Melissa and I have been friends for several years now. We spent some of our early years as new moms getting to know one another, enjoying those firsts with our little ones, and getting together for shared snacks, stories and a trusted space where we could share our pasts with one another. I'd also done some shooting of her family in prior years, photographing her children grow, her beautiful husband Brian and their gorgeous lovable dog Ludo. When she contacted me early on in her pregnancy, letting me know she wanted me there to document the birth, it was just as rewarding and exciting to be told this news, as it was to be there in person when the time came. To be told, so many months in advance, that there was no one else she wanted there, that she knew it had to be me.... well... that confidence she had in my vision, my skill, me trust... it filled me with so much inner peace and love, I can't even put it into words.
Then, on December 3rd, with some days or weeks more to go (who really knows, right?), Melissa had a mother's blessing planned. I was invited, and was so happy to attend. I brought my camera entirely of my own volition, it was not requested of me - Melissa just wanted me there as her friend, to enjoy the space with her, and the company of her community. I had to take a few photos... I knew she was going to be radiant and beaming rays of fertile, earthy healthiness. Stones were laid out on the coffee table. Snacks were spread out on the table, friends came together, laughter filled the house, a talented friend of all of ours, Nicole embarked on a beautiful piece of henna art on Melissa's round belly. Blessings were read, and we all went round the circle and shared with Melissa our deepest wishes for her imminent journey of labour, birth, and freshly renewed motherhood. Everyone contributed beads accompanied with personal anecdotes and blessings for her mother's blessing necklace... a powerful symbol of community and empowerment, support and friendship from her tribe of friends. I was asked to string up the beads, and it was such an honour to do so. I took great pleasure and pride in putting this necklace together for Melissa and beamed with joy when she happily donned it for all to see and enjoy. She was so gracious, so beautiful. Some photos from that day...
~ December 3rd, 2016 ~
~ December 12th, 2016 ~
And then the day came! I was asleep, and at around 4 in the morning, on the 12th of December, I got the call from Brian that things were intensifying, that they believed this was it! and that their midwives had been called over as well. I shot right out of bed, heart racing, eyes widening immediately and a great big grin taking over my no longer groggy face. I zipped through all my things, got some clothes on, whispered to my husband that he was to be in charge on homebase that day because I had to run to a birth! One of the very best things I have to tell him nowadays - see ya Hun! I'm off to do what I love the most!
It was a cold crisp night, and the moon!!!! OH the moon! December's full moon was but 2 days later, so the early hours of December 12th presented to me an almost-full moon that glowed so incredibly bright, and SO large across the horizon! When I noticed it in the sky, I so badly wanted to pull over on the shoulder of a road, and snap a photo or two of it, to show Melissa later on... but, well, first and foremost I was worried that would cost me getting there on time, and secondly, when I finally had the opportunity to pull over, a long, thick cover of cloud shrouded the moon and continued to cover it for the rest of my drive over... so, I reluctantly gave up on trying to photograph it, and decided I would simply tell Melissa and Brian about it when the time was right. I can still remember how beautiful it looked in the sky, almost dancing on the rooftops of the suburbs I drove through on my way to their home across town. Driving through the city at 5am is such a pleasant experience, I have to tell you. Almost all green lights... essentially just ME and the road and no obstacles to hold me back.... I arrived at their home just 12 minutes after leaving my home, while during the day, this same trip would have taken me 30 minutes at least.
When I hustled into their home, it was quiet. I silently unpacked and snuck down the hall and around the corner to find Melissa in the birthing pool... quiet chants playing in the background, candles lit, lights dimmed, and an aura of peace and tranquility so thick, it hit me like a wave of molasses... slowing me right down, like I had been thrown into slow-motion.
Melissa was quiet and extremely focused on her breath. There was a level of sacredness in her space that was so heightened that I felt completely hushed, and completely invasive in my being there. I reluctantly snapped a photo here and there, reminding myself that it was Melissa's wish that I be there and document this for her. I had to consciously talk myself into taking photos because everything in my heart and mind was telling me to keep silent and leave the room, it just felt so intimate and so powerful. Or, I could just be left to crouch down in a corner and watch her in awe, because she was such a glorious vision. Her eyes were more often closed, her lips pursed in controlled breathing, her shoulders low and relaxed, her neck long and graceful, her breasts shiny and glistening from the water below and her gorgeous necklace and chest art glowing colourfully in the darkened room. She was like a shrine to Mother Earth, Goddess of Fertility herself. I felt like I was in a place of worship, and she whom I worshipped was sitting before me in the birthing pool. It felt wrong snapping photos of this deeply spiritual experience. But I did. Just here and there. There was no need to shoot continuously, because there was not much happening on the surface. She was slow and steady, quiet and steadfast, working hard on the inside, moving through each surge with such poise and elegance... I couldn't really tell how far along she was (as is sometimes the case, based on the sounds a laboring woman makes)
Her midwives took a similar hands-off approach. Quietly seated nearby, watching, listening, saying very little, just being there, holding space. Her husband Brian periodically came by to offer water, but mainly, he sat close by and offered a gentle touch on her shoulder or back, as she moved through increasingly powerful waves of imminent birth. At one point their younger son awoke and came over to see what was going on.... soon after he went back to sleep, and proceeded to sleep through all the oncoming events of that morning - which I found quite amazing, all things considered!
