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The Best Laid Plans

This is the beauty of the comment section: because I fumbled through a post, feeling something very deeply, but it took the comments before I could understand (1) what I was feeling and (2) why I was feeling it.  There were two comments that captured similar thoughts perfectly: Anon, who spoke about privilege and Sushigirl who wrote about the birth experience.

Both brought me the thoughts that had been floundering about in my mind as I read that article, and it’s the same thing I think when I hear about things such as Ricki Lake’s documentary on birth choices or when people talk about their birth plan.  I am amazed and confused and genuinely in awe of people who believe they can conduct this physical event that takes place inside and outside their body in the same way they plan for things — as Sushigirl points out — like a wedding.

I’ve been attempting to lose weight the last few months, and while I know it’s a simple equation of fewer calories in/more weight lost, it doesn’t really work like that.  I can eat the same menu day-after-day, do the same exercise day-after-day, and some weeks, I lose one pound.  And some weeks, I lose three pounds.  And many weeks, I lose no pounds.  Because it’s only moderately under my control and there is still so much we don’t understand, so many factors that come into play that I can’t account for.  We see the same thing happen with illness.  We can’t control how our body reacts to treatment or surgery.  We can take medications and have them work one day, not work another.  With illness, we spend more time hoping for the best.  Preparing for the worst.

But we get to childbirth, and somehow all realizations that so much of the body is outside our control fly out the window and people start drawing up birth plans.  Not birth preferences, birth it-would-be-nices.  Plans.  And as Sushigirl so eloquently captured, birth does start to feel akin to a wedding, with showers and a babymoons and 4D ultrasounds and all the experiences we’re convinced by magazines and companies and our friends that we should have, including birth photographers and millions of keepsakes.  But birth isn’t a wedding, even if it may also be one of the most important days of your life.  Birth is a physical event that has more in common with losing weight and illness than it does to weddings or Bat Mitzvahs or sweet sixteens.

There was a lot of jealousy in that post, and incredulity, because I want to be that woman who believes that she is in control and can guide the experience, who trusts her body and trusts the universe at large.  And I’m not that woman.  I don’t know if I was ever that woman (Josh lovingly calls this side of my personality a host of famous pessimists’ names), but I know that infertility beat whatever vestiges of it out of me in regards to birth.  I don’t trust that I will have anything to do with a good or bad outcome, but that something will happen and I will witness it.  It makes me a little sad that I think this way, but I own it: I think this way.  And sometimes I think it’s a healthier way to think, to not mix up my ability to control other things with the idea that I could control my bodily functions.  And sometimes I think it’s a profoundly unhealthy way to think because it’s a dark, pessimistic way of seeing the world.  But it’s mine.  And I own it.

I do want to clarify something.  As I wrote in that post, my feelings extend to those minutes after birth, those minutes before death.  Those are the minutes that I don’t know if they should be captured, as Anon so beautifully put: “is it OK to have these intimate moments of birth and death captured on film?”  I don’t have a concrete answer.  Instead of looking at this from the side of birth, I chose to look at it from the side of death and apply my thoughts to both ends of the spectrum:

How would I feel if I were dying and Josh picked up the camera and started snapping my picture?  Would I understand that he needed to do that for his own process?  His own mourning?  If he explained that to me, would I feel at peace knowing my last seconds were perhaps not what I needed, but they were exactly what he needed?  How would I feel if he uploaded those pictures to his blog or Facebook to tell the world that I was dead?  What if he wanted to publish them so he could write a post about how he felt taking those pictures?  Would that disturb me to think about or would I understand where he was coming from, know that it was what he needed to do?

And then I reversed those thoughts, taking the idea of mourning into the idea of using those images in joy.  To celebrate the beginning of a life instead of marking an ending.  Again, I don’t have concrete answers; just amorphous reactions to these two possibilities.

Of course we have images from when I first held the twins — many hours after their birth.  I love those pictures even if I’ve never shown them around.  I wouldn’t necessarily not show them around except that they bother the twins, and therefore I don’t show them to others out of respect for their feelings.  I can also understand that having those images can be empowering, a fuck-you if you will, an act of overcoming.  I loved how one commenter pointed out that having a birth photographer there can free you to stay in the moment knowing someone else is dealing with the act of recording.

I do see a birth photographer as different from your doula snapping a few pictures or your mother jumping in to snap a picture the first time she sees you holding your child.  A birth photographer has no other role than to record the event; they are professional artists who are hired to record the event much in the same way a wedding photographer records your ceremony.  A doula or a nurse or your partner snapping a picture is more akin to your friends taking candid shots at your wedding.  They are there as guests, but they happen to capture a moment with their camera.  So that post meandered through the idea of having a professional photographer in the delivery room as well as the idea of uploading those pictures online or sharing them with others.

