departed for the hospital earlier than we would have under normal circumstances. But my world was upside down and nothing felt normal. How could I welcome my child into a world without my mother? So we headed for the security and comfort of my midwives who were an integral piece of my survival team during that hideous three week purgatory. I needed their presence and reassurance. I could do this, even without my mother. I could do this. I would do this.

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II. After my mother’s death, I spoke at length with my midwives and James about how we were going to get me through labor and delivery.

The deepest, darkest, hardest moments of my grief were akin to the deepest, darkest, hardest moments of labor. That visceral, uncontrollable pain I’d only ever experienced while giving life and letting life go. It was terrifying and utterly breathtaking in its magnitude. I worried about how I would manage in the face of the two slamming together at the height of labor.

We decided that an epidural upon arrival at the hospital would allow me to not be so focused on the physical pain. I could have as many friends and family and caregivers in the room with me as I needed to help distract from the emotional pain as I dilated to baby’s arrival. While I’d always been anxious about the thought of a needle in my spin, I agreed that given the circumstances, this was the best plan.

And so, shortly upon admission to L&D, the chief of anesthesiology administered the epidural.

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III. My right side went numb quickly. I lay on my left to try to help the medicine distribute more evenly throughout both sides of my body. I did not like feeling so disembodied, so disconnected from what was happening inside me.

My doula and James tried to get me to focus on my breathing. I was okay. The numbness and tingling were normal.

We waited for my sister and dear friend to arrive.

It was 7pm. I was dilated to 4. My cervix had some work to do.

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IV. I kept waving my arms in the air like a fool to reassure myself that I was indeed still connected and in control of my body. My right arm was feeling numb and that made me feel frantic and worried that something was not right.

Everyone reassured me that I was okay. I was doing great. So I threw my arms in the air and willed myself to believe them.

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V. Kimmy arrived. She told me the girls were happily sleeping and my dad was curled up with his phone by his side.

Somehow the Universe would align such that she would be present for the birth of all three of my children.

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VI. I told Kimmy that I did not like the epidural. Why was my whole body so numb and tingly? I was feeling scared.

The nurses checked everything. My vitals were normal. Baby’s vitals were normal. I was progressing well. We were doing great.

Breath, Ashley, breath.

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VII. Kimmy, James and my doula settled into chairs across from me. We talked quietly as the sound of baby’s heartbeat pulsed in the background.

It had been two hours since I’d received the epidural, and I had dilated to 6. Things were moving along. Everyone was assembled.

I suddenly felt horribly nauseous and lightheaded. I called James over to my side.

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VIII. I came to with the strong, urgent words of my midwife echoing in the room. “Ashley, I need you to talk to me. Tell me what’s going on.” There was a sea of faces around me. James and Kimmy clutching my hand. An oxygen mask on my face. The stench of vomit in the air. My midwife’s hands inside of me. And nurses scurrying about.

I have absolutely no memory of the two minutes prior to that moment. As James relayed the story later, I had gone unconscious shortly after calling him over, and seized and vomited. My midwife had come flying in the room assuming I had dilated to 10 and baby’s imminent arrival had caused me to faint. I was still at 6cm, and despite passing out, baby’s vitals had stayed steady during the whole episode.
I was in a panic. How could I have no memory of what had just happened? How had my sister handled that moment on the heels of my mother’s sudden death? Why had it happened?

I wanted the baby out. I did not want to die. I hated the epidural. I wanted my mother. Everything felt completely out of control and overwhelming.

As I whispered over and over, “I don’t want to die. I just want my mom. I don’t want to die like her,” the nurses cleaned me up and tried to get me to relax and breath into the oxygen mask.

The anesthesiologist returned and was not happy that this had happened. He either wanted the baby out or the epidural off. He couldn’t explain what had just happened so thought it best to stop it.

And this is where I applaud and champion midwife care because Amy, my midwife who had held me every single day of my grief, coaching me to this very moment, stood by my side and said to the anesthesiologist and me, “Ashley has had a lot going on. She just needed to check out for a moment. I will be by her side every moment for the rest of this labor, and if it happens again, baby comes out and epidural is done. But I think her mind just needed a break. She’s back. And baby is doing awesome.” And with that, the anesthesiologist left. And I got my very numb feet back under me.

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IX. Turns out, a panic attack can do quite a number on a person in the throes of labor and grief.

I’m so grateful I had a skilled, experienced ally and advocate by my side caring for me and my baby in that moment. I am forever indebted for the thoughtful, informed, sensitive care that I received from my midwives during that three weeks and the weeks following. I could not overstate their import.

