Untold Stories and the Maternity Portrait

Picture of Tilly



As a birth and family photographer I can say that I have never really put myself out there to my clients as I will today. I photograph birth, I photograph families. I have never captured maternity until now.

Here is why;

I  have always felt my body is broken and wrong since I can remember. I was born with a cleft lip, which was provided me a constant reminder when I looked in the mirror that I was not born ‘normal’. Later in my life, long after the scars from the surgeries healed, I was in a constant war with my body. Countless surgeries; knees, tonsils, gallbladder … my stomach was sending me to the Emergency Room all through college.

I got through it all with the belief that there was just something seriously broken about my body. When I was in a place in my life to conceive, it was no surprise to me that after another surgery to clean out my endometriosis, I found out I had a bicornuate uterus.  A bicornuate uterus or bicornate uterus, commonly referred to as a “heart-shaped” uterus, is a type of uterine malformation where two “horns” form at the upper part of the uterus.  I  was then force fed terms like; recurrent pregnancy loss, preterm birth, malpresentation and deformity. I thought it was a sign from the universe that I was the last person who should be procreating. I hated my body even more.  Doctors had already told me that with my endometriosis, it would be hard to conceive.

The war with my body waged. I started looking at adopting, considering my options with my husband.

I was later surprised by a pregnancy when we for all intense and purposes were not even trying yet. I spent the first 12 weeks sure we would lose the baby. I begged my husband not to tell anyone – even his own parents. I rejected the idea my body would make me happy.

At our first ultrasound I sat with my legs in the air and goose bumps all over my body. I even told the nurse I was terrified of a loss and expected it.  I was half excited and half trying to be ‘realistic’. The nurse moved the “wand” around and around… then looked up at me and asked me to go empty my bladder – “maybe it would help her see better.” I awkwardly got off the table and my husband helped me get my clothes back on.  I walked down the hall to the bathroom knowing my body had done what I expected it to do -let me down.

Back on the table with my empty bladder – she moved that wand around and around. Nothing. She said “it looks like you were right – you are not pregnant anymore.” Her words hung in the air thick and almost suffocating.   She apologized and asked me to get another ultrasound to confirm before they scheduled the “removal”. I begged to just get it over with now and they sent me to another office that specialized in Ultrasounds.

The walk over to this office, which was only blocks from the OB’s office, was the longest walk of my life.  I have never in my life with my husband seen him look so sad or hurt. I failed him. How was I going to tell my mother? How can I undo all the happy thoughts I let creep into my mind. I could not look at my husband anymore – my head hung and examined the ugly hotel-like carpet in the halls until we made it to the Ultrasound office. We sat there in a room full of pregnant women which came in and out for their appointments – photos in hand. I lost it. I finally gave in, my vision blurred from tears that would not end.

My name was called and I asked my husband to just wait as I  could not bear the look on his face.

In another chair with stirrups – more cold jelly – and the wand… that wand. The tech turned on the screen to a TV on the wall – and she said “And there is the heartbeat.”

I had no words… just gasps – and finally asking her -“are you sure? – are you sure I am pregnant?”


We went on to have a pretty uneventful pregnancy and labor.

I never became one of those joyful women who put bows on their bellies or wanted to do “bump” photos. I never felt like I celebrated the life inside me as I was just waiting for the next shoe to drop.

I heard a wonderful woman I recently met say “so many people assume because you are pregnant you will have a baby.” It does not work that way. I have watched so many women struggle to conceive, struggle with the very true pain of a loss. I have kept my mouth shut as women I know have suffered a miscarriage, but I  am not supposed to know, so I can’t comfort her.

As a photographer I could not bring myself to create images I did not believe in. Happy, full of life women carrying a child in their belly. I wanted more than just a bow around the belly. I wanted to tell a story. I wanted to show the light and the dark sides.

I reached out hoping to fill my camera with frames that told every women’s story.  In the process I found two incredible women to share their stories.

This is for Kelly, Hunter, Heather, Jessi, Lori and a couple friends who I am not “supposed to know you misscarried” (but your husband told me and I just want to be there for you…). This is for you. Your loss is not forgotten.

I am so honored to introduce you to Mel and Arya.


maternity Photography

My baby died.  In my arms.  January 30, 2013.  I enjoyed 64 minutes of life with her.  She had a rare genetic condition called Thanataphoric Dysplasia.  Her lungs had no room in her deformed rib cage.  Her name is Phoenix. Nothing brings me more joy than when I hear people speak her name.  I will never call her inside for dinner.  I don’t get to quickly shout her name when she is too close to the street.  Hearing her name means she did happen.  She was real.  Even if she’s gone.

A new baby already grows where Phoenix spent all her days.  How can something good feel so wrong at times?  I have two older living daughters.  I have learned that a mother’s heart can love multiple children with equal depth.  But really, can my broken heart make room for a new child?  Doesn’t a new baby make my precious memory of a child fade even deeper into my past?  I already barely recall how she smelled.

“What number baby is this for you?”  People see my pregnant bump and think they are asking a simple question.  Depending on who they are and what head space I’m in that day, I tell them the truth: four.  I live in a city where many couples decide not to have any children.  When I say “four”, their eyes get huge.  Some will even say, “Wow, you’re so brave.”  To which I would love to reply, “You have no idea how brave I am.”  But then I don’t want to get caught crying to the checker at the grocery store.  So, I just kind of laugh it off.