As someone who cherishes her photographs, there was so much said in the comment section that resonated with me too.  Even if I can’t wrap my mind around the idea of booking a birth photographer at six weeks.


1 Mary { 06.20.12 at 8:19 am }

I don’t like my wedding pictures. I don’t think I look good in them and so whenever I look at them I feel like I didn’t look beautiful on the day. I remember FEELING beautiful in the moment, though. I would rather not have wedding photos then have photos that constantly remind me that I didn’t look the same way I felt. I suspect I would feel the same way about birthing photos. If I were ever lucky enough to give birth in a way that could be captured on film, I think I would still rather not have it captured so that I could remember the experience the way I perceived it to be.

2 HereWeGoAJen { 06.20.12 at 8:24 am }

I have one thing written on my “birth plan”. Have everyone come out alive. I had friends over yesterday and the one woman was talking about her plans and her home birth and it was just so…taken for granted.

3 Amanda { 06.20.12 at 8:57 am }

I like the comparison to a wedding. Yes, it definitively seems like many women plan pregnancy and birth like a social event. But here you are taking offense to photographers in particular. I personally would have loved to have beautiful photos of my son right after birth (but not the birth itself, ick). What I was more concerned about was not having family there. It seems that most people call, tweet, blog, update their facebook statuses at the first contraction. They want everyone there or at least knowing what’s going on. For me, the thought of a waiting room full of family made me sick. I was fine with the thought of strangers around… nurses, doctors, a doula I’d just met, and my husband in the room, but I didn’t want family around or even knowing what was going on. Partly because I’m more open with people that I don’t know than people that I do know, but more because I was worried that something would happen and if it did, I wanted to have the private, personal time to deal with it rather than to have to face a bunch of family immediately after.

So I like your comparison to weddings… but I think inviting the whole family to be a part of your pregnancy and birth are much more egregious offenses than getting a few photos to look back on personally. I’m probably in the minority there, but that’s just how I feel about it.

4 Ellen K. { 06.20.12 at 9:10 am }

My birth plan was just “live multiple birth.” HUGE difference from my pre-infertility ideal birth plan, which could be summarized as “La la la la, it’s all about me!”

Mel, you might enjoy the commentary on American birth plans in “Bringing Up Bebe.” : )

I don’t really like my professional wedding photos. Photojournalism wasn’t really available or affordable in my hometown in 2002, and our posed photos look so stiff. We had an evening wedding with photos taken before the ceremony, and I look so stressed and anxious as the clock is ticking, everyone is behind schedule, bridesmaids were sobering up after being given too much wine at the hair salon, etc. (Also, as DH gallantly informed me 8 years afterward, I had way too much makeup on.) My MIL has one of these photos on her wall, in which I look like the bitchiest bride ever. I have to replace it somehow!

5 gwinne { 06.20.12 at 9:24 am }

I’ve been thinking a lot about this since yesterday and I think that the phenomenon of birth photography just emphasizes what I already dislike about ALL professional photographs. (I’ve had professional photos taken ONCE in LG’s life [not counting school, of course]). While I take a ton of photos, there’s something very special to me about the candid photo, as opposed to something posed or staged by a photographer. Because even if that birth photographer isn’t telling mom what to do…she’s only choosing to capture certain moments in certain ways. Telling someone else’s story. Just musing–thanks.

6 a { 06.20.12 at 9:25 am }

I just don’t like to be photographed. I hate the part of the picture from the hospital of my daughter, my husband, and his father where you can see my big toe. So I don’t get the birth photographer idea at all.

I was looking at my old photos this weekend, which was fun for me. And then I looked at my dad’s photo album from when he was in the Coast Guard during WWII. It was interesting, and I know a couple of the stories, but it doesn’t trigger any memories for me, so I don’t care a whole lot. I like seeing people I know in the photos, but my daughter won’t remember most of them because they all died before she was born, so she won’t have much interest.

Do I want to remember my c-section? Not particularly. I got the best possible keepsake from it anyway.

7 Cristy { 06.20.12 at 10:39 am }

Mel, all of this is timely for me. There’s a forum I’m a part of where a recent topic was about birth plans. One member was mourning the loss of her birth plan (scheduled C-section instead of a home birth) and all I could think of while reading her posts was “do you know what I would give to be in your shoes? To still be pregnant and have such matters to concern myself with?”

Look, I get it. We all have plans for how we want things to go in life. And some of us have the luxury of having things go our way most of the time. But I’ve learned during my short time on this planet that most things in life do not goes as planned. And it’s entirely possible to miss out on something amazing if you’re hung up on the loss of something that, in the end, really isn’t that important.