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X. Only minutes after that episode, I’m smiling. I can’t believe I was smiling, but this is where my gratitude for my amazing friend and talented photographer Kate comes into play. Her images of that evening and these moments are a concrete reminder of my own strength and the resilience of the human spirit.

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XI. And with the arrival of my dear friend Geraldine, the last of my birth team had arrived. And with that scary moment behind me, and my anxiety subsiding, we settled in for the final hours of waiting.

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XII. This is love. This is support. This is how you keep going.

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XIII. This is where hashtagsquadgoals feels appropriate. These humans, these unbelievable humans, who held me in my grief and laughed with me in my joy, they are who dragged me through that purgatory and out the other side. They are my family.

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XIV. Since I didn’t like the continued numbness from the epidural, there was a rotating crew of “feet rockers” whose job it was to simply keep their leg pressed against the bottom of my foot and allow me to rock them back and forth. It was grounding. And comforting. And kept me connected to my body and that moment to avoid further anxiety or panic.

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XV. Interestingly, despite not feeling any pain from the contractions, I instinctively lifted the oxygen mask to my face any time I was experiencing one. I wouldn’t know it at the time, but then the monitors would confirm that I was indeed mid-contraction. So while I was less connected to what was happening inside my body than I was for my previous two births, this was a small reminder that I was still very much present with my body and baby.

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XVI. For a few hours, I was able to settle in to the scene I’d imagined when I thought about this baby’s birth. Talking. Laughing. Contentedly anticipating the arrival of my child with those I love.

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XVII. And then, shortly after 1am, I hit 10cm. With three strong, determined pushes, I brought my son in to the world.

He pooped on arrival, so we were both coated in a sticky, black goo.

He arrived sunny side up, like his eldest sister, and so made a squished face appearance to those present.

James announced he was a boy, and with that he was placed on my chest.

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XVIII. Hello, sweet baby. Welcome, Sanderling.

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XIX. I cannot adequately capture the range of emotions I experienced in those first moments with this boy. The relief. The gratitude. The love. The sorrow. The joy. The beauty. The exhaustion. The exultation.

He brought a part of me back to myself.

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XX. “I’m so proud of you,” he whispered, “and I know she is too.”

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XXI. The “I fucking did it” face

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XXII. “He has mom’s nose.”

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XXIII. Team Sanderling.

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XXIV. And like that, we were parents of three.

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XXV. Father and son.

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XXVI. Meconium toes. Strawberry blonde hair. 9lbs of squish.

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XXVII. Born March 7, 2016 at 1:11am. 9lbs 1oz. 20 inches long.

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XXVIII. Healthy. Safe. Here. That is all I had been wanting. It was all I needed in that moment. My anchor in the storm.

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XXIX. “He is exactly the poem I wanted to write.” Happy Birth Day, my sweet boy. We are so glad you’re here.

Welcoming Maisie

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It took us over four months, but James and I finally finished compiling the video of our sweet Fairy Goddaughter’s birth in time to gift to Courtland’s FGPs for Christmas. This labor was so quick and smooth that the video required only one song to capture the labor, delivery and wonderful postpartum bonding. In fact, I think James’ timing of the delivery in the video is actually longer than the IRL version.

Regardless, I was humbled and awed and inspired to be with people I consider family during these precious, vulnerable, life-altering moments. And I’m so happy to share a piece of the magic with all of you.

Giving Birth in America

The U.S. is the only developed nation in the world whose maternal mortality rate has been on the rise since 1990. This is B-A-N-A-N-A-S. And truly unacceptable (slash unnecessary).

Semi-tangential – bear with me: Addison’s first Thanksgiving, while we were still living in Los Angeles, we spent the day after the holiday making turkey BLTs with James’ extended family who all live in the LA area. It was during this post-Thanksgiving fete that I met James’ cousin who works for Every Mother Counts, a non-profit whose mission it is to make pregnancy and childbirth safe to every mother, everywhere. She had just finished filming the documentary, No Woman, No Cry, addressing global maternal health and the shocking reality that nearly 1,000 women die each day from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth, nearly all of which are preventable.

