If there was anything in this life that I knew I was certain about, it was being a mother. I had watched dozens of my friends become mothers before me which was really hard on me, emotionally & mentally. Everyone around me was having children, loving every single second of carrying their sweet babe. Social media posts about how they loved their body, the experience & how easy it was. After birth, they continued to boast on social media how perfect life was with this new addition, how easy transitioning into a mother was & how happy they were. Breastfeeding came naturally to these women, phrases like "breast is best" seemed to flood my feeds.
This was not my experience.
From the start of my pregnancy, I was sick. I was finally put on medication (decligis) to help with nausea & vomiting, if I even missed one single pill, I was bathroom ridden for hours. I was not a calm pregnant woman. I didn't find comfort in being pregnant or carrying my child - I was terrified. Every single day I worried about the loss of my child. There was no way we were going to make it to twelve weeks & if we did, I would find comfort in lower miscarriage rates after 12 weeks. The anxiety got worse. I told myself, if I know the gender & get to 20 weeks, we'd be halfway done & nothing to worry about. The anxiety over loss doubled. I was told over & over again,
By 26 weeks, I was diagnosed with Preeclampsia. I was uncomfortable, I was swelling & now my doctor is telling me I have things to worry about, things I couldn't control. I was miserable. I was carrying an ungodly amount of water weight. My legs down to my feet looked like elephant trunks. I couldn't find shoes to fit, clothes were uncomfortable & I was emotionally drained. Family members, friends & even complete strangers made comments about my size. I honestly feel that I could write a book on: "Things you should never say to a pregnant woman."
I heard it all:
For a time that was supposed to be the most magical time, I felt nothing of magic & only of struggle. My entire pregnancy was questioned about my weight, what I did to cause preeclampsia, how could I be miserable while being pregnant. No comforting words. No understanding. No compassion for how I was feeling because everyone truly didn't believe it was about me anymore - it was about the baby. The baby is healthy. The baby is growing. The baby is fine, so you should be too. I felt constantly ashamed for the feelings & struggles I was fighting throughout my pregnancy. Was it just me? Am I the only one going through this? Why doesn't anyone understand me?
At 36 weeks + 4 days, I was admitted in L&D for the birth of my child. I had spent the day in ultrasounds + L&D triage & now I wasn't leaving this hospital without my baby. By 5pm that Thursday evening, I was losing too much protein via my urine. The nurses rushed in after getting my results, everything went from 0-100 in a matter of seconds. They got us placed into a birthing room & Pitocin was started immediately. I was not dilated, my body was not ready & to be honest, as ready as I was for this nightmare to end, I don't think I was mentally ready for what was about to happen.
The Pitocin was intense, my body went from calm & nurturing for my child to an overwhelming thunder & lightning storm within my uterus. My contractions were 1 minute apart, lasting anywhere from 1-3 minutes, zero dilation. I couldn't breathe. My blood pressure was rising & I couldn't handle the intensity. Women do this all the time, why couldn't I? To help with my blood pressure, they gave me magnesium which does the opposite effect as Pitocin & can slow labor. After 30 hours in labor with only 2cm dilation, the doctor made the call to break my water. They did this before I had an epidural, fully awake with no pain management. It was the most brutal 2 minutes of my life. Words couldn't describe the fear that came over me when she walked into the room with what looked like a glorified fishing hook. I wish I could explain the pain & the tears that flowed from me as my husband was told to sit on my upper body, holding my thrashing body down from the pain, as my doctor fished out my water like it was a game of pop the water balloon. I remember the gushing, it felt like an ocean was leaving my body, I could feel the weight from my stomach release.
At this point, they finally offered an epidural so I could try to get some rest with some pain management for the continuous contractions. I got my epidural at 11pm. The anesthesiologist didn't take me seriously, he brushed over my concerns & questions. Repeatedly told me he does "many of these a day, always very successful with minimum complications." I have this fear of needles, not just a "I don't like them" but a lose consciousness to puking kind of I don't like needles. I was a nervous wreck, I was shaking & crying. He wasn't taking me seriously, he wasn't compassionate & here I was laid bare, in a cold room, being told to bend over as far as possible, forcing me further down & telling me to hold my breath so I would stop shaking.
I can still smell the air in the delivery room, I can still feel the tingles along my spine where the numbing needle punctured & where the pressure of the epidural pierced my spine. I remember looking up to the nurse, that was helping hold me down, telling her, urging her that I was going to pass out, that I didn't feel good & something was wrong. My husband at this point, frustrated for me, starts to press the nurse of the urgency; "My wife is going to pass out, catch her!" I woke up a few minutes later to a panic team of nurses hovering over me, as I started to vomit. The nurses acted surprised, like it was a shocker this was happening even though I had done my best to warn my anesthesiologist & nurse prior to the procedure.
