Part I : Waiting for the extraordinary
It was an email on a rainy Monday morning, which as I read, grabbed my attention instantly..
"Hello! My husband and I are expecting out first baby early July, thanks to our amazing friend and surrogate. We were wondering whether you have any availability to photograph our birth?"
I was completely ignorant of how surrogacy works, but I did know this scenario would be so full to bursting with emotions.
So this would be a documentary photographer's dream job.
The email sender was Charlotte and her husband Ben. They met Rachael, their surrogate, on surrogacy message forums and now, a baby girl was now on her way. Accompanying Rachael at the birth would be Charlotte & Ben, together with Rachael's husband Danny - all close close friends after getting to know each other for a couple of years, and then going through the rollercoaster ride of IVF together.
But there was just one catch - the birth was to be at Rachael's home in Nottingham, about 2 hours away.
As much as I wanted the job, I advised them it would be safer to find someone closer. They searched for a closer alternative for weeks, but no-one fit the bill, so Charlotte called me again we discussed how to make it work.
We arranged an "icebreaker" meeting - something I insist upon before birth clients commit to anything. I drove over to meet everyone at Rachael & Danny's home. We chatted through the birth plans, I met their two young children, and felt the excited vibes coming from Charlotte and Ben. A few days later they rang to say they wanted to go ahead.
This was really going to happen!
So then for the contracts, packing my own hospital bag (camera + charged batteries) and the start of the on-call phase where I have my army of babysitters prepped for that middle-of-the-night phonecall.
Less than a week before due date, though, the doctor's looked at the growth scans and advised induction. They were concerned baby's growth had slowed down. Rather than the home births Rachael had with her own two children, this was going to be quite different - and it was starting that afternoon. As Rachael's previous labours hadn't been long, and those had been without induction, it was possible this could be quick.
I set off to the Royal Derby Hospital, arriving about 6.30pm. Despite the change of plans, everyone was happy with anticipation that baby would soon arrive. But baby it seems, was quite comfortable where she was, thank you very much.
It's a funny thing when you spend hours with someone you don't really know - or in this case several people.
It's rare to spend a few hours talking. Without interruption. Soon I felt like I had know them all for months.
But contractions weren't coming. Everyone was getting itchy. Danny played with the birthing ball. We ate snacks and speculated when baby might start moving. By 10.30pm with no regular contractions, and with me having a 3-4 hour round trip to get home, Charlotte, Ben and me decided to book rooms at the hotel opposite the hospital. I slept with my phone on the pillow next to me, just in case.
No middle-of-the-night phone calls arrived, so in the morning we return to the hospital. It's a tough call, because there's really no sign of movement but I feel like if I go home I could miss the birth entirely due to the time it would take me to return.
After a few hours we agree that I'll go home and await further news. Charlotte promises to call if there's any sign of change. I enjoy the sunny scenic 2-hour drive back home, skirting round the edge of the Peak District boundary on quiet A-roads. At home I start making lunch, but straight away my phone rings...
"I'm sorry to do this to you, Ellie, but Rachael is now getting regular contractions! What do you want to do?"
I'm not missing this birth now! Soon I was back in the car on the way back to Derby. When I arrive at 4pm they have all been on a long walk around the hospital to try and move things along.
But it was 2 steps forward, 2 steps back.
The midwives wanted to monitor baby, due the the growth scan concerns. But whilst Rachael was hooked up to the monitor, contractions were settling down. After the lunchtime excitement that we were moving forward, after a few hours it was clear that we were back to irregular contractions again.
We waited and we waited, talking and fidgeting.
Sitting on the floor. Walking around.
Turning the taps on. To pass the time.
Eating some more snacks. To pass the time.
There was talk of what to do next, what would happen next, what the midwives might do and what the doctor might say.
There were many trips to the Marks & Spencer. Every hospital should have one, honestly, just for the prawn crackers alone.
And lots of laughs from Danny, resting under the hospital blanket (above). The thing I love about that photo is remembering the midwives coming in to discuss things, and they didn't even notice blanket-man sat there.
Poor Rachael just wanted to get moving, and stop having to sit still uncomfortably when her instinct was to move around. We set off on another hike around the hospital, to find stairs to climb, and pausing to time any contractions that came.
The hours pushed on, and conscious that sometimes the presence of a stranger can slow down labour I went to the hospital foyer to give them all a few hours respite from the camera. Later after I rejoined the group, Room 12 became available. We had asked the previous day to be moved there whenever it became free. Rachael was hoping to use the birthing pool, and it is much larger room, and we were an unusually large birthing party.
Photographing a birth is unusual in itself. Whenever I entered the ward through the intercom I announced myself as Rachael's photographer it is met with a few quizzical looks. So being a surrogate pregnancy and having a birth photographer, we were positively a freak show. Many times Rachael and Charlotte wondered if all the different staff coming to check on us were just nosey about all the dynamics going on with this birth.
One thing I came to appreciate is that with this new territory comes a whole host of issues. Every time midwives or doctors came to speak to us, they spoke to Rachael. Of course this is normal - well usually. But this wasn't a usual situation.
Charlotte was the mum-to-be. Both Charlotte and Rachael were completely comfortable with that fact.
Rachael never said "my birth" or "my baby". She would get excited saying to Charlotte and Ben "your baby will be here soon". Decisions on the labour - and therefore the risks to baby - were made with Charlotte and Ben fully in discussion.
But the nurses and doctors didn't address Charlotte, when talking about baby. She was rarely acknowledged, and I'm quite sure through force of habit or fear of saying something politically uncorrect - rather than disapproval or anything. It was clear that this was still a trailblazing situation.
Late in the evening, when nerves were a bit frayed with tiredness, a new nurse came in. For the first time, she addressed Charlotte as the baby's mum and talked about what was happening directly to her, whilst also talking to Rachael about the labour.
It was a subtle moment easily missed through all the discussion with staff over the previous 2 days. But this kind gesture moved Charlotte to tears.
Our little gang hung out in good old Room 12 late into the evening. Rachael didn't want to get in the pool until labour was moving on with certainty, and with the stopping and starting there wasn't any certainty yet.
Contractions were timed. More M&S meals were eaten. Lots of M&S pork pies enjoyed by the boys. Another packed of prawn crackers for me.
We continued our discussions about life, intercepted with naps and facts from the internet.
It got to 11pm and I think we all knew that baby wasn't coming today. The room was quiet and still. Danny took a nap in the birthing pool.
I started the long drive back home, wondering when I would be coming back. I was in for a a few surprises as it turned out.