Extreme Pain, but Also Extreme Joy

Maggie Shannon

2020 - Ongoing

After Los Angeles went into lockdown in early March 2020, I began following four midwives as they navigated entirely new protocols caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. By photographing the midwives, I explored what it means to bear life in a time of sorrow and grief. The midwives’ phones rang endlessly with calls from terrified women hoping to deliver safely in their own homes. With hospitals flooded with sick patients and many banning partners from the delivery room, the possibility of going through childbirth without a mask and in a familiar setting seemed, to these women, like the only option.

The midwives’ practices shifted to protect their patients, themselves, and their own families. Chemin Perez had to move her birth clinic into tents set up in a parking lot, reserving the interior space for laboring mothers. As one of the few midwives in the Los Angeles area that takes MediCal (the California Medical Assistance Program), the move seemed like an obvious choice and allowed her to continue providing care for one of the most vulnerable populations. Many midwives, including Jessica Diggs, switched to telehealth visits, dropping off dopplers on clients’ doorsteps and instructing them on how to listen to their baby’s heartbeat over video chat. These women were determined to continue their essential work despite any fears or difficulties.

I was struck by the courage of every woman I witnessed: the calmness and resolve of the midwives and the power of the women in the throes of labor who pushed through all of the agony. I witnessed pain and was unable to do anything but document in order to tell these women’s stories. Midwives provide guidance and guardianship rooted in generational wisdom, but mothers ultimately still must experience the extremes of birth on their own, just as death also must be reckoned with as an individual. In the middle of a time of global suffering, there is a comfort in seeing each mother holding her new baby to her breast. Two humans touching for the first time, when touch is so severely restricted.

At a time marked by separation and death, these stories of connection, care, and birth feel especially healing. Childbearing and the work of midwives is not well documented; the realities of childbirth are still taboo. This project presents individuals’ labor stories in a real and unflinching way. At a time when a difficult process is made even harder, the need to be honest about childbirth and our own bodies seems even more important. Each one of these stories is unique and it is crucial to this project to present a diversity of mothers and birth workers, and not just a whitewashed version. This pandemic has disproportionately affected women, and this project illuminates some of the burdens they must bear.

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  • Taylor Almodovar’s husband Justin Gardner looks up as Taylor experiences a painful contraction during her labor at the New Life Midwifery in Arcadia, California. Taylor Almodovar decided to switch to working with a midwife due to the outbreak of Covid-19, worried that her husband would be banned from the delivery room.

  • Midwife Chemin Perez works with her team of student midwives in outdoor tents in the parking lot of New Life Midwifery in Arcadia, California. Student midwife and doula Renae Morales draws blood from a client on the left while Chemin Perez and another student perform a prenatal checkup on the patient on the right inside the tent. Due to the outbreak of Covid-19, Chemin Perez moved the majority of her birth center into tents outside to keep her staff and clients safe.

  • Tsune Brown gives birth to her son while midwife Chemin Perez wipes her face and holds a pen light to check her progress in the birthing pool at the New Life Midwifery in Arcadia, California.

  • Midwife Naomi Drucker listens to the baby’s heartbeat using a doppler fetal monitor at GraceFul Birthing Clinic in Silverlake, California. Naomi and her assistant took extra precautions due to the Covid-19 pandemic, including disinfecting her equipment, the examination room, bathroom and waiting area, and staggering client appointments.

  • Student midwife and doula Renae Morales performs a prenatal check up at the outdoor section of the New Life Midwifery in Arcadia, California. Midwife Chemin Perez and her staff see up to 40 patients a day at the small site where her clients drive-up for a health and temperature check and wait in their cars until they’re called for their appointment.

  • Justin Gardner grasps his wife Taylor Almodovar’s in the bathroom of the New Life Midwifery Birth Center in Arcadia, California as she undergoes painful contractions during her labor.

  • Jes Anderson with her husband, mother and midwife Naomi Drucker during the early hours of her labor at her home in Los Angeles, California. Jes Anderson experienced contractions since early afternoon and kept a careful log of the time, length and strength of each. Once the contractions reached four minutes apart, she began to complain of feeling light-headed and nauseous.

  • Taylor Almodovar in labor with her husband under the pepper tree outside of New Life Midwifery in Arcadia, California. If labor isn’t progressing, a doula or midwife will often suggest walking outside. Taylor Almodovar took a short walk around the neighborhood surrounding New Life Midwifery, stopping for breaks when a contraction became too strong.

  • Gloves, hand sanitizer and a doppler at the New Life Midwifery in Arcadia, California.

  • Midwife Chemin Perez listens to the fetal heartbeat of Taylor Almodovar’s baby during her prenatal checkup at a separate birth center in Arcadia, California. When the summer hit, the outdoor tents became too hot to see clients. Chemin Perez rented a small office space near her birth clinic for prenatal and postnatal checkups, keeping the space at New Life Midwifery available just for births.

  • After making the decision to go to the hospital for an epidural, Taylor Almodovar expressed guilt over not being able to continue with an unmedicated birth. Student midwife and doula Renae Morales rushed to her side to comfort her.

  • Midwife Naomi Drucker and Jes Anderson’s mother hold up her antibiotic IV drip as Jes moves into a more comfortable position during her labor at home in Los Angeles, California.

  • Taylor Almodovar lies on the examination table waiting for her prenatal checkup at a separate birth center in Arcadia, California run by midwife Chemin Perez.

  • Midwife Christian Toscano checks the progression of jaundice in Roni Le’s infant, outside in the sunlight in front of her home in Temple City, CA.

  • A piece of exam table paper floats in the wind outside of the New Life Midwifery in Arcadia, California.

  • Midwife Chemin Perez listens at the doorway to the heart rate of an unborn infant as a student midwife monitors the laboring mother at New Life Midwifery Birth Center in Arcadia, CA.

  • Midwife Naomi Drucker looks out the window as she waits for her husband to drop off her dinner at Jes Anderson’s home in Los Angeles, California during a long labor.

  • Midwife Christian Toscano performs a postpartum checkup on mother Roni Le and her infant daughter while her two other daughters watch nearby at Roni’s home in Temple City, California in early March. This was the last week Christian Toscano performed home visits before switching to telehealth due to the outbreak of Covid-19.

  • Shalom Montgomery holds his newborn son for the first time at the New Life Midwifery Birth Center in Arcadia, CA.