Mar 28, 2014 0
Flaps of fabric at the mercy of a relentless wind or the invariable fluttering of ample bird wings. That’s what I heard when I listened to my son Enlai’s heartbeat for the first time while eight weeks pregnant.
I imagined his tiny heart beating inside the echo chamber that was my womb, thinking about how for a time my body would be host to two heartbeats, each beating at its own rate. Eventually, my frame would accommodate two of every organ, four eyes, eight limbs, and countless veins, arteries and capillaries.
The woman-to-mother metamorphosis, with panoptic physical changes, made me observe and appreciate my own form as I never had before. My wonder and respect for the female body’s capabilities has grown as I have grown, from being barely pregnant to a mother of a six-year-old and a 20-month old – its ability to conceive, to house and nurture, to deliver, to feed, to care for, to soothe.
I realised that I and my fellow pregnant women were all too oft required to surrender our bodies during pregnancy, not only to our unborn child, but also to doctors, midwives and nurses, to passersby on the streets. While visiting my midwives during the last trimester, I remember on several occasions having my legs open to their easternmost and westernmost points with my knees north, allowing latexed hands inform as to whether all was okay. As I walked along streets, into shops or onto public transport, strangers would touch my belly. My bump was no longer mine; it seemed to belong to anyone who found it fascinating. I never minded; I was touched by the touch.
While pregnant with my second son Lumen, I was more attuned to my body’s adjustments. I knew I was pregnant before an early predictor test could tell me I was. When I began bleeding in my first trimester and assumed I miscarried, my body was hinting to me to go slow, to perhaps listen to more of Miles’ Kind of Blue, less of his Bitches Brew. I learned that I developed a subchorionic haematoma, which the outer fetal membrane eventually reabsorbed. It is at this same time that a friend told me she had miscarried and another friend divulged that her son and daughter were conceived via a donor.
This is a woman’s body, when she decides she would like to have a baby, until the time her body says to her she can no longer have a baby – her blood speaks to her like the hands of a clock speak to the rest of the world, her fallopian tubes may reveal to her that her uterus will have to welcome the eggs of another woman, her abdomen may hint at loss of life, her skin may become discoloured, stretched, freckled, moled or swathed in bumps, her hormones may wreak havoc, her breasts may swell to the size of watermelons and then become saggy apricots, her hair may become as full as the girl’s in the shampoo ad and then fall out en masse. Her hairline might change altogether. She may be confronted with haemorrhoids, spider veins, or varicose veins. She may get a tingling in her breasts when it is time to feed her baby or a throbbing and fever when the baby wasn’t hungry. She may suffer pelvic organ prolapse, she may urinate without knowing she has. She may welcome prominent biceps from carrying this, and back pain from carrying that. Her foot size may increase. She may have new curves, loss in muscle tone and changes in fat deposits. And when her body wants to say to her that she can no longer bear her own children, she may cry, she may scream, she may be grateful for what her body has already given her or mourn what it could not.
Contemplating the body of a mother, I embarked on a project which entailed photographing mothers’ body parts. The initial concept was to document a change in identity when a woman becomes a mother, highlighting the forgotten, whether they are body parts consigned to oblivion by a partner or the woman herself when she became a mother. I gave them the option of telling me which part of their body they’d like me to photograph or allowing me to choose.
As projects do, this one evolved. While some moms offered their Caesarean section scars and the stretch marks on their breasts, bum and bellies, others asked if there was a way I could photograph their insides – “My insides are ripped apart when I see my child hurting. How do you photograph this?”
Throughout my sessions with these moms, I was reminded of Robert Frank’s words – the eye should learn to listen before it looks. My eyes listened. Just as my heart listened when I heard my son’s heartbeat. And when the eyes and heart listen, stories unfold. Stories of life lived and given. Given and lived.