Anon’s comment is powerful and would make for a great post. She beautifully put into words everything I’ve been processing from these recent forum posts as well as from this conversation.

8 tigger62077 { 06.20.12 at 11:16 am }

I tried to make a birth plan because all the websites told me to. I asked my doc if I needed one and he said only if I wanted it. I asked the L&D people about them and they said “Oh you can have one, but it probably won’t be followed because nothing ever goes according to plan and we won’t have time to stop and ask”. I still felt like I needed to make one, so I made one that pretty much just said “please no bright lights, they hurt my eyes. I want to hold my child. I want my husband and Dr. S in the room, no matter what happens. And Dr. B is not allowed to deliver me for any reason, get Dr. T.” I left the rest up to them. I knew I would want an epi, I knew they would give one to me without me having to plan for it. It went smooth as could be with an uncooperative uterus and child.

All that being said: I can see the pressure to have a plan. I am a control freak, and pregnanct sorta dimmed that for me…but had I been able to plan everything, I totally would have. I am not a “go with the flow” person. I thankfully trusted my doctor and one other in the hospital to deliver my child. I figured I probably wasn’t going to care what music was playing, or how warm/cold the room was. Looking back I might have made a few other suggestions and given warnings, but we survived. 🙂

Photos? Well…I don’t know. We dont’ have any of Cole straight out of the womb. He was cleaned up and we were in recovery when I demanded that Aaron place the child in the crook of my arm (I still couldn’t move my arms thanks to the anesthesia) and take a picture of him. The nurses snapped one of Aaron feeding him for me, and we took one about an hour after he was born in his memaw’s arms. Beyond that, the next ones were all in the NICU. We’ve shared most of these, because it was a way to connect people.

9 Jendeis { 06.20.12 at 11:33 am }

We did have a birth plan, but we called it birth preferences. I actually found it easier to introduce the topic when I called it birth preferences. When I spoke about with my OB, I emphasized that it was a “here’s what we’d love in an ideal world, but our most important concern is live baby, live mama.” Since our OB wasn’t even willing to live with the preferences, we switched to a hospital-based midwife.

10 loribeth { 06.20.12 at 12:07 pm }

“How would I feel if I were dying and Josh picked up the camera and started snapping my picture? Would I understand that he needed to do that for his own process? His own mourning? If he explained that to me, would I feel at peace knowing my last seconds were perhaps not what I needed, but they were exactly what he needed? How would I feel if he uploaded those pictures to his blog or Facebook to tell the world that I was dead? What if he wanted to publish them so he could write a post about how he felt taking those pictures? Would that disturb me to think about or would I understand where he was coming from, know that it was what he needed to do?”

I know you probably didn’t intend it this way, Mel, but for me, those words made me think — how would this be different from taking photos of dying or already dead babies, as many of us have done?

I guess the primary difference would be that Josh would have many other photos & mementos of you during your lifetime to remember you by, while for those of us whose infants die before, during or shortly after birth, this is the only opportunity we will ever have to take photos and record their physical presence on this earth.

I just know that there are many people who think it’s sick or weird that we take & keep photos of our babies — and it’s very hard to explain to them why we might want to do that, unless and until they are in a similar situation themselves. Heck, the social worker encouraged me to bring a camera to the hospital, and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I just couldn’t fathom taking photos of a dead infant — until she was in my arms, & then it was too late. (I did get six lousy Polaroids taken by the nurses — oh, to have had Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep back then…!)

Anyway — this is a very interesting discussion. I don’t think myconcern is with taking photos per se. And I understand why some people might want to hire a professional versus a relative with a camera taking snapshots. I think what is bothering me most (aside from the idea that we can “plan” something like a birth) is the whole commodification of yet another life experience — people looking for ways to make money out of something that was once personal, and people who are willing to hand over vast amounts of money for stuff they used to do themselves. I know we don’t all have the talent or time to do everything ourselves these days, but (as I was commenting somewhere this week) things just seem to keep getting more and more elaborate. On FB & message boards I’m being inundated this week with pictures & talk about prom gowns and hair and makeup and mani-ped appointments for graduations — not just senior high graduations, but JUNIOR high graduations. I’m not sure what’s bothering me more, the fact that junior high grad has become almost as elaborate as senior high grad, or that I would have doing all this stuff for Katie right now, if she were here. 🙁

It seems we’re not just trying to keep up with the Joneses, we’re trying to keep up with the Kardashians and the like, even though we might not have anywhere near their money. Where does it stop?

