Extreme Pain, but Also Extreme Joy - PhMuseum

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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