Tag Archives: pregnancy

Birth: This is Shakirah’s Story
The Birth of ‘Abd al-Matin, 6 October 2015

It was Lana Petersen who connected myself to Shakirah and Ya’eesh. I met with them in their home in Seekoeivlei and was immediately impressed with their sense of confidence and trust in each other, themselves and the process. We discussed their expectations and any concerns or ideas surrounding my presence and that of the camera in their birthing space. They were so open and trusting which left me feeling excited to be present in their process.

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The experience of witnessing and documenting them was such an honour and left me on an incredible high. The images, I believe, tell the story just as it was that morning. I asked Shakirah to share her ideas around birth as well as her experience with me, this makes up most of the text below in-between the photographs.

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I am an introvert and felt the potential threat to the progress of my labour, by unfamiliar surroundings and strangers in my personal space, to be a very real one. I did not want to birth my baby into the artificially lit, cold, clinical confines of a hospital ward, in a building housing sick and suffering people.

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I believe that the act of birthing a baby is a natural physiological process, that the body is intrinsically equipped for and that it is not a medical condition. I also did not want my brand new baby to be handled roughly by birth attendants who did not view the process as spiritual but merely as routine.

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I was also alarmed by the fact that the overwhelming majority of, otherwise healthy, young women I knew, were having their babies delivered by Caesarean section and not by choice. This made me very sceptical of the mainstream medical fraternity’s motivation for performing C-sections.

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I was afraid of possibly having to undergo major abdominal surgery because performing a C-section made more financial sense or because my labour was taking ‘too long’ to progress. I did not want to feel disempowered by having my right to choose encumbered.

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So when we found out that we were pregnant again, in January this year, I started doing research on the local homebirthing industry, birthing centres and MOU’s. I searched the web for information on local homebirths and found the site homebirth.org.za, which had a directory listing midwives, doulas, birthing centres and antenatal classes.

It was also through an online article that I discovered the concept of lotus birthing, where the placenta remains attached to the baby until the umbilical cord dries and detaches naturally, usually within 3 to 5 days. There are many health benefits associated with delaying cord clamping to allow the transfusion of blood from the placenta to the baby, to complete.

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It also tied in with the theory of birth without violence, where it is believed that our birth affects the rest of our lives and I wanted the birth experience to be as gentle, welcoming and reassuring for our baby as possible and therefore the decision for my husband to catch him was also a natural one.

If we could and hadn’t needed the reassurance of experienced birth attendants, with this being our first baby, we would have chosen to do an unassisted birth, as the baby was conceived with just the two of us and the birth was the culmination of that intensely private process.

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When I broke the news to my family that we wanted a homebirth, it was met with much resistance and judgment. They were concerned for mine and the baby’s safety, believing that hospitals were the safest places to birth. I initially succumbed to the pressure and booked with the local government MOU, where I went for most of my checkups. Every time I attended an appointment, a different midwife would perform my checkup. It felt very impersonal. With the large volumes of women attending, it would take most of the day and we would be herded through the hallways, to the various rooms, like cattle.

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Shakirah went into labour on Friday evening on 3rd October, a long and exhausting progress which lasted until her baby’s birth at dawn on the 6th. Lana Peterson, her birth attendant, arrived at 9:30pm on the 5th as labour began to become more and more intense.

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The night seemed to draw on forever with the pain intensifying and my back feeling like it was breaking and my tummy feeling like it was on fire, with each contraction. By 2am I started wailing, tearless, high pitched wails, while still rocking back and forth like a patient in a mental asylum, anticipating and dreading each contraction. I was doing the exact thing I was taught not to do. I started feeling fear and anxiety and it only increased my pain. Lana coached me to make low, guttural sounds but it was of no use. I was too far gone and started begging to be taken to hospital because I needed the pain to be numbed.

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Lana had made contact with Lydia (Sr. Lydia Du Toit is a Midwife), who arrived shortly, at just after 5am, Tuesday 6 October. They both checked the bath water with torches and confirmed that my waters had broken. Lydia then requested that I get out of the bath so she could check me. She then started coaching me to push, while I held onto Ya’eesh for dear life, first laying on the bed then squatting on the floor being supported under both my arms. She told me to push like I was sitting on the toilet. I was repeating that I couldn’t do it and squirming through the pain. She spoke with authority and demanded my attention and explained to me what it was she needed me to do and how she needed me to do it. I obliged and started feeling my baby move into the birth canal and started feeling the urge to bear down spontaneously which happened simultaneously me making a low guttural sound.

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I arrived just before the break of dawn. Shakirah was drained and exhausted, rocking and groaning in the middle of the bed with Ya’eesh supporting her so lovingly through each contraction. The room was filled with warm intense colours and she was wearing a ing flowing robe. The whole scene was very intimate, and very beautiful. Light was slowly seeping into the room and with the suns rising, so she birthed her baby, it was surreal.

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I reached in between my legs and felt his head, which felt unusually soft and squishy. I heard him make a sound too. Then a few more pushes and his body followed quite quickly.

