LIGHTS, CAMERA… BABY
SPRAY TANS, BLOW-DRIED HAIR, CUSTOMISED HOSPITAL GOWNS AND CAMERA CREWS ARE INCREASINGLY COMMON IN THE LABOUR WARD AS THE BIRTH OF A BABY BECOMES AN ART-DIRECTED SPECIAL “EVENT”
From blow-dries to spray tans, giving birth is now an art-directed event.
On a warm night in mid-april last year, beauty blogger Sarah Jane Young was in her garage topping up her fake tan. Her friend and hairstylist Raymond Charles was on his way over to blow-dry the 30-year-old’s champagne-blonde tresses into soft, loose waves. She had a simple wool dress ready to slip into – black, for maximum contrast in photos. But she wasn’t preparing for her wedding, or even a milestone birthday. In fact, she had to stop what she was doing every few moments to reel from the contractions that rocked her body. Because she was in labour – this was the day her baby girl, Mia Grace, was to be brought into the world.
But Young’s attention to detail in the lead-up to her daughter’s birth isn’t unique. Women are increasingly seeing the birth of their babies as an experience – an event to be customised to suit their personal style or philosophy, whether making it aesthetically beautiful for cherished photos, or maximising the spiritual, emotional and “natural” side of bringing a brand-new human into the world.
For Young, it was about keeping herself calm and carrying on with her usual routines during pregnancy and birth as a way to retain some control in an ultimately uncontrollable experience. “It wasn’t about vanity,” she explains. “It was just me being me.”
Travel business owner Natalia Baechtold is another new mum who focused on the visual side of her pregnancy during the birth of her second daughter, Coco, although for different reasons. She and her husband Thomas regularly travel for work and there was some concern that Thomas could be overseas and miss the big moment, as he had for their first daughter.
So the couple made a pact to record as much of Baechtold’s second pregnancy as possible, utilising the services of birth photographer Jane Mccrae, who carried out a total of 11 photo shoots, a time-lapse “bump” series and, of course, the birth of Coco herself. The photos were also a way for Baechtold to retain a visual record of her body when she felt most beautiful.
“I had been so critical of my body before pregnancy,” she says, but once she carried children she “appreciated and loved” herself so much more – and it shows in her glowing photos.
Baechtold says having Mccrae in the room with her as she gave birth to her
daughter – Thomas made it back in time, after all – did alter the way she behaved as the not-always-pretty process of childbirth unfolded. “I orchestrated things slightly, the ways I moved and the things I did. I knew the things I wanted her to capture,” says Baechtold. “I wanted it to look beautiful.”
Today she keeps the photos as a slide-show screensaver on her computer, reminding her of the power of that day and the strength of her body.
As more and more women look for ways to enhance the birth of their children, a thriving industry has grown to meet their needs – one that is beginning to take on many of the characteristics of its close cousin: the wedding industry. Dozens of birth photographers now operate in every Australian state. Pinterest is filled with
“IT WASN’T ABOUT VANITY,” SHE EXPLAINS. “IT WAS JUST ME BEING ME”
women compiling “hospital-bag essentials” pinboards and the musicsharing app Spotify has more than 90,000 Push Playlists. Doctors have also seen an increase in the number of doulas or birthing assistants joining women in the labour ward to advocate for their clients’ wishes – it’s now believed that up to 1000 doulas operate in Australia, charging anywhere from $350 to $2000 for their services.
It’s also not uncommon for labouring women to bring along a range of personal talismans to help them get from contraction to that very first cry, including candles, essential oils, encouraging notes from loved ones and even specially formulated “labour drinks”, not to mention mothers, sisters, friends and – if they’re really hardcore – their Instagram or Snapchat followers, who will be treated to visual glimpses of the whole process. Etsy and Instagram sellers are even designing customised birthing gowns so you can skip the nasty blue nylon numbers with the tacky ties at the back.
No one would begrudge a woman in the throes of labour any add-on or customisation that makes the process more bearable. Where it becomes tricky is when that process becomes artdirected. A birth is not a wedding. It’s a potentially life-threatening medical event. The staff involved in a birth are not there to give Mum (or Dad) the most magical day of their life – they’re there to make sure that both mother and baby leave the hospital alive.
And so, as any midwife or obstetrician can attest, if your baby’s entrance into the world hits a snag that competes with your perfectlytimed Enya song or forces Mum to cry so hard from pain that her professional make-up job slides straight off the end of her chin, that will be the least of everyone’s concerns.
Sydney mum Alison Gallagher’s focus for her pregnancy and the birth of her son Flynn in 2014 was about empowerment and self-care, with an emphasis on an entirely natural and drug-free birth.
“I wanted my pregnancy to be beautiful and as nurturing as possible for both myself and my baby, so I consciously chose a stack of healing modalities,” she says of her birth preparation. The then-34-year-old, whose devotion to all things holistic extends to her own range of Alyssum Alchemy aromatherapy products, read countless books on natural birth and hypnobirthing and attended Calmbirth classes, as well as undertaking regular osteopath and massage sessions. She and her husband would sit in semidarkness surrounded by candles and the sweet smell of essential oils, visualising the details of her birth. “I felt I’d taken special care to prepare myself physically, mentally and spiritually. There was nothing more I could do but wait,” she says.