While acknowledging that maternity in many developing nations needs more medical support and training to help prevent these maternal complications, I relayed my concern that we were “overdoing it” here in the US and over-medicalizing and controlling a process for which only 15% of women really needed that extra intervention and medicalization. I began discussing my own birth experience just four months prior at a fancy pants hospital in Beverly Hills, and my frustrations and concerns with how I was treated by the nurses and medical staff during the experience. Clancy nodded along knowingly. We talked about the wonder and significance of doulas to help cut down on this over-intervention (you can revisit my dear friend’s very data-driven analysis in support of doula support for more information on that front) and how outrageous it was that doulas were not covered by insurance. Every woman should have access to a doula for her birth experience. Pregnancy and childbirth should be treated as a normal biological process by health care providers. For instance, the mission of the midwives with whom I’ve consulted for my subsequent pregnancies is, “We honor the normalcy of women’s lifecycle events.  We believe in watchful waiting and non-intervention in normal processes. We will utilize appropriate interventions and technology for current or potential health problems.” Yes, yes, yes.

Why is maternal mortality on the rise in the U.S.? Because instead of taking a woman-centered, normalcy-based approach to pregnancy and childbirth, we face medical-legal, hospital and insurance barriers that are out of sync with women’s needs, like lack of support for vaginal births after C-sections (or VBACs) and mandatory C-sections for conditions that can often be managed safely by vaginal birth. It’s also important to acknowledge the racial, cultural and systemic impediments that leave women of color and low-income women with lower quality care or no care at all in this country.

I write all this to encourage you to watch a new film series created by Every Mother Counts titled Giving Birth in America. The series follows four pregnant women and their healthcare providers in Florida, Montana and New York in the days leading up to delivery. Together, they navigate the challenges of race, poverty, chronic illness, overuse of medical interventions and other inequalities.

I also encourage you to sign this Change.org petition to cover midwife and doula services for all women in America. I have benefitted from the care and support of doulas and midwives and know that they made a tangible, significant impact on the positive outcomes of my birth experiences. All women deserve access to that level of care and support.

This morning, I revisited Addison’s birth story as thinking about #GivingBirthInAmerica, I can’t help but reflect on my own personal experiences.

I’m re-sharing the full story below. As I think about confronting another birth experience in less than three months (HELLO THIRD TRIMESTER!), I’m finding my voice and my strength and revisiting my past experiences to help remind me of the awesome responsibility and process it is to bring life into this world. I am grateful that I have a team of care-providers who I know will support and trust me throughout, and will have my (and my baby’s) best interests and health at the fore of their thoughts as they participate in that process with us. I wish that for all pregnant women.

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The day that I awoke to my abdomen constricting in the rhythmic, consistent way that all expecting women anticipate began with such eagerness and excitement.

I remember sinking into the tub, belly floating above the water like a bleached watermelon, relaxing into what I presumed would be the final moment to myself in quite some time.

I remember the sand between my toes and the way the ocean breeze rushed through my hair as I paused every few minutes to breath through the beginnings of a pain that I had no basis for comparison. Thinking it wasn’t so bad. Thinking I could do this. No problem. Having no understanding how much more my body would endure before I’d be able to breath a sigh of relief and completion. Realizing now, that nothing could have prepared me for what I was to confront only hours later.

I remember filling that round, full belly with my father’s carbonara, carbo-loading for the intensity ahead. Sitting around the table with my sister and husband, with my dog at my feet. My favorite beings all around me, as we prepared to welcome a new one to those ranks.

I remember the anxiety creeping in as the hours passed, and the pain increased, and yet the time between the pain remained constant.

I remember the earth shaking under my feet as I sat perched on the toilet, willing my body to get going, to do what it was supposed to do. My propensity for instant gratification trumped by biology.

I remember rocking on all fours atop our bed as Kimmy shuttled hot water bottles between the microwave and our room to try to ease the increasing pain in my back. The panic taking hold as I realized I had no real preparation for the road ahead.

Despite all my reading. All my knowledge. Nothing could have prepared me. There is no comparison for the pain and intensity of childbirth. I did my best to recall the words of my doula, the images of other mothers in labor from the videos we’d watched together, and yet none of it eased the growing uncertainty I felt toward my own body. About my own ability to do what billions of women had done before me.

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If I knew then what I know now I would never have left for the hospital in the middle of the night, hugging my furry beast, my “first born,” to my chest as I headed out the door, knowing that our relationship would never be the same after this day. I would never have driven to that fancy hospital all those miles away. Had insurance allowed, I would have stayed exactly where I was, at home, surrounded by the familiarity and comfort that that word implies. And if insurance had not allowed a home birth, I would have stayed where I was, for as long as possible, before going around the corner from our home to a tiny, modest hospital. There, I may have been the only laboring woman in the hospital. There, I may have gotten the attention, respect, and patience that all laboring women deserve. There, my experience may have been different. I still would have had the same outcome, and yet my feelings about my first born’s birth, about the medical care-providers, about labor and delivery, may have been 180 degrees different. I am grateful everyday for the experience I had with my second born. She redeemed something that I feared might be irredeemable on that day three and a half years ago.

