A new photo series for anewmum, an Irish postpartum wellness startup, is highlighting the intense changes and challenges new moms face in the postpartum period — both emotionally and physically.
“This is a universal struggle for women,” said Neely Ker-Fox, a Georgia-based birth and family photographer who shot the campaign, in comments emailed to HuffPost. “Women around the world are all standing in front of mirrors, looking at these new bodies we inhabit, trying dearly to be gentle with ourselves.”
Ker-Fox says the seven moms who took part in the campaign were eager to show the world the strength and beauty of postpartum bodies and to advocate for greater support for women during that vulnerable time.
“For some reason the care, support and grace given to women in the postpartum period significantly wanes,” she said. “The conversation switches to: ‘When are you going back to work? Have you lost the baby weight?’ It’s all about bouncing back to the old you as quickly as possible. I think myself, anewmum, and these women who participated want that dialog and that expectation [that new moms need] to change.”
Ali O’Leary, 32, was photographed at home in Dublin with her triplets. At the time, O’Leary, who also has an older daughter, was nine weeks postpartum. Her boys — Lenny, Ted and Bruce — were home from the hospital after having been born at 31 weeks.
Initially, O’Leary says, she felt disappointment in her body, as though it was her fault she wasn’t able to carry her babies to full term.
“I had an emergency C-section with the triplets in the end, and they had to stay in the NICU for just under six weeks,” O’Leary told HuffPost. “Trying to heal, to get in and out of the hospital, pump and look after my daughter was extremely daunting — and my body did take a lot of the brunt of it.”
“Emotionally, I’m sure I’m still dealing with just how huge it all was,” she said.
Slowly, however, O’Leary began to appreciate her body for all that it had done for her and her children.
“I absolutely adore that my body got those three babies here safely,” she said. “I’d do it all again tomorrow for any of the four of them.”
“Emotionally, I’m sure I’m still dealing with just how huge it all was.”
– Ali O’Leary, 32
After she gave birth to her eldest, now 4 and a half, O’Leary said she felt like she’d lost control of her body. She’d always been athletic and active, and during pregnancy, things that had once felt very easy for her to do were suddenly challenging.
“Also, when you’re pregnant people tend to think your ‘bump’ and body are public property. People would comment on my body — how big or small I was, what I should or should not be doing or eating — and that felt very intrusive too. So I felt completely out of control both mentally and physically at times.”
Afterward, O’Leary continued to feel as though her body was somehow no longer hers, which she attributes at least in part to the fact that women are not given the space and time they need to heal postpartum.
“I nearly felt my body was someone else. It didn’t belong to me, but to this new ‘mam identity’ who was a person I didn’t actually know yet,” she said.
“I think women need more help in the initial few weeks, both physically and mentally,” O’Leary said.
“We all hear people say how thousands of women do this every day and [we] are expected to just accept that and get on with it,” she said. “What we should expect is absolute and unconditional support from the people around us, to help us heal and grow into the amazing mothers we will be,”
The other wisdom she’s earned after having four babies? “Never to expect everything instantly,” O’Leary said. “It all takes time.”
Rachel Byrne, 26, is an American living in Ireland with what she calls a big, beautiful, blended family of five children. Byrne and her husband both had children before they met, then two more together.
When she was photographed for anewmum’s campaign, Byrne was 21 weeks postpartum with her youngest daughter, who was born at home in Dublin. She has had two children in Ireland and sees many differences between giving birth in Ireland and the United States — as well as between birthing in the hospital and at home.
But one aspect of the whole experience that she sees as unfortunately similar is the lack of emotional and practical support for women right after they give birth.
“Every single birth is different. Every woman’s postpartum experience is different … but one thing I think we can all agree on is that the way women are treated in the postpartum period sucks,” Byrne laughed ruefully. “It feels like it’s time to change things. It feels like it’s time for women to reclaim the postpartum period.”
“People spend nine months, when you’re pregnant, asking how the woman is. And then you have the baby and people don’t talk about the woman anymore,” she added. “It’s all about the baby.”
Though her birth experiences have been in different settings and countries, Byrne said that one constant has been her true love of her body, which has birthed three healthy baby girls.
“I’m constantly in awe of the female body and what it’s capable of,” she told HuffPost. Byrne said she felt like a “goddess” seeing Ker-Fox’s photos, which made her feel powerful in the work she has done growing, nourishing and providing for her children.
“What an honor it is,” she said, “to be called their home.”