But then many are often so intrigued that they ask what the ages of my children are.  The strangest thing happens to me.  I begin to feel very sorry for them that they have to hear what I am about to say.  Ridiculous.  I’m the one with the dead baby.  Why do I care that they will feel awkward when I tell them the truth?  “I have a 10 year old, 6 year old and (I begin making the ‘it’s okay, don’t feel bad’ face) actually, a baby that died soon after birth.”  My face turns red and I quickly feel ashamed.  Why did I have to make that stranger feel so bad by telling them about my dead baby?!  Hopefully, I’m in a public place where I can quickly retreat to my car to try to train myself to not let that happen again.

Why not lie and just say three?  I’d save myself all of the absurd embarrassment I feel when, before I know it, I’m trying to comfort the person who just asked me a simple question.

I’ve said three a few times.  It’s the worst feeling ever.  I’d take the hot cheeks and shame I feel for bringing someone’s mood down over the deep gut-felt guilt I feel when I say that this is the third baby I’m growing.  When my third baby, Phoenix, is already fading into a memory, am I really going to act as though she didn’t exist?  It betrays my love for her, my pain and emptiness, my bravery and courage.  It denies all the grief work I accomplish every day.

I keep thinking I’ll come up with a script that works for me.  But I’m still so shocked by the question each time.  Or is it the answer that still shocks me?

My brain conceives that Phoenix isn’t here, but my heart has yet to understand it.

Mel Parsons lives in Seattle with her incredible husband and two daughters. And somehow she has continued living without her third daughter…Phoenix.

 Maternity Portriats


Since revealing my pregnancy, the most common question I am asked is, “Is this your first?” Even now, 7 months along, the question surprises me. I understand that it seems like an innocent, even “safe”, question to ask a pregnant woman. I suppose one could argue that it is simply a conversation opener. For women like me, who have experienced pregnancy loss, however, the answer is quite complicated.

We started trying to conceive almost eight years ago. We were successful three times, but I ended up losing all three pregnancies. The first, in 2006, was an ectopic pregnancy that was discovered about two weeks after I had what we believed was a miscarriage. One morning, over the course of a couple of hours, I developed crippling abdominal pain. A timely ultrasound revealed that I was, in fact, still pregnant (though the embryo was no longer alive). I received immediate non-surgical treatment and spent months recovering from the damage of the ectopic as well as the treatment. In 2008 I finally conceived again, but miscarried a week after having a positive home pregnancy test. Concerned about the possibility that I might still be pregnant with another ectopic pregnancy, we went to the emergency room when the bleeding began. I was diagnosed as having had a “chemical pregnancy”, the term used for miscarriages that occur very soon after implantation. Three more years of trying passed without conceiving. Heartbroken, we gradually gave up our dreams of having a baby. Then, on a summer morning in 2011, I awoke feeling unwell. Within an hour I had severe abdominal pain and was going into shock. My husband rushed me to the emergency room where I was diagnosed with a ruptured ectopic pregnancy. I required immediate, life-saving surgery. We didn’t even know that I had conceived.
Maternity Portraits
My current, healthy pregnancy came as a surprise. As we grieved and processed the shock of the ruptured ectopic pregnancy, we once again started to let go of our hopes for a baby. With only one fallopian tube and sluggish ovaries, my chances at conceiving were assessed as slim-to-none. I didn’t see the sense of holding out hope for slim-to-none chances, so I turned my energy toward other pursuits and resolved to be grateful for my health and my marriage, and to open myself to a life different from the one I had envisioned. When we discovered this pregnancy, we were ecstatic and terrified. What if it was another ectopic? What if I almost died again?

We spent the first couple of weeks vacillating between shock and terror, and astonished delight. Once I was far enough along for an early ultrasound and we learned that this pregnancy was properly implanted in my uterus, we could let go of the fear for my safety and focus on the usual concerns of early pregnancy. People would ask if I was “so excited” and I would answer, “Of course!” What I couldn’t share was the complexity of emotions that pregnancy brought up. I had lived for so long with the idea that something about my body was broken when it came to baby-making, that even though this pregnancy was progressing normally I had a sinking feeling that my body would eventually fail me…and my baby. It wasn’t until about the 20th week that I finally stopped waiting for something awful to happen. Feeling this baby’s kicks and movements made me long for my lost babies in a new and wrenching way. I was thrilled to be pregnant, but I was also angry all over again at having lost three longed-for babies.

Every time I am asked if this is “my first” I must quickly assess how much of myself, of my story, I want to divulge. I feel it is very important for women like me to allow ourselves to be seen and heard. Our culture does not offer a space for the pain of pregnancy loss or fertility challenges. Many mothers feel very alone in their grief; some even feel ashamed. Subsequent successful pregnancies do not erase this pain. Quite the contrary, sometimes they reveal a new edge to the pain we thought we’d left behind. We need to know that we are not alone. We need people to bear witness to the complexity of pregnancy – whether it’s one that we lost or one that we are, so far, carrying without issue. I would like to be able to simply answer “yes” or “no”, but neither word gives honor to my story, to my lost babies, or to the thousands of women who share this pain.
Maternity Photography
So, for now, I am inclined to answer in a succinct and honest way. My go-to responses include, “This isn’t my first pregnancy, but it will be our first born.” “This is my fourth pregnancy. I lost my other three early on.” “This is the first of my four pregnancies that I’ve been able to carry this long.” Sadly, each answer seems to work against the question’s intention, stopping a conversation before it begins rather than encouraging a connection between myself and the person asking. No one seems to know what to do with my truth.

If only they understood that a simple, “I’m sorry to hear that. How are things today?” would serve their purpose in starting a conversation while offering me the space to be real, to be open, and to assure myself and others that I am not alone in this.

Arya Pretlow

January 22, 2014

29 weeks pregnant (and going strong!)
maternity portrait photography



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