I remember hearing, “Quickly, the baby’s coming!” Ya’eesh caught him and I heard him crying then I got told that he would be passed through my legs.

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The moment I saw him I was overcome with emotion and laughed and cried and kissed him at the same time. It felt as if everything disappeared for that second and it was just us. He was covered in slimy blood and I was kneeling in a puddle of blood and goo but none of that mattered.

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I looked over at Ya’eesh who was crying and kissed him and looked up and saw my mom, who it seemed, had appeared out of nowhere and she was crying too. It was a beautiful and emotional moment and it made the pain disappear in an instant and breathed new life into me.

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I am totally satisfied with the whole experience and believe it couldn’t have happened any other way. I got my natural homebirth, with the support of two phenomenal, experienced women, whom I could not have done it without and my husband got to support me and catch our baby and my mom got to see her grandson as soon as he was born and this amazing event was documented for us to share with our beautiful boy one day.

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A Conversation with Independent Midwife Angela Wakeford

I met Angela in her home in Fish Hoek at the end of 2015. She qualified and began working in nursing and midwifery in 1993 in South Africa and spent 15 years gaining extensive knowledge in the UK where she worked in varied care systems spanning prenatal, birth and perinatal care as well as advanced models of training: working intensively on hands-on “case studies” with immigrant women from India and Somalia.

She returned to South Africa in 2010 and immediately set up her own independent midwifery practice which functions from her home base where we met to chat.

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Being a midwife verses working in government facilities, or, “the system”:

Angela spoke about her experiences working in South African Government run hospitals, which, apart from being badly subsidised, are also a space where most forms of the natural processes of birth have been lost by overworked staff who have lost sight of holistic midwifery due to the systemised nature of government hospital practices. One of the typical outcomes of government facilities are therefore the fast offer of drugged pain relief and swiftly diverted labours which may show any complications directly into the hands of surgeons.

Angela’s experience of witnessing labouring and pregnant women processed through this system is predominantly what led her to independent practice,- a space with both a better income, kinder working hours and a holistic approach to midwifery, one which really encompasses individualised care, and the treatment of labour and birth.

Our birthing industry is money and fear driven:

It is cheaper and safer to have a natural, home birth attended by a highly qualified midwife and doula as apposed to entering the hospital system. This fact is true for every woman who can afford medical aid in SA yet the insurance companies have set surprisingly low rates for natural birthing. Thus, those who can afford to make the choices are goaded into medicalised birthing and those women who can’t afford to make choices are fear driven to deliver their babies in hospitals due to, very often, a lack of access to knowledge.

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Medicalised birth, Hollywood and the difficulties in wanting to be informed in our society…

Last year when I started looking into birthing and pregnancy in South Africa I became increasingly aware that I needed to explain myself to others when seeking information. I questioned this need to defend myself and came to the occlusion that, basically, its not ok to know about birth, but it is ok to sexualise women’s bodies.

Funnily enough Angela brought this up herself when she spoke about a recent add campaign launched by South African Stationary brand BIC who, in celebration of Women’s Day last year posted the below add with the text reading: “Look like a girl, act like a lady, think like a man, work like a boss”.

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The advert which went viral on all online platforms defines how I feel when needing to explain that I’d like to educate myself about my body and birthing.

Images have become such a central point in much of our interpretations of our bodies: Round bellied and romantic portraits of happy couples and rosey-cheeked newborns are what we’ve learned is the expected and normal. Everything in-between (birth and labour specifically) is illustrated by Hollywood. Screaming women in stirrups, the doctor-hero, the partner: emasculated and helpless. Birth is apparently not a place for us at all, leave it to the professionals, since our bodies obviously don’t know what they’re doing…so well illustrated by Monty Python in their 1983 film The Meaning of Life, they were so ahead of their time!

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“What do I do?!”, to which the reply “Nothing Dear, you’re not qualified!”.

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The Positive Birth Movement

The Positive Birth Movement which Angela initiated in the Cape Peninsula and Southern Suburbs areas as well as the CBD is her proactive way of implementing change.

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The monthly PBM meetings she hosts consist of a mix of clients, doulas, midwives and other interested parties. The gatherings provide a sharing platform which is ultimately empowering for expecting parents. It provides discussions and information sharing in a relaxed setting which is conducive to creating a mind-set shift for how we approach birth.

This sounds like such an obvious, simple concept yet its not at all easy-to-come-by knowledge in South Africa.

Topics Angela mentioned had recently been covered included:

  • Giving men a more empowered role in birthing
  • The importance of seeing realistic images of labour and birth
  • The incorrect expectations created by media and Hollywood about birth

She’s found that opening communication channels like the PBM, has led to women making more natural decisions with regard to their birth.

How she works with her clients.

Midwives need a very supportive family since their working hours are so variable. Angela has created a structure and system that works beautifully for her: she only consults and does meetings/ classes (antenatal classes) in the morning and stands on-call for around five births a month (making her very much in demand!). As of January this year Angela has joined Birth Options Midwifery Team.

