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What does new motherhood look like?

Jenny Lewis’ photographs of mothers with their newborn babies capture the elation and intensity of the first few hours.


For the past five years Jenny Lewis has been on call day and night, seven days week, almost 365 days a year, as women such as those you see on these pages feel the first jolt of labour. The wall of her home office is covered in colour-coded Post-it notes displaying names, addresses, numbers and due dates. Providing the women give birth at home or are home within 24 hours, Lewis hops on her bike and cycles to their house to take a portrait. “They’re supposed to text me when the contractions start,” she says, “but they usually forget and I get a call saying, ‘Oh, sorry, but I’ve had the baby, can you come?’”

Lewis has made nearly 130 portraits now – once as many as six in a single week. Last year her images were picked up by a lifestyle blog and went viral, shared by admirers from New York to Shanghai. Next year they’ll be published as a book.

Titled One Day Young, the series grew out of Lewis’s own experience of giving birth. Mother to Ruby, eight, and Herb, five, she says she “knew nothing of giving birth and being a mother before I did it, except that it was going be horrendous, the most pain I was ever going to feel. I don’t think one person said, ‘Believe in yourself, get on with it.’” But then she had Ruby. “I thought, ‘I’m OK, I’m still me.’ And I did it again, this time at home, and again it was fine. I suppose I felt angry – why didn’t I have that positive message? I wanted to get my story out.”


After Herb was born Lewis began dropping leaflets all over London, at hairdressers, cafés, nail bars, chip shops and churches. “Would you be interested in being photographed with your baby, one day old?” she wrote. The calls trickled in, slowly at first, and, glad to have willing participants, she didn’t turn anyone down. “Sometimes I would go two or three days [after the birth], but I realised I wasn’t getting the same picture. By then reality is creeping in, you’re tired. “The ones taken during the first 24 hours, the babies were red and raw because their skin wasn’t used to the air yet. But it was the intensity in the women’s eyes – they’re flooded with endorphins and almost in shock. Sometimes I was there within three hours. The birthing-pool was there, the blood was still on the head, they hadn’t even come to terms with what had happened.”

She soon refined the project to include births only in her home borough of Hackney. An editorial photographer by profession, she found it impossible to juggle work with travelling sometimes 20 miles across the city at short notice to get to a baby in time. “Hackney is great for this project,” she says. “It’s diverse, and yet really connected. I can go to a mansion or a housing estate, someone who is on their fourth kid, someone who is a single mum, and the emotion on their faces is identical.”

Lewis, who grew up in Little Clacton, Essex, moved to the area almost 20 years ago with her husband. She has seen the area change completely. “We watched the tower blocks being blown up, the markets closing, the artists moving in and now moving out.”

One Day Young really blossomed when some of the women photographed began telling their friends. “When Jenny came,” says Clementine, pictured with Imogen, “it was the first time I’d introduced my baby to someone I didn’t know. I think her seeing me as a mother was a really big moment, because I didn’t feel like a mother. Knowing that she’d been seeing lots of other mums in the same situation… It was as if I was entering a new world where I could talk about this kind of thing and there were other women who had been through it, and she had been through it, and I was part of something.”


At the peak of the project Lewis would have weeks with 10 due dates. “I’d be thinking, ‘Please, don’t have them all on the same day!’ When I go on holiday I feel terrible but I can’t plan my whole life around it. My kids have been amazing. ‘Sorry guys I’ve got a One Day Young!’ I say, ‘Back in an hour.’”

For every 10 women who wanted to take part, only about two delivered at home or were home within the prescribed time. “One woman had a caesarean and checked herself out of hospital. But that is quite unusual. I’m not saying it’s sensible but it was her decision. And nothing went wrong.”

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Of course, the women in the photographs are fortunate – there are many whose first hours as a mother are full of fear and pain and who are not allowed home so soon. “It would be awful being stuck in hospital for weeks,” says Lewis, “but just because I’m not showing that doesn’t mean I don’t care about it or that I’m not aware of it. I just had to have my own rules, otherwise what I am saying becomes diluted. Even if there are complications, to know that for a percentage of people it is possible to be home in 24 hours and be in your own clothes and just getting on with it… Why can’t those be the images in your head when you are going towards childbirth?”

“For me, the first few days were a hazy blur,” says Liana, shown holding her son Archer. “It’s a steep and challenging learning curve. But some nights I lay in bed with my baby next to me. He would be wide awake and staring into my face… That look made it all worthwhile.”

“Kiran was born at home, with his hand next to his huge head, and I still managed it,” says Joti. “I felt really proud. We had lost our son Josef during childbirth the year before, and in the very early days after Kiran was born I would often cry when feeding him – partly hormonal, no doubt, but it also felt like a big flood of emotion being let out. Kiran’s presence was a reminder of what we had lost, but it was a very cathartic and healing kind of grief, and after a while it just stopped, as the reality of this particular baby really made himself felt.”


“With your first baby, you want the world to stand still,” says Jenny, who had a hospital birth with her daughter Suki. “You feel all this love from everybody around you, and often you haven’t experienced that before so it can be overwhelming. Second time around, it’s less about you, more about how the other child will feel too, the dynamic of the family. I remember worrying so much about how to bring the baby home so my older child didn’t feel left out.”

“There was a moment,” says Rebecca, who gave birth to her son Osiris at home, “when the midwife left and I became anxious. I thought, ‘How am I going to control this situation?’ Because I think we really like to control our experiences these days. But it was so warm and cosy, we had an open fire and they left me feeding him and I just got on with it.”

“Staying in the moment was my only way of getting through those first few weeks,” says Clementine. “I tried not to think about what would happen next. But through all of it I felt as if I was falling in love with my husband again, and that was amazing.”

I remark on how unguarded they all look. “It’s odd,” says Lewis, “we’re complete strangers, yet we have the most in-depth, emotional conversations. I find out that they’ve spent 10 years on IVF to have this baby. One woman talked about how her mother had died giving birth to her. They don’t say what they think I’d like to hear, or dilute it for politeness’ sake. It’s as if whatever is in their head just comes out.”

I wonder if the fathers feel left out – how many are loitering in the wings, doe-eyed, and just out of shot? “It’s hard,” she says. “Yes, often the dads are really cute, but that’s a whole other project. This is all about the mothers – I’m almost not interested in the babies. It’s about women who have done something miraculous and should be celebrated. It’s those women and their stories, stories that mean a lot to them, and a lot to me.”

Source: The Telegraph

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