Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Stellar Contents - By ALEXAN­DRA CARL­TON

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


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


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.”


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.

BODY BEAU­TI­FUL (clock­wise) Natalia Baech­told, with her baby Coco, cel­e­brated

NAT­U­RAL IN­STINCTS Ali­son Gal­lagher took a holis­tic ap­proach to her preg­nancy.

OFF-SCRIPT Things didn’t go (at left), here with his par­ents Tom and Kel­lie Wil­lis, and lit­tle sis­ter Thelma.

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