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65% of her clients choose homebirths and the majority are water births. She works with her clients from 6 weeks onward, building a detailed knowledge about the their history and pregnancy.

Because independent midwives have such an intimate and ongoing relationship with their clients it translates into excellent and very educated choices during pregnancy and the onset of labour.

During the last months of pregnancy she sees her patients weekly. This harmonious approach, (in comparison to an obstetrical who walks into the delivery ward, while pulling on a pair of gloves, during the last 30 minutes of labour) seems, to me, to be the most obvious and natural way forward in the process.

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In conclusion we discussed statistics on birthing in SA and some ideas around this which could bring change.

Angela had a student, shadowing her for some time recently who had had the brilliant idea to create a new data base or set of statistics for independent midwives. This platform would enable them to add data regarding the births they attend and the outcomes, thus creating a new set of statistics, one which would of course not be effected my medical aids and the like. A way to provide women with better information on which to make decisions regarding birth.

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After meeting with Angela I realise how important it is for individuals (and communities of women like the PBM) to instigate changes through education and information sharing.

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Birth: This is Alexia’s Story
The Birth of Isa, 15 September 2015

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Alexia and Theo invited me into their birth space to document the birth of their baby girl. Alexia sent me a message on the morning of the 15th, four months ago already, and warned me that she had gone into labour during the early hours of the morning. We had planned to meet that morning to discuss her feelings about birth photography and having me in her space. No time for that now, she trusted my integrity and I awaited further instructions.

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Not much later they moved from home to the Cape Medi-Clinic where I joined them mid-morning. I discreetly slipped into the labour room and greeted them both, almost the only words I spoke for the next 6 hours, and the only words I spoke to Alexia during her labour and birth.

It was a phenomenal and mind-altering experience. There are not many opportunities for one to be present at a birth (having no responsibility from a support or medical perspective) and it left me feeling like an honored witness and like a guardian of her space.

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I’ve felt so “precious” about the resulting images (and experience) that it’s taken me months to publish! A few weeks after the birth Alexia sent me a reply to some questions I had for her about her choices and perspective, these I have incorporated along with the images to share her story.

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How did you prepare yourself for your labour and birth?

I was so excited for the birth right from the start. I’ve had times, before falling pregnant, where the thought of natural birth was scary for me, but when I fell pregnant I was overcome by the faith and realization that natural childbirth is what my female body was made to do and that I am just one of many many women over many, many years that had given birth naturally.

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I never for one moment doubted I, and my babe, could do it, and I never focused on the perceived ‘pain’ of labour but instead focused on the miracle of the journey and where that intensity could take me on other body levels – emotionally, mentally, spiritually.

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Tell me a bit about your experience in labour and birthing your babe.

Wow. An intense, magical, challenging journey that took me into the deepest parts of myself. Physically one is taken to a place where you face yourself head on. I’d describe it as transcendental.
I was really aware that my daughter Isa and I were undertaking this challenging experience together, hand in hand so to speak.

I really wanted to be consciously present for her as she entered the world. Saying all that I was also quite amazed by just how physical it is. Nitty gritty basic physical human stuff! Pretty grounding & humbling. Seven weeks later and I’m still processing!

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The above image reflects how Alexia looked throughout her labour,- like a Greek goddess, totally serene, inside her own world, peaceful. She reminded me so much of the two below paintings (of Danae).

Danae

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What was your reason for wanting a natural birth in a hospital environment?

I wanted to birth as naturally as possible. I initially wanted a home birth but for various validated reasons my husband wasn’t comfortable with it and I was happy to accommodate him so that he could also have the birthing experience he desired. I chose a hospital I felt safe and comfortable in.

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 In hindsight, at home or in hospital, I managed to experience the birth I desired by going inward – the physical environment and happenings around me didn’t make much of a difference in the end.

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How did you feel having me present in your birthing space?

I loved having you there! You were like a little guardian angel, quietly present.
You have a beautiful nurturing, gentle energy and I don’t think it would have been the same without you!

For a while you were the only woman in the room with us and I was very aware of that at the time and grateful for your presence.
The images speak for this I feel.

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The moment Isa was born Alexia’s intense powerful and feminine force changed to emotion and wonder as she reached out crying and took her baby.

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It was such a dramatic change in tone in the room I had to look up from the eyepiece of my camera for a second, bewildered that it was the same person who had just morphed life phases in those split seconds… I was astounded, the moment very surreal.

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I documented the experience as objectively and honestly as I could. This meant that those moments which are so often excluded from our stories were ones that Alexia could choose to retain if she wanted to. For example; the birthing of her placenta which was intense, quite rough and painful, the blood and instruments that littered the trolley standing next to her bed….I incorporated it all.

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Afterwards I asked Alexia what she wanted to see and she asked for everything.
She said  that from her own perspective she had no idea of the goings-on outside the boundaries of her own body. Now, she wanted to see the experience from a the outside.

