Photo courtesy of Lindsey Meehleis

A Grandfather At His Grandson's Birth: The Photo America Wasn't Ready To See

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“We devised a plan to get my father-in-law whisky and let him relax. Whiskey and cigar, mellow out and not be bringing his energy in his room," Josh Tarnofsky tells Romper by phone of wife Steph Hendel delivering their son, attended by the baby's grandfather. "But the day before the birth, this voice told me Joe needs to be there, let it happen, let it flow. Everyone took their roles, like this higher power kicked in and everyone was in alignment. It was very organic, and guided the whole time.”

Loved on Instagram over 20,000 times with over 1000 comments across all its reposts, a photo capturing the birth of Steph Hendel and Josh Tarnofsky’s first child, Johnathon, has rocked the natural birth and midwife community. The photo, showing Hendel’s father Joe supporting her shoulders as baby Johnathon arrives earthside, triggers a range of emotions in those who view it. Awe, anger, confusion, respect, fear. Laying on the couch, her husband there to catch the baby, Hendel rests her head on her father's shoulder, looking almost peaceful mid-birth, as Johnathon's torso emerges. Her father Joe appears in awe of his daughter's strength, softly gripping her arms; in the next frame, he looks awestruck as Hendel gives the final push.

Breathe into why you are uncomfortable with this picture. I’m kind of normalizing birth, taking on how society sexualizes birth.

Lindsey Meehleis, the head midwife present at the birth, asks viewers to stop and think for a moment, “Look at where the fear is coming from. Breathe into why you are uncomfortable with this picture. I’m kind of normalizing birth, taking on how society sexualizes birth... we are empowering women with these images.”

While there were a range of comments from the very vulgar and negative to joyously supportive, Meehleis shares that the majority of the comments leaned positive. Meehleis admitted that often she does not even read the comments, “I just don’t take the negativity to heart.”

Steph Hendel, a TV personality and personal coach, is six weeks postpartum now and settling into new motherhood. She says she empathizes a bit with her critics. “At first I didn’t know what to do about having my dad there, I was not far off from people making [negative] comments. But when I got into labor there was no doubt in my mind. This is the most natural beautiful process in the world, this is my father, he has been so supportive of me my whole life.”

She felt no shame having her father present in her vulnerable state; all of those thoughts left her head as labor progressed. Hendel shares that at first she planned for her mom and mother-in-law to be her doulas. She taught them mantras to repeat to her, and they discussed how to support her through the birth.

“We had rose petals in the birth tub, candles, beautiful music...it was chanting, natural music...it was like what I imagine as the sounds of giving birth back in the day. We could eat and drink nourishing things. It felt exciting. Every birth is beautiful but this felt like such a good fit for us.”

My dad ended up being my biggest coach. We didn’t anticipate he would be involved as much as he was.

Steph and Josh had planned out so many things for their home birth, but what they had not planned on was the huge role that Steph’s dad would take in the process.

Photo courtesy of Lindsey Meehleis

Despite planning and discussion, things changed in the midst of the birth. Neither mother was repeating the mantras, and Joe stepped up in a big way. “My dad ended up being my biggest coach. We didn’t anticipate he would be involved as much as he was.” Joe repeated the mantras as he supported Steph’s shoulders while Josh caught their son arriving into the world.

And the photographer for the epic photo? Meehleis is not even sure. “I set up my fancy camera at each birth, adjust the settings for the lighting, and encourage everyone to use it. I would have to check and see who even took this shot….one of the other midwives.”

Meehleis has attended many births, and had her own father at her second birth as well. Generally, she cautions women from having too many people at their first delivery. Every person adds an hour to labor, is the adage she shares with them. By second delivery women are more confident, and the room generally opens up. “What I learned with Steph is that she already had that innate trust in her body, and once I met her family members, I realized that there wouldn’t be any issue with so many people being there.”

Tarnofsky’s voice is heavy with emotion as he describes Johnathon’s birth as just the start of their vision for their family. Right now, both sets of grandparents live across the country from Hendel and Tarnofsky in Los Angeles. But the couple have a vision of a multigenerational family house. Having everyone at their home after the birth was an amazing experience, full of support and love for the new family of three. “Our intention is to have one massive house, where people can flow in and out to visit, like a family community house,” says Tarnofsky. His sister Caroline already lives with the couple, which Hendel loves because it is like having a nanny and a best friend all rolled into one.

Do they want more kids? The day of the interview is their one-year wedding anniversary, and Tarnofsky jokes that he will have to “earmuff” Hendel from this part of the conversation. “She is still healing, so it’s a lot to think about. But we want at least one more child."

One thing they are both certain about, though, is that along with extended family, Lindsay’s team from Orange County Midwifery will be at their next birth. “It was like we had a team of angels in the room — I might cry just talking about it.”

Meehleis is clearly moved by his emotion. After 15 years of midwifery, “it is such an honor and blessing that I pinch myself daily," she says.

"I get invited into these sacred spaces and it's so life-changing, these connections that I can never describe.”