Motherhood may be a pressing subject for modern British women, but the realities of giving birth for the first time – the dramatic shift in identity, the sudden lack of control, the anxiety of caring for something that can’t yet communicate its needs – remains deeply misunderstood in British culture. Throughout the ages, motherhood has been depicted as merely beautiful and uncomplicated, or as compromised by other, more complex feelings.
This misconception drove London-based photographer Jenny Lewis to create her ongoing series One Day Young. For the past seven years, she has taken photographs of new mothers and their babies in the London borough of Hackney within 24 hours of birth.
Published earlier this year as a book by Hoxton Mini Press, One Day Young is a celebration of what she calls the “rite of passage into motherhood.”
"I wanted to tell a story about the strength and resilience of women, post-childbirth, that I feel goes largely unacknowledged in today’s world,” she says.
By capturing the very first hours of motherhood, the photographs shows a moment of reconciliation as women move from the person they once were to the person they must become.
This is no simple process. According to a new study, more than half of new British mothers experience the “baby blues” after giving birth; nearly a quarter suffer from postnatal depression. Of those women, 62% say they aren’t supported through what, at its most severe, can be a life-threatening illness.
“Motherhood is supposed to be this gauzy, pastel-painted, blissed-out state that has no depth or complexity,” Naomi Wolf writes in her 2001 book Misconceptions: Truth, Lies and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood. “But women have discovered that the cultural mythology surrounding motherhood has nothing to do with their lives.”
Some 200 babies are born every day in the UK. “And yet the glimpse Lewis offers into the beating heart of a family only just beginning,” writes the journalist Lucy Davies in her introduction to the book, “is rarely made public.”
Lewis photographs mothers at the very start of parenthood. “I wanted to concentrate on the first 24 hours, when a woman’s body is still engulfed by hormones, to capture the unrelenting physicality of the moment, straight from the battlefield,” she says. “Sweat still glistening on the mothers’ skin, the translucent umbilical cord freshly severed, and wide-eyed as the women come to terms with the magnitude of what they have achieved and survived.”
Liana Chang, mother of Archer
Before I gave birth, I surrendered my body over to the contractions. I let my skin, muscle, and flesh ragdoll and drape over my womb. I just allowed it to do what it needed to do to deliver my baby into the world. My mind oscillated between a deep low and a dazzling high. Half-naked and kneeling on my bathroom floor, I held my baby in my arms for the first time.
I have never felt so vulnerable, yet so powerful, at the same time.
Ana de Costa, mother of Barney
Looking back, I was extremely naive with regards to just how much Barney would change our lives, and just how hard it really is.
I had my placenta encapsulated and I ate it at home to help me get back on my feet in the weeks after he was born. Many women I told turned their noses up, but humans and animals have been doing this for hundreds of years.
I suffered severe depression around four months after he was born. I think I pushed myself too much and didn't give myself a chance to adjust.
Women don't talk about how hard it is. Society doesn’t recognise it in general. My birth was traumatic and, even though the staff at the hospital were amazing, I still left feeling as though I had been tortured. You add sleeplessness and stress into the equation and it’s a recipe for disaster. That’s why there are cases of women suffering severe psychosis: women need to be supported more, but the NHS is no longer financially strong enough to do this.
Jenny Green, mother of Suki
I had been so worried about being alone with my baby – that I wouldn't know what to do, that I wouldn't understand her needs. But, when that moment came, I felt a new confidence I hadn't ever expected.
I lay with her in my arms and looked at her for hours, and all of my own feelings of fear disappeared. I just couldn't believe how much I loved her. In the days that followed I felt for the first time in my life I wanted time to stand still.
Gitta Gschwendtner, mother of Til
The first hours after the birth were relatively calm. My son was still quite sleepy. I felt happy, exhausted, a little unsure exactly what to do.
It was the calm before the storm. My son had a form of acid reflux, which meant he was crying constantly and needed to be held, ideally while walking around, most of the time. He could hardly ever be put down. When it became apparent this was not going to get better anytime soon, I became frustrated and felt overwhelmed. This was not what I had expected. I could not find an answer to his crying and inability to sleep when not held. I was used to being in control of my life; this was completely out of my control.
I am not entirely sure who is to blame for the rose-tinted vision of motherhood. It doesn't matter how many times someone tells you how tough it is to have a baby. Before you have one, you never quite get it. I often think about vulnerable mothers in tough circumstances and how they manage.
Jennifer Good, mother of Nora
My overwhelming feeling in the first hours was relief. Relief that she was healthy, that she had arrived without complications, that we had been able to come home from the hospital so quickly.
But above all, relief it was over. I have joked since this is the real reason for the blissful glow you see on new mothers’ faces. It’s not just love.
I think of myself as a strong person, with a strong will and a high tolerance for pain, but I had drastically over-estimated my ability to cope with labour. It was like nothing I could have imagined, and afterwards I felt like a victorious gladiator.
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