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You made comments about your experiences in the weeks following the birth and that you felt that there was much information here that you would like to share?

Yes! Personally, I was quite shocked by how unprepared I was for those first weeks following the birth. I’ve grown up around babies, au paired new borns etc so I come from a place with some experience yet I felt completely overwhelmed at first.

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 I personally experienced huge amounts of emotional healing during this time, never mind the normal physical challenges and lifestyle changes (which one doesn’t really get until one experiences it) and with no personal support system, I found a huge need to share and connect with other moms.

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 I do feel there is a pressure to be socially silent about the challenges faced during this time for various reasons.
I do think there is a need, living in a modern, disjointed community, for open and honest sharing.

As with pregnancy and birthing, I really believe knowledge is the key to a positive experience. There is so much info and discussion around pregnancy and birthing but I feel a huge lack of communication about the postnatal phase of the experience.

I’m on a mission to really open up about this fourth trimester  – I call it “keeping it real”.

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It is so emotional to look at these images now!

I was so deep within myself at the time, I was unaware of so much going on around me. What a gift to be able to have that special moment recorded. And I’m thrilled my baby girl gets to witness her incredible entry into this world.

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An Interview with Doula & Peri-natal Yoga Instructor Harriet Came
Part II

A few days after I documented yoga instructor and doula Harriet Came teaching pre-natal yoga I attended a special evening event she hosts once or twice a month.
I watched as she guided a large group, all couples in their third-trimester of pregnancy, in a workshop on birthing support and yoga practices for labour.

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The workshop was hosted in the evening at The Shala and lit primarily with candles. The large attic room was filled with soft music, nervous men and their heavily pregnant partners.
Harriet discussed the labour experience, oxytocin, postures and partner support. One could describe the workshop as a mini-doula training experience, it was holistically and sensitively approached.
After my own busy day it was soothing and inspiring to watch and quietly document the process Harriet led her clients through.

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Afterwards I discussed some of the workshop and Harriets opinions on birthing with her, here is some of what she had to say:

What would you say best contributes to a happy pregnancy and confident birth?

In point form, I believe the following are the some of the most important factors:

  • Taking it seriously but not too seriously
  • Using it as permission to be soft, to nurture, nest, take care of yourself and not feel guilty about it
  • Good diet
  • Regular (non strenuous) exercise
  • Yoga
  • Tissue salt program
  • Homeopathy
  • Positivity
  • Genetics
  • Great support network
  • Supportive partner
  • Reading enough but not too much
  • Believing in yourself
  • Staying away from negativity
  • Letting go
  • Having a supportive and experienced birthing team

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Society, usually via advertising/media, puts a lot of pressure on women to maintain a sassy, effortless, young identity and the iconic mother figure. This leaves no space for leaking breasts, stretch marks and exhaustion. How do these polished notions of women influence a mother’s experience/choices about birthing as well as her experience as a new mother? Have you noticed issues here for the women you’ve worked alongside?

 This is a great question, and issues that I have to deal with on a daily basis in the industry that I work in, and as a 40 something mother myself.
I think it’s incredibly hard for a woman now.  I think there are many things that come into play.

Firstly the media: We see so many celebrities/female roles models in the media having these perfect transitions into motherhood… the photo shoots, the seemingly effortless morphing back into their pre-birth weight, the movies, the magazines, the internet etc etc.  So much of what we see is hype and photoshopping.

I don’t believe that there’s a woman, who, at some point, hasn’t wept at great length over breastfeeding, who hasn’t lost herself completely and felt overwhelmed  by the magnitude of the task, who hasn’t realised that she will never truly be alone again and had moments of “what the fuck have I done”.

We live in a world where often the truth is completely glossed over in order for things to look more beautiful and, for a lot of women, the journey into motherhood is a complete shock.
This quest for perfection influences us without a doubt: sometimes in a good way, sometimes negatively.

On the positive side, women are very switched onto a healthy way of life during pregnancy. Pre-natal diet and exercise is well researched now, pregnancy apps that give us such an incredible visual journey through the 9 months are encouraging and insightful, different natural birthing techniques, superb pain relief during birth, information on post natal recovery… all these things that can make a real, positive difference to a pregnancy and a successful and fulfilling birth.

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But, I think on the downside, women now want it all because we see so many other women in media who appear to have it.

We want the perfect bump and a body to match. We want a beautiful family, we want to birth idyllically, we want to breastfeed, we want to have successful marriages, we want to have a career, we want to have a strong network of friends, we want the good body, the beautiful skin, the kids that eat broccoli and don’t watch TV, we want to eat organically, we want the best schools and the 4×4’s…

My experience is that you can’t have it all without something giving… and my advice (mainly anecdotal I hasten to add) is to be true to yourself, to let go a little and to realise that so much of what was important pre-kids, really isn’t anymore.

I work very hard to create this support network through my post natal classes, whastapp groups amongst students, an address book of professionals to supply to my students, regular tea parties/forums for a local support and community, great websites/blogs that give a real and encouraging insight into motherhood and life with kids.