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I remember the devastating disappointment and frustration I felt when I learned upon checking in to the hospital that I was only 2 cm dilated. And the confusion I felt when my doctor and the nurses all strongly urged me to start pitocin to move things along.

Everything I had read had told me to trust my body to do what it was supposed to do. And yet here was the medical industry telling me otherwise. I remember nervous phone calls to my doula, my parents, my doctor, and around again in an attempt to decide the best course of action. I ultimately caved under the weight of my doctor’s opinion. I rarely talk about that moment. I’ve blocked that moment of weakness from the story I tell when I talk about Addison’s birth. And yet, there I was, hooked up to an IV of pitocin, angry, confused, disappointed and uncertain, in a room the size of a closet, at the start of my birthing experience.

Not a very great place to begin.

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Fortunately, quite quickly, the pitocin did indeed dilate me to 4, the magic number needed to admit me to a proper birthing suite, a gorgeous, sunlit room overlooking Beverly Hills. I demanded the pitocin be stopped as soon as I arrived to the room where I was to meet my daughter. The nurse refused, concerned that labor would stop or slow if she removed the drip. I angrily called my doctor and she spoke to the nurse, instructing her to do as I’d asked. The pitocin was removed, my doula, sister and birth photographer arrived (now that there was room for their presence), and I began laboring as I’d envisioned: Slow dancing with James, rocking on the birthing ball, showering.

The nurse was negative and confrontational throughout the experience. She didn’t want me in the shower. She wanted to monitor every contraction, despite my request to be monitored as minimally as possible. She continually mumbled, “It doesn’t have to be this hard,” and “Most women don’t do it this way.” She routinely suggested an epidural despite my clearly stated disinterest.

As the hours passed, the pain increased, and I tired, my mental and emotional outlook grew dimmer and dimmer. Thank god for my amazing doula, sister, and husband that kept the nurse at bay and kept me going despite my growing fears and doubts. While I am still resentful of how I was treated by that nurse, it only enhances my appreciation and respect for the rest of my birthing team.

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The pain reached its zenith when I stopped being able to move around the room and insisted on lying on my side in bed. I hummed and buzzed my way through each contraction, and decried my ability to survive it during periods of rest. After six hours stuck at 6cm, I was ready to give up. I wanted an epidural. And I wanted my doctor to cut me open and remove the baby from my belly so that this would end. So that this nightmare would be over.

After a screaming fit of “I can’t do this. I hate this. My body is failing. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t. I want it over. I need this to be over!” My doula quietly pulled her face to mine and softly urged me to ask for an IV of fluids to provide some much needed hydration. I hadn’t been drinking water at all, and she reasoned that after such a long period of hard labor, I was severely dehydrated and that that was only adding to the delay. She also suggested that since my membranes had not yet ruptured, I might want to reconsider my request to not have my water broken. Better have a doctor break the bag than have the unwanted epidural, she reasoned.

I listened to this calm, reassuring older woman, a woman who had been down this road personally four times and had held the hands of women in my shoes over 300 times prior. She knew what I wanted from my birth experience, and was there, still fighting for it, adapting to the way the situation was playing out, with my best interests at heart.

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What happened after I was hydrated and the bag was ruptured moved at lightening speed. Suddenly I was at 10cm, my doctor had arrived, as had a team of other nurses, and there was great cheering and urgings and words of encouragement that the end was near, and yet so much was about to begin.

I was taken aback by the pain of pushing. By the physical screaming and burning of my body and the immense, gut-wrenching effort I had to throw behind that pain. Between pushes, when the contractions would relent, I remember laying my head back and the room falling silent, as though in prayer-like repose, awaiting my next move. I felt as though everyone around me was holding their breath in quiet respect, while I attempted to catch my own. Those 30 seconds of rest felt like hours. I fell into a peaceful slumber, convinced that the work was behind me, that I could finally relax and breath. But then biology would surge from the depths of that quiet, throwing me headlong back into the ring of fire.

I am grateful that pushing was short, relatively speaking, and before I knew it, I felt my daughter exit my body, and the pain ceased, and I lay back, eyes closed, taking in that moment of relief before opening my eyes to meet my first born child.

