The “fourth trimester” – a time for babies to get to know life outside the womb, and for parents to get used to their new way of life. It’s also a time for mums to get acquainted with their “new” bodies – and let’s face it, those post-pregnancy bodies can take some getting used to.
One mum, though, is asking women to embrace rather than condemn their post-baby bodies. Photographer Ashlee Wells Jackson started her 4th Trimester Bodies Project after the most traumatic year of her life.
She learned at her second-trimester ultrasound that her baby girls, Aurora and Nova, were suffering from twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome. They were critically ill and Ashlee underwent emergency surgery to try to save her daughters. At first it was deemed a success, but the following day she and her husband received the unbearable news – baby Aurora had died.
The pregnancy continued, and Nova was growing well. But at 24 weeks gestation – just two days after a scan had shown Nova was progressing perfectly – Ashlee woke up in labour. Despite doctors’ efforts, it couldn’t be slowed. With Nova in distress, Ashlee was rushed into the operating theatre and put under sedation for an emergency C-section. Nova was born first, followed by Aurora.
Nova spent 100 days fighting in the NICU, where she developed hydrocephalus – the enlargement of the brain cavities caused by a build-up of cerebrospinal fluid. She eventually came home with a feeding tube, and a shunt to reduce pressure on her brain. Aurora’s ashes were strewn under Twin Falls in Hawaii.
The labour had been brought on by an E.coli infection, which then spread to Ashlee’s C-section incision. Amid the rollercoaster of grief, relief, pain, joy and worry, Ashlee says she felt “like a failure”. “Like less of a woman. Like less of a mother. My job was to grow and nurture my girls and I couldn’t even keep one of them alive?” she writes on her website.
“I know logically that this thinking is faulty, but it’s how I felt and suddenly I realised that I identified with all of those women that entered my studio. I was one of them. I avoided my midsection at all costs, I couldn’t look at my scar let alone touch it. I cried in the shower. I cried when my husband tried to touch me. I was broken and I wasn’t OK with it.”
It was then she decided to use her photography talents as a healing mechanism. “I needed to learn to look at myself, my story, my scars in a different light and I needed to offer the same lens to women everywhere. And so we started,” she writes.
“Just five months after my surviving daughter came home from the NICU, in June 2013, I stood on the other side of my camera for the first time in a long time. In my underwear with (Nova) in my arms I captured with one image the year of hell, sacrifice, loss, and now hope and healing we had been through.”
That one photograph (shown at the top of this post) started a project that has grown and grown, and extended to foster, adoptive and stepmothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers. She’s now taken her camera on the road to offer photoshoots to mums around the world on a donation basis.
“On the difficult days I look at the women who surround me and find strength in their stories. I am grateful for each and every woman who has had the bravery to join me on this journey and for the thousands who are following along with us. Collectively we are healing, we are empowering, we are transforming, we are normalising,” she says.
“The project exists because women are judged too crudely on the way we look and are often told we don’t measure up. Because no real person can compete with the tools in Photoshop and glossy magazine covers. And because motherhood is sacred and should be celebrated. This project exists because women and men and society need it. Because our sons and daughters deserve more. Because we deserve more. Because we are beautiful – stretches, stripes, scars and all.”
(Images via Ashlee Wells Jackson, 4th Trimester Bodies Project)