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Many of us are having our children late in life; I did myself and I’d say well over 50% of my students are in their mid to late 30’s.  In the first 6 months of last year I had 4 news mums having their first child in their early and mid 40’s (fabulous to witness something wanted and waited for so much).  As a result, women have a lifestyle that is more affluent, more selfish, more sorted (emotionally and financially) than the younger mums and I often see them struggle in the beginning as they realise that the spontaneity and glamour of their ‘selfish’ life is being replaced by nappies, sleepless nights, leaking breasts, marital strife and pureed butternut squash.

Of course as women, they adapt and cope, but it’s definitely a shift in society and culture since our parents parented and something that I don’t think many of us are aware of or expecting.

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After meeting a number of South African doulas and midwives I’ve been surprised at how very differently each approaches her profession.
Hence our conversation gave me a new perspective. Your approach struck me as kind of go-between in that you focus a lot on your clients having a pro-active experience which is influenced by the kind of person they are to start with. 

My attitude is simple. I’d love for every birth that I go to to be natural, drug free, 5 hours long, candlelit and peaceful! But it’s not about me.  It’s about the mother and the father and the kind of birth that they want.
I guess I’m not really ‘pro’ anything, or, perhaps, I’m ‘pro’ everything!
I’m supportive of all kinds of birth, as long as the parents recognise what they want to work towards and make informed choices as they go through their pregnancy to try and achieve that.

As a result of this approach I support all types of birth happily and with no judgement, whatever they are; natural, caesarean, drug free, medicated, epidurals, hypnobirthing, home births.

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I have helped clients make decisions to have elective Caesareans (for whatever reason), and I’ve helped clients go from wanting an elective Caesarean to choosing and preparing for a drug free vaginal birth.

As long as they are happy with the choices they make for their birth, I’m happy, and I feel that I’m doing my job.
Some births don’t quite go according to the wishes of the parents, and at that point, my job is to help make the birth as peaceful and fulfilling as I can do and support a couple as they make the transition into parenthood.

A birth day is the most magical, intense, fulfilling and extraordinary day of a mothers (and fathers) life.
The day that one gets to meet ones child for the first time and breathe in that intoxicating love is irreplaceable. This is why I tell my clients that the most important things they can do is to make decisions around their birth according to what they want.  I ask them to try not to listen to judgement or opinion, and to employ a support team (Obstetrician, midwife, doula etc.) that they trust implicitly to help them prepare themselves and hopefully achieve the birth that they wish for.

Doula &  Pregnancy Yoga instructor - Harriet Came - Couples Workshop Cape Town 012 Photograph by Leah Hawker

A last quote I liked from Harriet…..

Being pregnant and becoming a mum is not always glamorous or beautiful.  Birthing (particularly naturally) certainly is not.  It is raw, challenging, exhausting, instinctive (often primal) and at times not always intensely fulfilling.  For me, it’s about understanding your needs as a woman and mother, blocking out the negativity, and then drawing on a real, truthful yet positive information sources or support systems of which there are many!

A few weeks after attending this event at The Shala I was present at the labour and birth of one of her clients, also a friend of mine. It was the first time I had the honour of witnessing birth as well as the responsibilities of the different people present during a birth. What an experience! More on this later…

Harriet, thank you for sharing your insights and having me present during your classes. More on what Harriet does here.

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Pregnancy Portrait: This is Ursula

Pregnancy-Portrait-Cape-Town-Maternity-Photography-002-by-Leah-Hawker

I met Ursula a number of years ago and was thrilled to be commissioned to shoot a series of pregnancy portraits of her as well as capture some family moments afterwards with herself, her daughter and her husband.

Ursula was pregnant with her second child, and in her third trimester when we worked together. The pregnancy portraits we shot were very simple but bold. I lit her with one light, set back, to just highlight her silhouette plus  a little bit more detail created by a poly board on her other side.

Pregnancy-Portrait-Cape-Town-Maternity-Photography-001-by-Leah-Hawker

There is a decadence in the profile of a pregnant women which I love. The shapes are so beautifully abundant. Every line of the female body becomes enhanced so that a series of interconnected spheres take over the body.

Heavily pregnant women, especially when shot in this style, remind me of the Venus of Willendorf, a paleolithic sculpture associated with fertility and childbearing (picture below).

venusofwillendorf

Ursula and I also shot a few images with her young daughter in an embrace, the  resulting image I find to be a special reflection of motherhood.
Together their bodies become a knot of warmth, love and nurturing.

Pregnancy-Portrait-Cape-Town-Maternity-Photography-004-by-Leah-Hawker

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An Interview with Two South African Midwives | Doulas

I met Ruth Ehrhardt and Lana Petersen at one of their Home Birth Gatherings at the end of last year which I attended in order to learn more about pregnancy and birthing experiences for South African women.

