Giving Mom & Baby A Moment In The Golden Hour

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Photo by Brandi Johnson

We talk about witnessing birth, but not so much about supporting it. Providing emotional or spiritual care after delivery is not on the obstetric checklist, and many mothers don't know what they are missing as pediatric staff bustle about cleaning and weighing the baby, family members rush in, and bright lights are shone on birth wounds. There is a different way, though. As a birth worker, I have photographed countless women who observe the "golden hour" — a time for mom and baby to bond, uninterrupted.

The golden hour is often referred to in photography as the moment in which the waning sun gives a warm glow to the world; that is exactly how I have felt capturing this moment of transformation for families. It is a time of firsts: the first time a mother meets her child, holds her child; the first time she nurses. Skin-to-skin contact following delivery has been shown to have significant benefits for the baby, including "greater respiratory, temperature, and glucose stability and significantly less crying indicating decreased stress," according to Medscape. Skin-to-skin contact also benefits the mother, with "increased maternal behaviors," greater confidence, and longer duration of breastfeeding." But I believe the transformation taking place is more profound and intuitive than an analysis of biometrics can convey.

We got to enjoy our beautiful baby girl in the peace and comfort of the bed that my husband built, wrapped up in warm blankets with our arms around each other and the miracle that was just born. Isn't that how it should be?
Photo by Brandi Johnson

The women I have worked with often reported a powerful surge of energy after birth and hold ecstatic memories of their golden hours, especially for those whose previous births didn't honor their birth space, or their bodies. I was honored to be a part of this moment for them, and hope that these pictures will speak to the vulnerabilities of new mothers, and the real opportunity we have to provide better support during the postpartum facet of women's lives.

Photo by Brandi Johnson

Jennifer, pictured above, had her first child in a birthing center, and wanted a more comfortable setting for delivery of her second child. She recalls that her home birth allowed her more time to soak in the early postpartum moments: "We were sent home in an ice storm within hours of my first son, Arthur's, birth as bewildered first-time parents, but with Nora's birth, we already were home. I caught her with my own hands, sitting on a birth chair between my closet and bathroom, and held her until it was time to weigh and measure her."

The time Jennifer was afforded to come to terms with her delivery made all the difference, she says. "And once everyone left in the wee hours of the morning, we got to enjoy our beautiful baby girl in the peace and comfort of the bed that my husband built, wrapped up in warm blankets with our arms around each other and the miracle that was just born," she tells me. "Isn't that how it should be?"

Photo by Brandi Johnson

For Sarah, her baby's journey earthside was fast, intense, and unexpected, as the midwife had not yet arrived. She tells me, "Those next few moments, the awe and the surprise, they were surreal." She recalls a profound adjustment, "reckoning with an unassisted birth, disbelievingly holding this perfectly pink little chunk of heaven, [and] feeling like a warrior queen who was also very hungry."

It was the single-most incredible moment, more than the birth itself.

For Sarah, it was important to include her older daughter in the moment. "I was desperate for my first daughter to come back quickly, to meet her sister," she says, "for us to snuggle in our family bed, together for the first time." She recalls a "rush of emotion" when her two children met.

For Sarah, that moment solidified their new family structure. "It was the single-most incredible moment, more than the birth itself — the fusing of our new normal. I will forever be grateful for that time, those few ethereal moments in which our little world readjusted itself to fit us all in, as if there had never been anything else."

Photo by Brandi Johnson

In this moment, Jennifer lays in bed with her new family as her son Arthur meets his little sister, Nora.

It is an honor to be invited to a birth, be it as a birth photographer, friend, or family member, because the woman is trusting me with the most significant journey of her life. I believe that it is a truly spiritual occasion, and my job is, essentially, to be with her. To witness. To observe. To provide whatever it is she needs in this moment.

It feels surreal to be able to capture the moments a family grows and bonds with one another. The magic in the room is palatable.

Photo by Brandi Johnson

Mallory, mother of Henley Aurora, recalls the moment of transition as "drifting between worlds." She felt the energy of her child's entry into the world but also an urge to draw inward. She tells me, "My first instinct was to bring our child to my chest, for this is the closest place to her old home. My body, mind and spirit was flooded with a love I have never experienced prior."

For Mallory, the golden hour set the foundation for connection: "In the following hour, we as a family built a new and beautiful bond. Floating in a sea of oxytocin, our dynamic as a family was forever changed, for which I am eternally grateful."

Photo by Brandi Johnson

What we know about birth is largely to be afraid — of our emotions, of the pain, of our vulnerability. But we women do know something about birth — I think there is knowledge inside all mothers. This is why it is so important to hold a space for women giving birth, and allow them the time they need to process the moment and begin to heal.

Photo by Brandi Johnson

Sarah had an accidental unassisted birth with her second daughter, Sienna Moon. A midwife-assisted home birth was always the plan, and her doula happened to be a midwifery student, but none of us expected Sarah to progress as quickly as she did, and out of nowhere.

When her primal instincts took over and we heard the grunting, we knew it was time. Sarah knew what to do and gave birth without permission, problems, interruptions, or worries. She trusted her body and let nature take over. Sienna was born in just two pushes, Sarah surrounded by her friends and husband. As we showered her with love and support, she delivered the placenta with her newborn attached to her breast.

Sarah's birth was exactly how it should be: undisturbed. And just as important was the peace she felt while we gave her the space every new family deserves after birth. Lily Rose, their toddler, was every bit a part of these precious moments. Her golden hour was foundational for becoming a family of four.

Photo by Brandi Johnson

These stories belong to women who had a sense of what they wanted their births to be — they gave birth outside of hospitals, and for many, it was not their first baby. But in sharing these photographs, I want to make a case that all mothers deserve this level of care and attention in the hour after birth. I believe it can make all the difference.

You don't need to give birth out of hospital to guarantee an undisturbed golden hour. In fact, more hospitals are changing their policies to recognize this essential moment of post-birth bliss, allowing delayed cord clamping, delayed bathing of the infant (unless this takes place on the mother), and encouraging immediate attempts to nurse.

Photo by Brandi Johnson

These little leaps forward give me heart. There is a crisis of care taking place in the United States. Here, the maternal mortality rate is still rising, having already shot well above every other developed country to 26.4 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. We don't know how to talk about the needs, issues, and realities that women face postpartum. From the moment a woman gives birth, the focus is on her baby. Those who deliver in hospitals stay as little as 24 hours, returning home to a dearth of care. There, they often feel unprepared for the long healing process, and for the emotions that accompany this major transition.

We can do a better job of honoring the journey women take from pregnancy through delivery and into motherhood by observing the moments after childbirth with compassion. We can put aside medical checklists and ask: how can we be there for mothers — and babies — in this hour?

Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.