Here they are, the rest of the pictures from my session. I love CJ’s bright eyes in the portrait of just the two of us. And I am still processing what my body and face really look like in the nursing pic and the headshot. I do love the strength, movement and comfort captured in the nursing portrait. For this extremely long post I’m going to talk about a bunch of things, so a list seems like a good way to organize myself (feel free to skip to the parts that interest you):
- What happens at a 4th trimester bodies photo shoot (pro tip: don’t be late!!!)
- Talking about being the mother of four
- What did this experience teach me?
[in case you missed my first post, pre-photo shoot: Why I’m taking my clothes off on Thursday – 4th Trimester Bodies Project]
Away we go…
- Timeline of the big day
Thursday morning Nick and I were pretty sleep deprived. One night of fussy post-vaccine baby, followed by a night of marital discord and reconciliation. I still needed to get a black tank top required for the headshot so we all went to the mall. I was super pleased to also find two summer dresses that button down the front (making them IDEAL for a nursing mama in hot weather), a big deal since speciality nursing clothes are painfully expensive. Back home for nap time and since baby girl insisted on being held for her nap, I cuddled her and watched a Trevor Noah stand up routine until it was time to head out.My session was scheduled for 4pm across town, so I figured if we left at 3:15pm we would get there in plenty of time. Since we don’t own a car, I hope I can be excused for completely forgetting to factor-in after school traffic. We hopped into the rental car and hit our first traffic jam within five minutes. I started to get tense but didn’t want to stress Nick out so I played it breezy (at least, I tried to). I texted Ashlee* and Laura that I was running late, hoping the session before me was going long. It was not. As we texted back and forth I started panicking about my lateness and imagined bursting into tears when I got there, out of sheer embarrassment. I was half an hour late, 1/3 of my 90 minute session gone.But Laura, with turquoise blue penciled-in eyebrows greeted me kindly at the door. And Ashlee welcomed me reassuringly too, her toddler happily sitting next to her watching a show on an iPad. They were set up in a rented loft space, with toys for kids and a very kind vibe. Laura told me she was relieved to see I had short hair, not having to style it would make up the lost time. Right away I sat down in the make up chair, and Laura quickly covered my raccoon-like eye bags and made me dewy faced. Nick came in a few minutes behind me with the kids. As Laura dolled me up and we chatted, Ashlee was busy typing up bios from sessions earlier that day.
Then I went and changed into my black under-things and sat down for the interview. Ashlee mic-ed me and explained that she films the interviews for her own records but the video is never seen by anyone else. I knew the kinds of questions she was going to ask because they give you a heads up in the information package emailed out when you sign up. She also gave me some tips: look at her not the camera, feel confident that I know my own story, the beginning is a good place to start. It was that last piece of advice that convinced me I needed to talk about my journey of motherhood starting not from where most people imagined it would, Charlie’s birth, but from the actual beginning, my teen pregnancy and abortion. I had a lot of peace as I talked, knowing that God has lifted me unto solid ground and into a place of hope. I didn’t talk about my faith in the interview but I don’t regret that decision, I replied authentically in the context I was in, and I think who I am came across. More on all that in the next section of the blog!
After the interview, Ashlee took a head shot, which she currently doesn’t use for anything in the project. Then it was time to take off my shirt and get the kids down to their birthday suits for our portraits. I didn’t know if Charlie would be game but when I asked him if he wanted to take his clothes off, he smiled and lifted his arms up! He was super excited to be running around the loft in the nude. About 30 seconds into posing, CJ did a huge pee. Big puddle on the floor and ensuing commotion to get us all cleaned up. Then Charlie posed with CJ and I for about 5 minutes, which included as much cranky protests as it did laughter, before running out onto the patio to experience the great outdoors in the buff. I didn’t want to pressure him to pose so I did some portraits with just CJ. I use the word “pose” but Ashlee is really after candid shots, and directed me to look at my kids and interact with them.
Then she asked me if I wanted to try nursing. She and Laura had made me feel so comfortable that I didn’t even blink when removing my bra and coaxing CJ to latch. I have crazy oversupply as well as over active let down which means as soon as CJ started nursing, milk started shooting out of the exposed breast and dripping down my stomach and legs. These ladies have seen it all and laughed with me about the trails and tribulations of nursing. I felt really empowered posing for the nursing shots, celebrating this very cool function of my body that is so uniquely female. On our way home Nick also told me that he felt really proud while watching me pose for the nursing pictures. He had initially been hesitant when I told him I was considering doing the topless breastfeeding portrait. It meant so much to me that he understood my motivations in the moment.