I later contacted them and asked if they would be willing to meet and discuss some more questions and ideas I had around the subject.
We met at Marianne Littlejohns birthing clinic, Mtwana Birth House, in Muizenberg.

Midwives-Lana-Peterson-&-Ruth-Ehrhardt-South-Africa-003-Portrait-by-Leah-Hawker

Midwives-Lana-Peterson-&-Ruth-Ehrhardt-South-Africa-002-Portrait-by-Leah-Hawker
We talked about a number of different things revolving around what they do as well as my interest in some issues I’ve noticed related to the subject of pregnancy and birth for women.
How long have you been interested in birth and what made you decide to make it your vocation?

Lana: For me, my interest started when I worked in a primary health care facility where mother and their newborns would attend the clinic for postnatal care. I would hear their birth stories which ranged from ecstatic to traumatic. I became obsessed with everything related to pregnancy & birth when I was trying to conceive my 1st child and even more so once I had given birth – which was a life-changing experience, I knew I had been bitten with the oxytocin bug and needed to be around labouring women….I then trained as a doula and as demand grew, left my work at the clinic to pursue attending births full-time – best decision ever!

Ruth: Even though my mother was a midwife, I was completely uninterested in birth and babies (I think I was very self absorbed and selfish beforehand) until I had my own first birth and that experience completely transformed me. Wow! What an experience – eye opening, scary, empowering, enriching, beautiful, angry, painful, ecstatic, peaceful, energetic, strong, pathetic, humbling, awesome…I could go on.
And throughout…: This calm, quiet presence of my mother holding me, reassuring me with a soft touch, or a soft gaze.
Afterwards I thought, “I wanna do that!”

What is your personal birth philosophy?

Ruth: The more I experience working with pregnant, labouring, birthing and new mothers, the more I feel that my role, more than anything, is to provide a feeling of safety and security. It is not about giving birth in a particular way, or any particular outcome, but ensuring, as much as possible, that the mother and baby bond is intact and that the mother feels secure in her bond and ability to parent this baby.
I walk away after the birth. The new mother has to parent this child, and just as she innately knows where the best place is to birth that child, she knows instinctively what the needs of that child are.

My role is to protect that space for mother and baby, so that mother and baby can safely find their way.

Midwife-Ruth-Ehrhardt-South-Africa-002-Portrait-by-Leah-Hawker

Which are the most significant moments of a birth for you?

Lana: Geez, there are so many….

When a mother has put plans in place for her optimum birth and she feels excited and empowered for the experience of labour.

Moments when mothers feel desperate and afraid but then go ahead and do it anyway.

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I absolutely love the moments when a woman is  naked and labouring hard and then suddenly, she looks like a Goddess! – breathtakingly beautiful!

The faces of fathers/siblings/extended family seeing a baby being born…those moments have brought me to tears often.

And finally – that moment when a mum realizes “she did it”….best thing ever.

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Ruth: The moment the mother realises that only SHE can give birth to this baby, only SHE.

And when she accepts that and finally surrenders to the process, it is quite miraculous and beautiful what unfolds.

Ruth said about her experience as a doula & midwife: fulfilling, exhausting, privileged, humbling, peaceful.

Ruth said about her experience as a doula & midwife: fulfilling, exhausting, privileged, humbling, peaceful.

It was great to be able to join an educational get-together with you both when I met you on the Home Birth Gathering last year. Ive since gone through your amazing resource site and been amazed at the feeling of community and sharing of information I found there.

Im fascinated by the descriptions I have read of the transition labouring women go through from self-consciousness/awareness to the primal instinctivness and responsiveness of the body (generally described in the cases of natural birthers). You must bare witness to this often.

I’ve noticed how often the issues of tearing and or stretching come up for women as a “problematic issue” post-birth. In a society that is quite effected by media influences about gender identity and sexuality, how have you found your experience on the issue of vaginal tearing and the issues with aesthetics associated around this for women?

Lana: The large majority of the women I work with come to realize that the body and the pelvic floor specifically is designed to withstand and recover from the experience of birth. My focus would be more to teach women to make the connection with their vagina’s and learn to trust that if they are healthy, choose to birth instinctively (specifically not being coached to push!) …then their perineums will weather the passing of  a baby either in tact or with minimal to moderate damage and to remember that vagina’s are fantastic and healing themselves afterwards!

A still from the birthing room at the Mtwana clinic in Muizenberg

A still from the birthing room at the Mtwana clinic in Muizenberg

I was sent this link to an interesting article about French photographer Christian Berthelot who documented a series of images of brand new babies, moments after their (cesarian) birth into the world.

From the article I found this piece quite interesting:

“When I saw [my son] for the first time, he was bloodied and covered in this white substance called vernix,” Berthelot recalled of his first experience with a caesarean. “He was like a warrior who has just won his first battle, like an angel out of darkness. What a joy to hear him scream”.
The babies captured through Berthelot’s lens reveal various ways to enter the world. Some scream and cry, some gesticulate wildly, while others appear still and calm, and a few, in the words of the artist, “do not yet appear to belong to the world of the living.”