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I distinctly remember my doctor asking me if I’d do an unmedicated birth again before she left the room that day, and I meant it, with every fiber of my being, when I told her that I would never EVER EVER put myself through that kind of pain ever again. I believed those words vehemently. Despite that beautiful, healthy baby on my chest, despite my ability to walk around the room mere minutes after her birth, despite ultimately having accomplished what I’d wanted, I felt completely beaten down and disempowered by so much of the process. I never wanted to feel that kind of disappointment and uncertainty with my body ever again. And so in that moment, I truly believed that I would never go through birth again. I loved that newborn body pressed against my own more than anything I had ever loved in this world, but I absolutely could not suppress the feelings of anxiety, and fear, and doubt that had been so much a part of the process of her arrival.

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Thank goodness that we forget. That while in the throes of labor with my second born I was reminded, but ultimately cannot recall, the exact sensation of what it feels like to be in the process of bringing life into this world. Thank goodness I got the chance to do it again. And in such a way that I felt completely invigorated, and proud, and empowered by the entire process. In such a way that reinforces why it is not just having a child that is life-changing, but that the very act and process of having that child makes all the difference.

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I could not know what I know now. And looking back, I am in awe of that woman that fought through all that incertitude and achieved what she’d dreamed was possible despite less than ideal conditions. I admire that woman I was three and a half years ago and am inspired by a strength she doubted and a body she questioned. I know that I am more sure of myself today having been tested by that birth. And I am more grateful for that experience than any other in my life.

Maisie

Early Sunday morning, I had the privilege of being with a dear friend while she welcomed a beautiful baby into the world. In those moments, I was reminded of the sheer badassness of the female body, its strength and power and life-giving awesome. It is such a gift to be trusted in that space with a woman who is simultaneously her most vulnerable and most powerful. I’m filled with a sense of awe by the memories of those experiences; this one was no exception.

I walked into the hospital at 12:30am, arriving only 20-30 minutes after mom, and sweet Maisie entered the world just over 30 minutes later. Now THAT is how to have a baby.

It was truly awe-inspiring.

I was not only humbled by the immense strength and focus of the laboring mom, but of the skilled caregiving of her midwife. I was reminded of why I believe so intensely in midwifery care for healthy moms and babies. To witness a trained and experienced caregiver listen and respond so intently to her patient, to watch her trust the mother engaged in a normal, life-giving process and respond to her instincts was unbelievably inspiring. The midwife did not try to control the situation, but rather assist and support the mother. It is the kind of caregiving I wish for all mothers.

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To hold life that is mere minutes old… well I think my face says it all. What a gift!

Welcoming Oliver

Song is “Lullaby” by The Dixie Chicks. And it’s just so perfect for this. Love these collaborations with my sweet, talented husband. I shot and edited the photos, James told the story, Deanna, Dennis and Oliver brought the love.

Welcoming…

This afternoon, I’m headed to Albany to help welcome a sweet baby into the world. It’s been awhile since I’ve captured a birth, and I am looking forward to the immense love and intimacy and inspiration that is central to such an experience.

In the meantime, do take a visit over to The Beauty of Being Born. It’s been quiet around those parts, but I recently shared a new birth story that is sure to give you all those amazing feelings as well. Here’s the story of Maxwell’s welcome to the world.

Featured // 2

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So completely honored to be interviewed by Gabrielle of Design Mom. The full interview about my perspective on birth photography here.

I’ve seen women speechless, I’ve seen women in tears, I’ve seen women cry out with joy, I’ve seen women humbled with gratitude, I’ve seen women exhausted and overwhelmed – but each and every one of them is so palpably consumed by love and relief.

Welcoming Katy

Nearly three months ago, in the middle of a New Year’s blizzard, Baby Katy entered the world.

James finally had a chance to string together the images from that momentous 48 hours, and Laura sent me her accompanying birth story to compliment the video. It’s amazing to see the words paired with the photos. My strongest memory of that day is the way that Laura faced the pain without doubt or hesitation. She also proved that she is a master dilator. Eight centimeters in an hour! All of our minds were blown.

That’s pretty standard with birth. No matter the circumstances, it is awesome.

Welcome to the world Katy Baby.

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“I promise you, I’m not having a stroke.”

Those are the first words I remember saying to the nurse as I climbed into my hospital bed. I had woken up that morning, thrown some clothes on, and gone to my regular prenatal check up with my mom, knowing my blood pressure had been high the previous week, but thinking that was due to the stress of hosting my whole family for the holidays. (I mean, I love my family to death, but seriously? Hosting nine people at nine months pregnant? Yeah, it’s stressful. Happy stress is still stress.) With no history of protein in my pee, and only normal late-pregnancy puffiness, I thought I was doing great — but at the last minute, I stashed my hospital go-bag in the car on a superstitious whim. I figured if I had it, I wouldn’t need it, but if I didn’t have it, I would live to regret it.