But baby Flynn had other plans and Gallagher’s labour simply didn’t progress. “My heart sank and I felt a huge amount of disappointment when I couldn’t talk my way out of being induced,” she remembers, her voice choking with emotion. When doctors informed her they would need to perform a caesarean, she was “devastated”. But, in hindsight, she says she believes her exhaustive preparation wasn’t wasted. “I genuinely believe the rituals and self-care helped me get through the shock and disappointment of having a caesarean,” she insists. “And I’d do it that way again.”
Some experts aren’t so enamoured with our increased focus on the journey rather than the destination when it comes to birth. Amy Tuteur, a US obstetrician-gynaecologist and author of Push Back: Guilt In The Age Of Natural Parenting, cautions that our prioritisation of the “birth experience” ahead of the straightforward health and safety of mother and baby can lead to dangerous levels of guilt and self-recrimination when things don’t go to plan. “Like the perfect wedding, the perfect birth is often a fiction,” she wrote in May this year. “Women who buy into the idealised experience can face enormous disappointment, distress and feelings of failure if they have a caesarean section, choose an epidural or are unable to
“WOMEN WHO BUY INTO THE IDEALISED EXPERIENCE CAN FACE ENORMOUS DISAPPOINTMENT AND DISTRESS”
breastfeed immediately after delivery” – a guilt, she says, that is damaging and unnecessary.
Dr Gino Pecoraro, a Brisbane-based obstetrician-gynaecologist – who says he’s seen women so determined to micromanage their births that they come to his office with Powerpoint presentations – agrees. “I’m sure that ‘birth planners’ are just around the corner,” he says. “You’ll have to interview them beforehand to see if they’ll create the right ‘birth experience’ for you. It’s a lot of pressure, and we already put enough pressure on women having babies, don’t we? The last thing we want to do is for women to set themselves up to feel like failures.” He also laments the overcrowding of birthing suites – sometimes having to elbow the photographers, doulas, and videographers out of the way to perform a lifesaving procedure.
“And anyway, who exactly are they going to show these birth videos and photos to?” he asks. “Let’s have photos of the mother and baby after the event, sure, but do we really need to see the baby crowning? Are they going to show that off at a dinner party?”
The focus on “experience” rather than the safe birth of a child is something Kellie Willis from Gippsland, Victoria, has come to understand after the 2012 birth of her son Alfie in Darwin went off-script. Like Alison Gallagher, she dreamed of the “perfect” birth. “I thought of my birth as a special occasion,” she says. “I had nice nails, nice hair – I did those things for my wedding and I wanted to do it for my birth, too. I also had this idea of being this incredibly strong earth mother, the star of the show, carrying on through all of it like a champion.” She invested in pampering – indulging in a manicure, pedicure and full-body massage days before the birth. And like Gallagher, it all ended in a caesarean. “They even had to take my beautiful aqua-blue polish off my toes as a safety precaution for the operation!” she says, able to laugh at it in hindsight.
For Willis, the adjustment to the reality of her birth experience was relatively simple, because she knew that she herself had been born by emergency caesarean. “If I hadn’t known my own emergency caesar birth story, and known of the bond I had with my own mum my whole life, I may have freaked out,” she says. “Although I was disappointed for a while that the birth didn’t go how I had planned, when I look back, I realise that the key is going with the flow, and rolling with the punches,” she says. “If a doctor is telling you something needs to happen, it’s because it needs to happen, and not because they’re deliberately against your way of doing things.”
Terri Smith, CEO of PANDA, a non-profit organisation that helps women suffering from perinatal anxiety and depression, says that women should feel free to do whatever makes them comfortable, so long as they don’t find themselves being pressured by the community’s high expectations of what it is to have a perfect birth or be a perfect mother. She understands that women may want to pamper themselves in the lead-up to the birth as a way to treat themselves, but cautions about being too beholden to the “airbrushed image of motherhood” – the joyous Facebook posts, the gleaming houses and the spotless children. “There are hard yards to be done during the transition to motherhood,” she says. “We urge women to be kind to themselves. It’s an extremely complex time and there’s so much you can’t control.”
When Alison Gallagher looks back on the mental journey she underwent to accept her son’s birth, she thinks of it as a parallel to the learning journey she’s on as a parent. “While having a caesarean was disappointing for me in many ways, it was necessary and enabled my son to be born safely,” she says. “I was so lucky to have access to amazing medical staff to help bring my child into the world and to ensure both of us were healthy and safe.
“The whole pregnancy, labour and birth process for me was amazing and challenging – learning that childbirth and motherhood is about surrender and acceptance.
“There is only so much we can control on this journey.”
“I HAD NICE NAILS, NICE HAIR – I DID THIS FOR MY WEDDING AND WANTED IT FOR MY BIRTH, TOO”
CAMERA READY (clockwise from top) Sarah Jane Young with daughter Mia Grace; in the delivery room, as seen on her blog, She is, Sarah Jane; ready for her close-up; baby Mia Grace.