I was able to rest into the morning, with a few good hours of sleep under my belt. Around 8am, I was starting to feel everything below my waist as if I had no epidural at all. The team of nurses, the doctor & the anesthesiologist persisted that it was normal, to keep pressing my button every 15 minutes until my pain was under control. The anesthesiologist couldn't swallow his pride & let his arrogance rise, "I didn't miss, I never miss." I told my nurse that I felt strange, it was getting harder to breathe & my chest felt heavy - I was dismissed. I began to tell my husband, "I can't breathe, I can't take a deep breath or catch my breath, something is wrong." I woke up a few hours later. The epidural had missed & was causing the medication to run up my body because I was laying flat, instead of down my body. It was affecting my lungs, heartbeat & blood pressure. They started to reverse the epidural after I was unconscious from it.
The doctor came in, she wasn't my regular doctor. Shift change had happened that (Saturday) morning at 7am. She told me my daughter was fine, her heartbeat was healthy & strong, she seems to be in no distress but after 42 hours of Pitocin & complications, I was only 5cm dilated. After enduring what felt like a 100 days of labor, I was only halfway there. She gave me the option for a cesarean & I took it, I was done, I wanted this to be done. By the time they got me into the surgical room, had put another epidural in & we were ready to go, I was completely terrified. How could I stay awake while they cut into me? How could I endure this, knowing that right on the other side of the sheet, they are ripping through my stomach walls & muscles, to physically pull out my child? I felt vulnerable, I felt alone but mostly I felt defeated. They only allowed my husband in the room for 5 minutes, just long enough for him to hold my hand & be there while they pulled our daughter from my womb.
Our beautiful daughter, Kinsley was born Saturday, June 17th on our One year Wedding Anniversary.
After she was born, they flashed her beautiful face to me, grabbed my husband & they were gone again. I was alone, again. This C-section felt like it took forever. I felt like I was laying in this bright, cold, surgical room, strapped to the tables forever. I remember trying to put my mind somewhere else, anywhere else to make the time of laying there bearable.
When I got into recovery, my husband was waiting there with our daughter. I wish I remembered this moment clearer. I wish I remembered the way her hair smelled & the way her skin felt against mine. I was on so much medication that these first moments of meeting my daughter, my firstborn child, are a complete blur. My husband took photos of the moment, which helps a little but this was still taken away from me. I didn't get to experience that first moment of delivering your child & having them placed on your chest immediately. She had been born into this world for 20 minutes & I wasn't the first person who got to hold her or love on her. I wasn't there for my daughter, my body failed her, I failed her. The judgments of having a cesarean follows me to today, "You aren't a real mother," is one that digs deeper than most the judgments that have been passed upon me.
Five days after having my daughter, I was diagnosed with Bilateral Bells Palsy. I couldn't move my face, talk, eat, drink or close my eyes. As if I wasn't already traumatized from an epic pregnancy & then labor, let's just call this the icing on the cake. Not only was I navigating the new waters of being a mother, in recovery from a c-section, but I was also now being blindsided by something that has no cure. For 36 weeks, I was judged for everything I did, everything my body did & now, I would be judged for this. It's been two years since my diagnosis of Bells Palsy, I have regained the right side of my face but my left is left permanently damaged, my smile doesn't form, my eye constantly waters & my sensation is weak. Bells Palsy is something I deal with mentally, emotionally & physically every single day. I am still learning to love myself, to accept my new reality & find my own peace with it.
Nobody talks about the struggles, the hardships & what actually happens during pregnancy/labor. Social media has a way of highlighting the highs & never showing the lows. No one warned me about the anxiety that would follow pregnancy, the terror of losing a child, the aches/pains & how to deal with a changing body. Everyone tells you, "You are glowing!" You aren't glowing, that's sweat because you are a constantly overheating. "Isn't being pregnant the most beautiful thing?" If you mean it looks like you swallowed three watermelons, can't tie your own shoes & everything hurts, sure. How come no one talks about the million trips to the bathroom at night & how you no matter how many pillows, not even the 12 you have on your bed will ever prop you up in a way of comfort?
After my daughter was born, I was immediately pressured into breastfeeding. I became aware that everyone had an opinion on it & they didn't bother to ask mine or how I felt. It took my milk three weeks to arrive, leaving my newborn on donor milk + formula from a bottle. Kinsley never latched. Kinsley was hooked on a bottle & there was no turning back. I fought to breastfeed my daughter for 3 months, I pumped all day, after every feeding & even throughout the night. Everything that was pumped was put into a bottle because that was the only way she would take it. Once again, my body & myself had failed my daughter. Was I going to "ruin" her because she needed formula & I couldn't provide breast milk? Would I continue to fail her for the rest of her life?