You see, I have a history of white coat syndrome, where my blood pressure spikes at the doctor’s office — with my systolic numbers reading 20 or even 30 points higher than at home. Given the frequency of prenatal appointments, though, I had started to get normal readings even at the midwives’ office. On the morning in question (January 2), at 37 weeks and 6 days pregnant, I knew that a high reading would earn me a trip to the lab at the very least. I was convinced that my baby wanted to come late, and had never really imagined that she would be early. I’d been active throughout my pregnancy (even running a half marathon during the first trimester), and though I’d gained nearly twice the recommended amount of weight, my belly was all baby, and I have a large frame that can carry a little extra weight without any trouble.

In any case, I knew I was in for trouble when Amy, the midwife, checked my bp at the start of our appointment and refused to even tell me what the numbers were, lest it stress me out and make it spike even more. I was immediately admitted to the hospital, and given the weather forecast (NBD, just a blizzard followed by sub-zero temps and fierce winds for the next 48 hours), I had to learn to come to terms with the fact that I wouldn’t be allowed to leave without a baby in my arms.

This was not the birth I had planned. I’m not totally a granola-eating tree-hugger, but I’ve known since I hit puberty that my body was made for busting out babies, and “normal” births in my family are anything but normal. (My brother was a breech baby delivered vaginally; my sister was a home birth in a Harvard dorm; I was almost born in the hospital parking lot, and was released home less than four hours after being born.) I was determined to experience natural childbirth, and I wanted that squirmy, squishy baby placed directly on my chest within her first minute of life.

I put a lot of time and effort into my birth plan, and I know you can’t plan for every possible contingency and that – in case of complications – it would be important to focus on the best possible outcome (healthy mom and healthy baby) rather than the process that led to that outcome. But at the same time, seriously? This body was made for busting out babies, and I didn’t really think any of that would happen to me.

So, when I found myself climbing into that hospital bed, I had a lot to process. And a long time to wait. I was put on “bed rest with bathroom privileges,” which is exactly as exciting as it sounds.

My bp? 174/110. Helloooooooo preeclampsia.

Or was it preeclampsia? Possibly gestational hypertension? Possibly underlying chronic hypertension that had been overlooked and undiagnosed because of my white coat syndrome? We still don’t know, but because of those numbers, the safest route was to assume the worst: that it was preeclampsia, and that I was at risk for seizures, stroke, and (as everyone who’s seen season three of Downton Abbey knows — SPOILER ALERT for those who haven’t) untimely death.

I am lucky enough to have a sister who is wicked smart and a primary care physician with OB, and so immediately my fingers started flying across my phone. Because of my white coat and family history of hypertension, I’d done a fair bit of reading on preeclampsia, but most of the pregnancy books talk about the diagnosis process and why it’s so important to listen to your doctors and take it seriously, and they don’t say much beyond that the only cure is childbirth. “Expect bedrest; if you’re at or near term, expect to be induced or have a c-section.”

Induction. Something I certainly hadn’t bargained for. But definitely preferable to a c-section.

It took me the better part of 24 hours to wrap my head around what needed to happen. All the while, I was willing my body to do its part and cooperate with the Cervidil (a cervical ripener, intended to speed up the effacement process) and the labetalol (a beta blocker to lower my blood pressure). “Open, open, open” became my mantra, and I silently said the word with the in and out of every breath.

I really, really didn’t want Pitocin. In my mind, Pitocin => pain => epidural => => stalled labor => c-section. I know that’s not entirely accurate, but still, no thank you. Not the road I wanted to travel. But as time went on, if my cervix didn’t open and contractions didn’t start on their own, that’s the road I would have to take.

Angry, angry tears were shed. To the point where my husband said, “I need you to get over yourself on this and stop acting like you’re going to die every time one of the midwives says something.”

One of my friends sent me a text that made things a little easier to bear, because she gave me permission to FEEL ALL THE FEELINGS: even though it is nowhere near as devastating as a stillbirth or a miscarriage, a woman deserves the right to grieve the birth she had always imagined for herself. And for me, that meant an intervention-free water birth, surrounded by people who love me and from whom I could draw additional strength in case my own abandoned me. It didn’t make it all better, but I finally let it loose and let myself grieve for what wouldn’t happen — and start to ready myself for what would.