Leanne - born April 8, 2014 at 8:31 am
1kg 745 - 13 seconds of life. Photograph by Christian Berthalot

Leanne – born April 8, 2014 at 8:31 am
1kg 745 – 13 seconds of life. Photograph by Christian Berthalot

His images are raw, beautiful and dramatic and are so very different to the pristine, rosey-cheeked newborn images one more often sees. Berthelots images, however, represent the messy miracle of birth in the way that only midwives and obstetricians really get to see; those first living moments of a human being. What do you think about the images or about your perception of birth as apposed to societies adjusted one?

Liza - born February 26, 2013 at 8:45 am 
3kg 200 - 3 seconds of life. Photograph by Christian Berthelot

Liza – born February 26, 2013 at 8:45 am 
3kg 200 – 3 seconds of life. Photograph by Christian Berthelot

 Ruth: When I first saw these images I thought, “That’s it! That’s that moment! That’s what we get to see!”

There is still a part of me that wonders at whether we should be allowed to capture this very sacred and personal moment but at the same time I see how for people who do not work in this field, it is so incredible to see how fresh and raw and real these images are.

A still from the birthing room at the Mtwana clinic in Muizenberg

A still from the birthing room at the Mtwana clinic in Muizenberg

I remember the first image of a birth I ever saw, it was an incredible and very beautiful B&W, grainy image, I’ve never forgotten it.

At that stage, about 10 years ago, I had never considered these moments from a photographic perspective and am interested in the idea since I find the idea of birth to be such an intimate experience for a couple. How do you feel about having a photographer present and working on births and what are the differing feelings about this subject you’ve heard from clients?

 Ruth: We have all obviously been influence by images of birth, breast feeding and babies and what wonderful tools they are to show what we want to teach and convey.
At the same time though, and as I said previously, are we tampering with the sacredness of it all by having someone there snapping away?
Does it change anything? Does it alter the event?

Would we have someone there to photograph the intimacy of our wedding night? Giving birth is as intimate and personal as that and I completely understand wanting the moment captured but I sometimes wonder at what cost?

Dr. Michel Odent talks about observers (including cameras) at a birth inhibiting the release of oxytocin during labour (the hormone which contracts the uterus, but also the hormone of love) so basically, if a mother is aware of a camera or an observer, this may hinder the labouring process.

Just something to consider and think about.

Clients are usually very happy and grateful for the photos they have of their births. I know I am of mine. But I do remember feeling slightly distracted by having photos taken…

After our meeting Ruth sent me a link to a series of photographs of “half born humans” which we had discussed.
They show the moment that also Berthelot discussed when he explained how the brand new baby does “not yet appear to belong to the world of the living”, I’d never quite put my mind to it in this way, but that is exactly what it is, a kind of in-between moment… these incredible images are by Jaydene Freund:

From her series of "Amazing Birth photos of Half Born Humans". Photography by Jaydene Freund

From her series of “Amazing Birth photos of Half Born Humans”.
Photography by Jaydene Freund

Jaydene writes:

“I have rarely shared images of the actual moment of birth to protect my client’s privacy, however I have received permission to post these incredible images of these little super-humans when they were only half earth-side. Don’t be scared to be amazed by these images! This is human life before it has taken it’s first breath. Suspended between 2 worlds, life is waiting for that final push to be born.” 

From her series of "Amazing Birth photos of Half Born Humans". Photography by Jaydene Freund

From her series of “Amazing Birth photos of Half Born Humans”.
Photography by Jaydene Freund

If you could communicate one message to women about the birth experience, what would that be?

Ruth: Listen to yourself and what your needs are…the decisions you make around your pregnancy and birth are your first parenting decisions, so find a caregiver who really gets you and what you want.

I asked Lana & Ruth which 5 words best describe their experience as a doula or midwife. Lana: "awesome, sleep-depriving, life-affirming, addictive, soul-fulfilling! "

I asked Lana & Ruth which 5 words best describe their experience as a doula. Lana: “awesome, sleep-depriving, life-affirming, addictive, soul-fulfilling! “

Lana: Women are not doing nearly enough research into pregnancy & birth in this day and age! There’s far too much focus on obtaining the latest gadgets that will “make parenting easier”….Nonsense! Parenting is the hardest thing you’ll ever do – otherwise you’re doing it wrong!…

Rather focus on what type of pregnancy and birth you would like and explore ALL the options …..you only get to have your 1st birth experience once!

Make sure its a good one!

A still from the birthing room at the Mtwana clinic in Muizenberg

A still from the birthing room at the Mtwana clinic in Muizenberg

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Pregnancy & Birth: This is Jacky

Pregnancy-Photography-Cape-Town-010--by-Leah-Hawker-Photography

My beautiful sister Jacky fell pregnant with her first daughter in 2008. She was one of the first pregnant figures I worked with and I documented her a total of about seven times during her two pregnancies.