And not quite 2 hours after I had arrived, Melissa felt her baby's hairy soft head in the water, and guided her out with some help from her midwife Miriam. Little Mirabelle arrived safe and sound, and was lifted up out of the water and into her mother's arms and chest immediately. Melissa then delivered her placenta, and after a short time remaining in the water, she was asked to transfer to bed so that the midwives could carefully monitor her uterine bleeding. Brian whipped off his shirt and took little Mirabelle, while Melissa got settled in bed where her young son continued to sleep through it all.
I stepped away for a few moments while Melissa was getting checked and Daddy was snuggling skin to skin with his daughter, and went down to the basement to check up on Ludo, whom I could hear barking and calling out, wondering what was going on upstairs... as I'm sure he knew something had transpired and it was clearly worrying him. Poor sweet Ludo... he did get the attention he needed no long afterward, and he has adapted beautfully ever since. I also went and took some lovely photos of Melissa's gorgeous placenta.
I passed by their tree, and returned to the bedroom to find Melissa in a state of complete contentment, and it all just made sense in that moment. I was overcome with joy for her and her family.
Then, roughly an hour or so after Mirabelle's birth - possibly even less - after several fundal (uterine) checks by the midwives, Melissa mentioned she was feeling dizzy. We looked at her straight away and saw that she had gone pale, and her eyes were losing focus, rolling back, and she was no longer fully conscious. Suddenly, the serene, warm, and safe space in that room shifted to a quick-acting, quick-thinking emergency situation where the midwives demonstrated for all present just how incredibly competent and well trained they are at saving the lives of their clients. Both midwives rushed into high gear, and delegated tasks to both Brian and myself. An intravenous was started, IV fluids pushed, synthetic oxytocin administered, bimanual compressions of the uterus were done, EMS was called, while we all loudly talked to Melissa and engaged with her to keep her as alert as possible. The ambulance arrived within a few minutes, and a flurry of activity poured into the house. With great relief, I could see that she was coming around and becoming stabilized even before the EMS crews took over... but before we knew it, Melissa was taken to the hospital, and Brian and I were left at the house with Mirabelle and two groggy kids just beginning to wake up. I helped Brian in every way that I could, in getting ready to head to the hospital with Mirabelle in tow. In the meantime, her temperature had dropped a bit, while the front door was left open for the crews to arrive with their stretcher. Midwife Susan asked me to lay down with Mirabelle, close to my chest, and she applied a warming blanket on top of us, to help her regain her temperature. I was desperate to help, and obliged wholeheartedly, pressing this dear little baby close to my heart, murmuring every possible wish I had in me for her Mama to make a full recovery. And I knew that she would. But I still prayed!
I assured Brian the kids would be in good hands while he was away, and so I stayed in their home with the kids for several hours before their grandparents arrived from their residence in Kenora. We put on some cartoons, and fed them snacks, and took a few photos capturing those moments while Melissa, Brian and Mirabelle were off getting the care they needed.
Even though I was hired as a birth photographer, I was, and am always, prepared to take on the doula role too. I fully commit to my clients, whether they are personal friends or beautiful people new in my life. I am always ready to roll up my sleeves and help in whatever way I am able. That day was not without some degree of unpredictability. When I arrived early that morning, I had no idea things would end up at the hospital. But that's how birth is sometimes. Whether it is a low-risk uneventful birth in hospital and then suddenly requiring more intervention, or whether it is a perfectly wonderful homebirth, which suddenly requires a larger team to help with recovery, and therefore needs a trip down to the hospital. The important thing to take home from this story is that midwives are such an incredible force of knowledge and competence and resourcefulness. They know exactly how to resuscitate if that is required. They know how to move fast under incredible pressure. I used to work as a nurse. I worked with large interdisciplinary teams, and watched physicians and nurses operate just like this under pressures of all kinds, from all directions. And these midwives, that day at Melissa's homebirth, showed me that they are no different from the doctors and nurses in the emergency room. I was so impressed that I wrote to the Manager of Midwifery Care, at the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, to pass on my accolades and express my gratitude towards these amazing women I had the honour of working alongside on December the 12th, 2016.
Melissa made a full recovery from her postpartum hemorrhage and was discharged home quite quickly after being observed and cared for thoroughly in hospital. I just want to end by saying just how memorable this homebirth was for me, on so many levels. Melissa was a goddess, during her labour and birth of Mirabelle. She was empowered and she was strong. Despite the bleeding that happened after, when I think about Melissa's birth story, I think about that green blue aura in her birth space, how serene and calm it was, her pink healthy skin glowing in the dimly lit room, glowing with healthiness and readiness and birthing energy. I think about her beautiful husband, being such a loyal support person through it all. I think about her quiet contractions and how she breathed her baby into this world with deep strength and inner confidence and fearlessness which I wish all women out there could have when giving birth. Melissa is an inspiration, and I hope that her story inspires you on your journey, whatever that journey may be.
Also: Life is a precious thing. Hug your beloved. Tell them you love them. Don't fret over the mundane. Accept others with openness and be kind to one another.
Elliana Gilbert is a birth photographer in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. To book for a birth story, doula care, maternity/newborn/family photography, click here to get in touch.