The next afternoon (after 30 hours of bed rest, having only been allowed trips to the bathroom and five blessed laps of walking around the nurses’ station), my reproductive system decided to play ball, and I started experiencing contractions, though I didn’t feel them at first — I only knew about them because I was being continuously monitored. My blood pressure was being checked every five minutes, and a little alarm went off every time it was higher than 150/100. In other words, a cuff blew up tightly around my arm and a little alarm went off every five minutes, around the clock. To add to the fun, I was also having blood drawn every couple of hours for lab work to check on my liver and kidney functions (again, taking all the necessary precautions for preeclampsia). Midwife Amy handed me off to midwife Kim, who was on call for the weekend (and the snowstorm), and we agreed that, based on my progress, I wouldn’t need Pitocin, and that the water birth I’d imagined might be back in the picture. Or at the very least, I might be allowed to take a shower.

There was much rejoicing.

My mom went down to the hospital gift shop and bought a puzzle to work on — to give her and my husband something to do other than worry and wait (and text my sister for more thoughts on the plan of care). I got out the last “must finish before baby arrives” sewing project I was working on and got to work tacking the last few stitches together. My mother-in-law joined us after work, and Ashley, my friend and colleague (and self-proclaimed “birth junkie”) came as well.

Another friend braved the wintry weather to come visit and chat while I ate dinner. (I had been her first post-partum visitor three months prior, arriving 20 minutes after the birth of her daughter. Though she couldn’t stay long with two little ones at home, it meant the world to me that she braved the blizzard to be there for me.) As we were visiting, my contractions started to get more intense, but it wasn’t anything that I couldn’t manage, though it did distract me from eating. When she got up to leave around 6:40, I breathed a sigh of relief — I desperately needed to pee, but hadn’t wanted to put everyone through the song and dance required to get out of bed while she was visiting. As I hobbled to the bathroom, I realized I was dripping — apparently I’d needed to pee even more than I’d thought I did!

Nope. The dripping didn’t stop after I’d gone to the bathroom. My water had broken. Shit just got real.

Kim came in to check on me and gave me permission to take a shower and get ready for real labor. I never knew how transformative the act of showering could be. I came out excited, relieved, and with my game face on: I was ready to rock this thing. I knew I should eat something, but the only thing that looked appetizing was the vanilla ice cream I’d requested for dessert. (Life is short: eat dessert first.)

The next couple of hours are a hazy blur. I remember humming and singing my way through several contractions. Some weren’t so bad. Other times, I swore I would never forget the intensity of that pain. Kim recommended changing positions every 20 minutes or so to encourage the baby to make her way down, down, down deeper in my pelvis. At my next cervical check, I was fully effaced, but only 2 cm dilated. All that work for a piddly 2 cm!

For a split second, I doubted myself. I didn’t think I could do it. Not that I couldn’t take more of what I’d experienced so far, or that I didn’t have the stamina to do it, but because I was terrified of how much more excruciating it could become before it was over. (My baby was posterior (sunny side up), which meant the back labor was incredibly painful.)

But only for a split second. I had gone into pregnancy in some of the best physical shape of my life, and while I couldn’t say I had “looked forward” to labor, it is fair to say that it’s something I trained for and prepared for, to the extent that anyone can. I flashed back to my high school soccer coach telling us to “dig deep” — “this is overtime, Raiders, this is where it counts!” — and a college rowing teammate reminding me “no regrets!” Mentally, I dug in my heels and was determined to see this baby through on my own.

Kim was worried, though, that I was wearing myself out too quickly with my humming and singing. She gave me a breathing exercise to do instead (“hee, hee, hee, whooooo…” — Lamaze level 3, I’ve since learned).

After all that waiting with nothing going on, I expected my body to pick up the pace. And so it did. I only remember snippets from the next 90 minutes:
– My mom breathing with me, and me admonishing her to take MY tempo. (Never give a singer a breathing exercise unless you’re ready for some HARD CORE BREATH CONTROL!!!)
– My mom reminding me over and over, as each contraction rose up, “It’s a wave — you ride it.” — and eventually me telling her to please, shut the fuck up. (I was never very good at body surfing, but eventually, after enough contractions, I understood what she was trying to tell me, and I was able to get ahead of the wave and, indeed, ride it through.)
– Belching, loudly, directly into my husband’s face in the middle of a contraction. (He thought this was hilarious.)
– The excruciating feeling of having my blood pressure taken, repeatedly, during the most intense of my contractions. Those blood pressure readings were so high (diastolic, especially, though nobody had the guts to say what the numbers were) that Kim recommended I take some pain medication through the IV in order to let my body and blood vessels relax more in between heartbeats. I consented, and the nurse set about getting the meds flowing.
– The feeling of a twist and a slip from deep inside of me, followed immediately by me peeing. Everywhere. And then needing to poop.