I shot a small series of images of her in our Grandmothers shawl (below and above pictures), as well as a series of silhouettes, images with her husband and with her daughters (during pregnancy & after birth). Here are a selection of the ones I find most special.

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My Sister is the second oldest of the younger tier of our (female dominated) family on my Mothers side and was the first to have children, two daughters, confirming a recent comment about our family as “A Coven of Women” (which makes me smile).

I regret not documenting her first daughters “birth-day” but was terribly sick at the time and only got to photograph her a while later.

Pregnancy-Photography-Cape-Town-013--by-Leah-Hawker-Photography
During Jacky’s second pregnancy I documented her in studio and on the beach with her little girl.

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They stood on the beach for me, early one morning, when Jacky was about eight months pregnant.
Windswept on a beautiful Cape Town day these images are memorable for the sweet moments they shared talking about the soon-to-be new member of their family.

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We shot a series of the two in studio, all soft natural light. I’ve realised how much I prefer a more “honest” and natural approach to documenting this kind of subject matter, thus I will almost always use available light and or outdoor spaces.

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Her second babe arrived in June 2011 and I photographed their first moments together just hours after birth. Jacky stared at each perfect little piece of her while I captured these moments.

Pregnancy-Photography-Cape-Town-007--by-Leah-Hawker-Photography

Pregnancy-Photography-Cape-Town-008--by-Leah-Hawker-Photography

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A Home Birth Gathering
Cape Town, November 2014

HomeBirth Gathering Cape Town 001

Birth and pregnancy have pretty much always interested and fascinated me. The body’s ability to house, create and nourish as well as birth another perfect being is a marvel.
The first time I really read or looked into birth was through a book by Dr Christiane Northrup called Women’s Bodies Women’s Wisdom when I was at school (amazing birth stories as well as attitudes towards the body and birth) and I also count myself lucky that I was surrounded by the kind of people, teachers, friends and parents alike, that were open to a more natural way of being (probably because it was a Waldorf School).

I heard about the Home Birth Gathering through Facebook and followed links to the event and other connected websites. The gathering was held in a beautiful old mansion in Muizenberg with about 22 guests and two hosting midwives/doulas Lana and Ruth. The gathering was relaxed and basically an open conversation with questions, answers and discussions about a mix of things related to birth.
Questions raised by other attendees ranged from concerns about what the most common problems one could face during labour, how midwives are equipped, how long it would take to get to a hospital should the situation arise and the subject of when to cut the umbilical cord if at all (see Lotus Birth).

HomeBirth Gathering Cape Town 003

Ive started doing a lot more research online into birth, clinics, midwifery, etc as I’m really excited to shoot more on this subject, in fact, attending a natural birth is on my “bucket list”.

I noticed how people looked quizzically at me when I said I was attending a home birth gathering and realised how I felt I had to defend myself about going which is bizarre.
Ive been reading so much about the taboos associated with the subject as well as how women have such differing ideas and experiences of the pregnancy and the birth process.

More on home birth on Lana & Ruths great resource website here.

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Pregnancy: This is Katja

Katja was on holiday in Cape Town when I met her in 2012, she was 6.5 months pregnant with Tim. Our idea was to take some natural light portraits of her and her partner and a few images of her alone.

We shot at the reservoir near Rhodes Memorial. I had planned to have her in the water but there were two eco-officers lying on the far side wagging their fingers at me when we started to wade in to the water so instead I worked with her at the waters edge.

It improves a shoot when your subject is comfortable or at least feels she can say when she isn’t. I asked Katja if she was alright posing totally nude for a few shots at this location, knowing the two officers were likely watching from the far side in-between napping. She agreed, and this image below is by far my favourite from the day. It is feminine, magical and has a soft, dreamy vulnerability about it which reflects Katja’s shy beauty.

I used a light colour filter on the background of the image in post production to enhance it a bit bit otherwise the image remains natural.

Katja by Leah Hawker

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Pregnancy: This is Elloise

Elloise with Chard at 8.5 months 06

I photographed Elloise at 8.5 months pregnant which was approximately two and a half weeks before her son Daniel was born. She arrived in the studio just as Sabian Ransome, one of my Playboy Playmates and also a fitness model was changing to leave from a shoot with me. The comparison at that moment, Elloise pointed out, of their two bodies was quite something.

The shoot was very simple and natural. I shot some images of her in her clothes with the natural light that was coming into our studio and then this series (shown here) which I lit to highlight her shape. It’s a lighting style I’ve used before with pregnant women but I positioned the lights on both sides of her and not so far back as I wanted to capture more detail in her face and on her body as apposed to just a very fine line of silhouette.

Elloise with Chard at 8.5 months 05

Just a few weeks later and about 9 hours after her natural home birth I photographed this portrait which I find very special… Daniel, just a few hours old with his Mother on the left and Grandmother on the right. Three generations, so much love and pride… Photographing women at this changing point in their lives is repeatedly inspirational and moving.

Daniel, 9 hours old, Newborn photo shoot

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