"You should have tried harder."
"Why did you give up? Your daughter needs your milk, breast is best."
"You were just too lazy to keep trying & fighting for what was best for your daughter."
Once again I was facing the judgment of friends, family & complete strangers in grocery stores. Once again, I was faced with people that felt like they had the right to give me their opinion, whether it dug at my failure a little more or not. As a new mother, learning my way through motherhood, this was hard & very lonely. I didn't feel like I had a space to vent, to cry & to maybe even scream about these things. I didn't have other moms to tell me, "I've been there, you got this" or "Girl, we are in the same boat, I feel your struggles & you are not alone."
I have never loved something the way I love my daughter (& now son too, born 7/2/2018). I'm not saying that I regret any minute of what brought me my daughter but I didn't have a magical story, I didn't even have a normal story. I shortly became pregnant again, four months after my daughter was born. This pregnancy was easier, I never developed preeclampsia. The doctors decided against labor & we opted for a cesarean one week early. Similar judgments were passed with this pregnancy, some new fun ones were:
After enduring a second pregnancy with similar + new judgments & hardships, I began to think about all the mothers out there. I couldn't be the ONLY one in this cycle of judgment & constant (what felt like) bashing. I was targeted by weight-loss coaches countless times. I was targeted by the moms who exclusively breastfed, making me feel guilty for using formula for my first. I was harassed about car seat safety, when/what I decided to feed my kid(s). I couldn't be the ONLY one who felt alone & defeated by the struggles of motherhood. I began to think about ways I could help other moms & how they could help me. I started to dream about a life where mom-shaming was a thing of the past & empowering each other was a thing of today & every day. I wanted to form a community of non-judgment, safe space where everyone felt accepted, even in their differences - one where we could all come together & rally for one another.
A simple movement starts with one person. One person can change everything. It only takes ONE person to form something that could help others. Why couldn't I become that one person? Why couldn't I put myself out there in a way that helped others feel powerful & safe?
THE MOTHER. Project was born.
I announced it on my Photography Business page as an idea of moms coming together to empower one another, creating a safe space to open the conversation about mom-shaming, our struggles & taking back whatever power we have lost along the way. I wanted to make it a photo project, one where I could capture their beauty in all its rawness. I wanted the mothers to see themselves for the powerful women they are, not the stretch marks or leftover belly from creating life. I opened this to all mothers, pregnancy + postpartum.
When joining the project, I sent a series of questions to the mothers. As the questionnaires started to flood in (all 62 of them), I cried reading every single story, these women's struggles were my struggles, complete strangers' struggles - we weren't alone, I wasn't the only one.
A few months back, I read a quote on Pinterest that stated, "You are enough." Those three little words changed the way I viewed myself & my worth because even on my worst days, even on my 5th day of dry shampoo & my house is a wreck from my very busy tiny humans, I am enough. This notion of, "You are enough" would follow me into something so much bigger than myself.
I hosted the first event back in April 2019 and the theme for the day was, You Are Enough. I watched the moms introduce themselves nervously, not knowing what to expect from the day. At 10am, I got in front of 25 women & told my story - why I wanted to create this project & my journey of becoming/being a mother. We cried, we laughed & we cried some more.
Standing in front of women that may have not had the same journey as me but were there to help create this safe space & support me was something I could never put into words. I was taking back a piece of myself that I had lost along the way, I was telling my story but I wasn't letting it define who I was or who I am as a Mother & those women, sitting in front of me helped me realize that. I could feel their sadness, I could feel their anger, I could feel their happiness through my story, the good parts & the bad parts. When I was finished, I opened the floor to anyone that wanted to speak, I took a seat in the back of the room & watched mother after mother get up & share their stories. We cried, we laughed & we cried some more. These Mothers changed my life with their courage, their strength & their words.
After lunch, we moved onto the photo portion where I gave the option of wearing as little or as much as they wanted. As the afternoon went on, I photographed each Mother against a blank white wall & by a window. I watched these Mothers take back their power over their journey, their body. I watched as they got little pieces of themselves back.
We have continued this project and it continues to grow with new mothers every single day. These mothers use this platform to support one another, to share their questions and stories without fear of judgment & reminders that, YOU ARE ENOUGH.
This story was written by Kay Gilgan for our Hello Parents series. (Photos by Kassandra Stockton, Jessica Heron Photo, and Lacey White Photo Co.) Our mission is to create a community of extreme inclusivity. Appreciating what makes us different and what we all have in common. No judgment. Just a village of support.
Submit your story here. Sign up to get our stories in your inbox by entering your email below.