I went into the bathroom carefully, thinking I was maybe 3 or 4 cm dilated, 6 or 7 cm if I was lucky, and not wanting to start pushing too soon lest I stall labor and have to receive the dreaded Pitocin — but still, I needed to poop. And while I’d already peed everywhere and knew it was likely that I would end up pooping during delivery, that was still hours away and I needed to clear the decks. Right?

Wrong. Kim came charging back into the room, super concerned about my most recent bp numbers. She ordered me back into bed. “But I have to poop!” I protested. “Well, then, girly, hop right up there and you and me are going to poop the bed.” She consented to check my progress before making me roll to my left side (taking the pressure off my vena cava, a position designed to let my blood vessels relax as much as possible and, hopefully, lower my bp), and then, as my mother put it, all hell broke loose.

“BABY ON THE PERINEUM!”

I hadn’t needed to poop. I had sailed through transition and was about to deliver a baby, having gone from 2cm to 10cm in just over an hour.

A flurry of activity. Nurses coming in. The nurse who had been with us for most of the afternoon and evening getting chastised and dismissed from the room, having not gotten around to hanging the IV of pain meds (and inadvertently giving me more of the birth experience I had wanted). My mom FaceTiming with my sister, and then telling me, in tears, that she would hold my leg for my sister, who had desperately wanted to be there and would have jumped on a plane from Seattle the previous night, were it not for the blizzard. The lights coming on over the bed, and me feeling very much like I was downstage, center, captured by the spotlights in the theater of my birth.

I don’t remember a ring of fire. I don’t really remember pushing, at least not the way I’d imagined it. I remember visualizing the darkest place I’d been, but it was a warm, happy darkness. It constricted around me and I pushed through it until the universe exploded and I saw stars. I roared, and the next thing I knew, I heard my baby’s first cry.

10:48 pm, January 3, 2014. Six pounds, 13.8 ounces, and 19 inches of awesome, in the truest sense of the word.

Welcome to the world, Kathleen Savaria. Our baby Katy — Katy and the Big Snow. Know that you are loved. By your mama, and your papa, the people who bore witness to your arrival and by all who welcome you into their lives today. We are so glad you are here. You are so very, very loved.

Katy

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A month ago today I helped welcome sweet baby Katy into the world. Her arrival was unexpected, two weeks ahead of schedule due to her Mama’s rising blood pressure. We were only days into the new year, during our first blizzard and deep freeze of the season. Her name is so wonderfully appropriate (see photo above – and if you don’t know that children’s story, I highly recommend it!)

This birth was my fourth in one year. I feel so incredibly fortunate to have been present for the welcoming of four new lives into the world. To see all the amazing and powerful ways that birth is so deeply personal and individual for each mother and child, and yet, simultaneously, how truly universal and transcendent the experience is.

I was explaining to someone last week that one of the primary reasons that I so enjoy birth photography (beyond the gift it gives the family of that experience) is the opportunity to capture people at their most authentic, their most bare, their most vulnerable. A woman in labor does not notice or care about the presence of my camera. She is unaffected by the lens, and I am privy to some of the most incredible and profound human moments. The deepest pain juxtaposed against the deepest joy. The love between partners as they navigate that pain and anticipation and then experience that joy for the first time together in meeting their baby. Words could never do it justice. Pictures come close. But nothing compares to the act of bearing witness to that kind of energy. I am humbled and grateful for it every time. And I especially love experiencing all the laughter (punctuated by the pain and work) that is central to birth. There are always so many beautiful images of mothers smiling even while in the throes of one of the hardest things they’ll ever do.

Looking back at these images, I am most moved by the love between Laura and her husband – the way he held her in that pain and the two of them worked together to bring their daughter into the world. I knew Laura was one of the most physically and mentally strong human beings I know thanks to training and running a half marathon with her last spring. But watching her in labor was positively inspiring. She never once uttered words of doubt. She never once cried for help. She trusted herself and her body and baby, and I could not have been more proud or inspired by that kind of mental will. I wish that for all mothers, and I can only hope that some of these images capture the heart of that strength.

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Welcoming Lila

Three weeks ago today, we welcomed sweet Lila into the world. It is completely humbling and inspiring to be a part of welcoming new life. I am eternally grateful to Kaki’s FGPs for letting me be with their family for this moment.

It was extra special because Libbie was also present at the birth – and one of my favorite images from the entire experience is of Libbie pressed against Geraldine’s cheek as Lila entered the world. It was truly amazing to behold, though I have absolutely no idea what Libbie was saying to Geraldine, but it was exactly what was needed as she gave that final push. I believe that image captures a bit of what was so special about that day, that moment, and those people that I have come to know and love so dearly.