11 Lollipop Goldstein { 06.20.12 at 12:17 pm }

Loribeth — I think a big difference is that a photo taken post-death is (to me) the equivalent of taking a photo mid-life. It’s not a transition per se. The transition has occurred. And I am looking at this recording of transitions. Of those moments of change. Liminal moments and the way we try to capture something that maybe can be captured, but should it be captured? I really don’t know.

12 ANDMom { 06.20.12 at 1:39 pm }

I think the major issue I have with a birth photographer is inviting a stranger (and by extension a lot of people, if you share the pictures) into a very intimate moment. And maybe for some people, it IS worth it, but for me? No. The birth of my children was so intimate. I feel so strangely close to the people who were in that room. With the birth of my third son I had the same surgeon, assistant, scrub nurse, and neonatal nurse as I had with my twins and it was incredible to have that. The neonatal nurse is the one that held me as I sobbed when they transferred one of my twins to a Level III NICU. She took our first family portrait that morning, my red-rimmed eyes, the dead hollow “this might be the last time we’re together” look. It is a haunting picture. It was somehow very fitting that she then captured the first moment I saw my third son. Neither picture is something I will share, they are my moments.

I don’t really like or agree with the trend of capturing and sharing every moment. I have seen pictures of stillborn babies (not even people’s OWN babies, but relatives). A woman in pre-op for her D&C. Children in pre-op. (I have seen those pictures TAKEN in front of me and I find it very disrespectful to take pictures in a public area of a hospital especially!) The stillborn baby pictures I at least understand TAKING but … people just seem to have no boundaries on what they share.

13 Courtney { 06.21.12 at 12:21 am }

I think some of the most powerful images I have ever seen are of people in their final moments, with their loved ones. I think of the types of photos you see in National Geo.graphic or documentaries and they make my heart ache, but in a loving way. To see someone’s final moments – as they’re surrounded by their family – makes me feel so human and I appreciate the power and ache I feel in my own heart for the people in those images. I know this sounds strange, but it’s how I feel. I can honestly say that I wish I had a photo of me with my grandma the last time I saw her. I wish I had the same type of photo with my grandfather before he passed away. I wish someone had been there to take photos of the two of us talking and holding hands. When my other grandpa was on his deathbed (but he miraculously recovered), I was 9 months pregnant and I ached for someone to take a photo of us talking together with my big belly visible – so that I would have a photo of my grandpa with my baby (even if that baby was still inside me). Again, this may sound strange to many people, but it’s how I prefer to absorb and appreciate my life.

I absolutely love lifestyle photography – I’ve always wanted someone to follow me around for a day when I had kids just to capture the moments that I’m in, but can’t see. I want to see the look on my face when my kids make me laugh. I want permanent images of my husband’s gaze as he watches our children play in the yard. I want my kids to see pictures of their entire family playing together – not of them playing with Mom or Dad because the other one is taking the photos. This is what birth photography is to me. Lifestyle. Living. Embracing. At the end of the day, my entire life is going to be made up of memories that I may, or may not, be able to really remember. Still photographs will keep those memories alive for me – and that is so important to me.

I have done a few lifestyle sessions with my son. I cherish those photos (and our birth photos) more than any other photos we have. Living – I just want images of us all living and enjoying life!

14 Emmy { 06.21.12 at 1:08 am }

I often hate how I look in photos (I swear I don’t look that fat in the mirror), but treasure the photos nonetheless. The day my dad died (unexpectedly when I was 14), we were snapping photos. His “girlfriend” at the time was there and kept his camera. I asked her several times for the film inside, but she would never give it to me. I would give so much to have a copy of the photos of my dad’s final day. That day has made me a photo fanatic. Especially in traumatic times, I can appreciate the want to have someone document life/experiences. Even if it takes a decade+ before wanting to view the images. But, I agree in large part, that I would not want those images shared with the world.

15 stephanie { 06.22.12 at 1:15 am }

I don’t have a dog in this show, but I don’t care for the rabid, nuanced documentation of every and any thing that we experience in life. It’s not that it cheapens the intimacy, per se, but it certainly waters it down. I had two c-sections, so it’s not like my husband and I had any privacy in the true sense of the word. But we did manage a level of intimacy. While the doctors and nurses busied themselves with the business of delivering my baby, my husband sat next to my head, talking in my ear. Maybe more than with a vaginal delivery, those moments felt like ours. His whispers in my ear, his hand alone on the only parts of my body that had any feeling (my head, my arm). To have a photographer there, in those moments, would have felt like an intrusion into the most primal and private moments of our lives. We were not in solitude in that room, but we were also not on display. And in those moments, it really did feel like just the two of us sitting alone with baited breath, awaiting that very first cry we so desperately wanted to hear. I don’t want those moments documented either. They are ours. His and mine. Mine and his. I can say that about no other person on this planet. I like that.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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