The shoot was over in 20 minutes, I couldn’t believe how quick and easy going the whole thing was. As I got dressed and nursed CJ, Ashlee downloaded the pictures and selected about twenty for me to look at. During this interlude it also started raining and Charlie made a beeline for the patio again, where Nick supervised him having a naked romp in the rain. It was a good day for the toddler. Ashlee was really enthusiastic about how many different poses we did and let me pick three pictures to keep. There were so many beautiful shots but part of the way the project works is that you let go of pictures and really try to find the one you love the most, that best showcases you and your motherhood experience. I chose to use the portrait with both my kids as my official 4th trimester bodies portrait because it captured my family so accurately. Super energetic toddler. Super chill baby. And me smiling my grandmother’s wide, thin-lipped, gummy smile. In another head space I would’ve picked the most aesthetically pleasing picture of my face but the spirit of the project helped me pick the portrait that best reflected my reality. A joyful if imperfect reality.
Before I knew it we were packing up the kids, sharing hugs with these women who felt like dear friends and catching a glimpse of the next mom on the way up for her photo shoot. After we got the kids in bed, I started checking the 4th trimesters bodies Facebook page every five minutes. When my pictures and bio popped up I was nervous. The reality of how very vulnerable both my interview and my portrait were hit me when it was shared on social media.
- Telling my storyWhy did I choose this moment to share publicly about my abortion as a teenager? Because I have been waiting to see when God would give me, the compulsive sharer, the right opportunity to share my saddest hours and the movement from there towards hope. I have talked about it to individuals and small groups of friends whenever I was moved to, or when I needed to, like with my dear mama friends in Germany who supported me through my miscarriage. I didn’t expect to share my story when I signed up to do the photo shoot, the vulnerability of the images was already a huge step for me. But after signing up, they sent me a google form to fill out, and the last question made me pause. “Please list the names and ages of your children, feel free to indicate those who we’ll be shooting with you. If you are a mother of loss or miscarriage please let us know.”I sat at my laptop rereading that question for awhile. I am comfortable choosing what parts of my story to share and when, I wouldn’t have felt like a liar had I decide to only put down Charlie and CJ. But I was captivated by the spirit of the 4th trimester bodies project, their embracing of all forms of motherhood; so I wrote about all four of my children. I knew writing about them on the form was a first step, I could still choose not to mention it during the actual interview. But, as I mentioned earlier, Ashlee’s advice to start my story at the beginning is what solidified my decision.
While miscarriage is something we don’t talk about a lot and rarely publicly, abortion is even less commonly discussed (outside of political or religious debates). Here I am: a mother of loss, a mother of bright beautiful healthy babies, a mother of an aborted baby. More importantly, and here I go back to what is foundational to my personal journey, I am a mother confident in God’s grace that I can share my story without fear or shame.
In all my years working with teenagers and young adults I thought God would open doors for me to share my testimony in one of those settings. But time passed, most recently two years as a teacher at a Christian boarding school, and I never had an opportunity to share. That really stumped me. But I knew I was supposed to wait. Then quite suddenly (I snagged the last Montreal spot after missing the original sign up deadline because someone dropped out two days before the photo shoot), reflecting what I think is God’s great sense of humour, I was given an opportunity to be physically and emotionally naked. The picture illustrating the bare heart. The interior becoming exterior. Not in a Christian setting, safe amongst those who jive with my world view, but handing my story over to strangers who may not agree with my beliefs and the way I frame my story. God surprised me there too. The straight forward tone Ashlee used in writing my bio underscored the simplicity of sharing my story. And as a blogger, I have an opportunity to add my perspective and thoughts. I also trust the love Ashlee and Laura have for each mother they photograph, it’s genuine. Their project is a labour of love for which they receive no pay check and have to put endless man-hours into organizing and funding.
When I shared on Facebook my bio page on the 4th trimester bodies website I prefaced it with some of my own words, which I’m sharing here too:
“During the little interview portion of the session the open-ended questions about motherhood led me to share from a very vulnerable place. The creator of the project, Ashlee Wells, uses the interview answers to write a quick bio of each participant. Overall, she did an amazing job of capturing the arc of my motherhood journey. But I need to add a few important things.
I would not have used the word “silly” about my decision to have an abortion at 16. It was devastating, it was wrong. But it’s true that in retrospect I know my wonderful parents would have supported me and helped me raise the baby had I known how to tell them. My faith is an integral part of that story, especially in the redemption and healing that I have found in God’s grace. It’s not something I talk about a lot but neither is it a secret. This project gave me an unexpected platform to share it more widely and I’m so glad that I entered into this process prayerfully. If you have any questions or would like to talk about it, I am happy to share more. God has turned my mourning, my sin, into a raw but very real understanding of what his forgiveness and redemption are. If you are someone who doesn’t share my beliefs, I would also be happy to share about how this process has shaped my understanding of the abortion debate and my deep conviction that the focus (of help and love and support) needs to be on women: pregnant, mothers of live children and those who go down the path of abortion. I have very little to say about politics though, because I am still trying to figure that part out, which can be very hard when I have such a personal stake in the topic.
Speaking to the miscarriage I had between Charlie and CJ’s births, there were some factual errors. It was very early on, I wasn’t quite two months along. I didn’t have a D&C, I was able to miscarry at home after getting checked at the hospital, and then my OB followed up with me a week later.
I am the mother of four children. Two who I get to hold in my arms. Motherhood has been a complicated journey, filled with God’s joy-giving grace but also many tears and doubts.
This picture shows my everyday now. My gigantic toddler almost toppling me with his exuberant energy, my chill baby taking it all in. And me in the middle feeling big emotions.”
I don’t know that I have anything to add right now. I love to talk to people as much as I love to write, and anything else that can be gleaned from my story would probably best come up in an organic conversation or exchange of emails. I welcome your questions, or sharing of your stories, if you feel prompted to after reading mine.
I also want to thank my wonderful family – my husband, sisters, parents. My story inevitably leaks into theirs, they are affected in ways I cannot control when I choose to be so public. But they are always supportive and embrace me as I am. It is a gift to give people the space to be vulnerable.
- What I’ve learned
Sharing about my teenage pregnancy and my miscarriage was not the hardest part of this experience for me. I have been processing those things with counsellors and loved ones, in prayer and through tears, for many years. I shared out of a place of peace, of knowing what I think and feel. No, the hardest part was how the portraits made it so I could not avoid truly seeing the changes my body has undergone in the past few years.I tend to be vain, I can admit that because my dear sisters and friends have called me out on it enough times. I spent a lot of my teenage years using my looks to manipulate men, a habit that is painful to unlearn. Until I gained a lot of weight while pregnant with Charlie, I had always thought of myself as pretty. I went from a size 8 before he was born, to a size 16 for many months after he arrived. My cheeks looked huge to me when I looked in the mirror, and I avoided seeing myself naked. My breasts, small B-cups pre-pregnancy, became uncomfortably huge and riddled with stretch marks. My stomach was shocking to me, leathery skin and stretch marks and a deformed belly button. To cope with how alien my body felt to me, I simply didn’t look at it. In the end it only took me a year to get to a size 10. Then we made a transatlantic move from Germany back to Canada, the ensuing stress helping me slim down to an 8 again. I got pregnant with CJ a month after returning home and slowly started to balloon.I’m now two months post partum and I look exactly like that: someone who’s body recently carried and bore a second child. But in my mind’s eye I look like I did in my early twenties. I hold onto to that image, avoiding looking at myself until I lose all the weight and fit into my old clothes. But that equates to several years of disassociating myself from my body. I hate to admit it, but I feel uncomfortable in my own skin, worried people judge me because of my weight or because my bikini reveals unsmooth skin.
Seeing myself in the 4th trimester body portraits was jolting. I had to reconcile my mental image of myself with photographic evidence that looked very different. I have to choose to be ok with the way my belly flaps over, and the dark line down the middle. I have to choose to appreciate that my breasts sag under the weight of the milk they produce. I have to look at my face, heavier and rounder, and claim it rather than reject it. I have to fight an instinct to be embarrassed by my physical “flaws”. I have to choose to love the expressions on my face as I looked at my children, instead of wondering why I smile so “weird”. I have to choose to see the strength and beauty beyond the un-photoshopped fullness of my body. I’m still sitting with these thoughts and realities. I’m going to allow myself to look at my naked body more, when I’m showering or nursing or in front of a mirror. I feel like I’m headed in the right direction with loving my body exactly as it is, and not living under the pressure of how I want it to be.
Thank you for sharing in this fun and stretching experience. For the moms out there, I highly recommend joining in the 4th trimester bodies project if they visit your city! You have to pay for sessions, as a way to offset the travel costs of the organizers (they don’t make a profit from all this amazing work they are doing) but there also scholarships available!
*The name of the 4th trimester bodies creator and photographer is Ashlee Wells Jackson, spelled just like my name. I’m not referring to myself in the third person!