Do you want to marry my Mummy? | Birth photography in Belgium

When Peggy called me to find out about birth photography for her girlfriend Nannerl who was pregnant, I wasn’t sure if she was ringing about ‘a girlfriend’ or ‘her girlfriend’. Always an awkward moment 🙂 . It was a good chat and soon afterwards she called back to say they’d like to come along for an introductory meeting. Once I got their details, it was clear to me that they were a couple.

Soon after the conversation they travelled from Belgium to meet me. We clicked straight away. It was a nice, open conversation, not what I expected of Belgians (based on Dutch jokes!) 😉 At that time, Nannerl was already 35 weeks pregnant and she had a gorgeous bump. The love between Nannerl and Peggy was immediately obvious. It was in the little things, the looks between them, little touches and things they said. It made me happy to see it! Peggy explains that Nannerl was pregnant with her egg which had been fertilized by a donor. Peggy already had a nine year old daughter, Jill, from an earlier relationship and in this way, she would be getting a little brother with the same mother but Nannerl could carry the baby and bring him into the world. Peggy had carried Jill herself and she was born nine years ago via a caesarean section. Nannerl and Peggy wanted to have the same donor they had had for Jill for this pregnancy, but in Belgium there is a limit to the number of women one donor is allowed to fertilize. Because it was nine years ago that Jill was conceived, he had reached his maximum and they were forced to choose another donor. Otherwise, Jill would have had a full blood brother. I found it a beautiful story and, doing it like this, you really are having a baby together, despite the fact that you’re both women. A great story and I can understand why Jill cannot wait until he arrives. <3

Nannerl says during our chat that she wanted to give birth with an epidural. She said herself that she had a low pain threshold and couldn’t stand the thought of the pain. It was already arranged that if she were to be overdue, her due date was the 1st of May, then she would be induced on the 6th of May. This is Peggy’s birthday. This is what they really wanted, they knew that they would get an epidural then too.

Not long after this conversation, Peggy rang me up and told me that, after the birth, she wanted to ask Nannerl to marry her!! She had made a bib and wanted to put in on their son soon after the birth to ask Nannerl if she would marry her. What a great idea! It was such a great conversation, and now I was really excited about the birth.

A week later it turns out that the hospital in which they wanted to give birth only allows one person to accompany women in the delivery room and that therefore, I wouldn’t be allowed to take photos. They were really disappointed and tried everything to see if I could be there after all (good on them), but the hospital stuck to its rule. Therefore, they changed their hospital and gynaecologist at the last minute so that I could be there. It’s great that they’ve chosen this for themselves and have driven through their own wishes. It’s my opinion that you should be able to give birth as you wish and not as a hospital might push you to.

I don’t know if it came from the conversation, or just a feeling, but I really thought that the birth wouldn’t begin by itself and that it would be induced on the 6th of May. I had already secretly taken this into account and had made various plans for a sunny weekend off before the 6th. Women who are so certain they want an epidural usually ask for one straight away, so I also thought that that was a given.

So, I’m totally caught off guard when Peggy rings me up at 6.22am on the morning of Saturday 4th May to tell me that the contractions have started! The midwife hasn’t been yet, so I ask Peggy to call me back when there’s more news. I don’t have any more to prepare for the day ahead, so I can just go back to sleep. At 9am Peggy rings me back, not much has changed and the midwife didn’t think it was necessary to come yet, but the contractions are getting stronger. Peggy tells me that Nannerl is doing really well but that she’s not sure if she can keep it up because the contractions are already quite strong. I get everything ready for when I have to start driving and that turns out to be sooner than I expected. At 10.15am Nannerl is 4cms dilated. Wow, that’s good! Especially because they had expected to be in the hospital by now and asking for the epidural. So there you go; you can never predict how a birth is going to go.

Whilst I’m in the car I get a text to say that there’s already 6cms dilation! That’s quick going! Still. I expect there’ll be a slow down because, just before the birth, the baby was not actually lying correctly. He was a stargazer. Stargazers need more room to come out and often the dilations sticks at 7 or 8 cm.

I get to the hospital at 11.45. Nannerl is in the shower and she’s doing really well. She gets through the contractions really calmly and isn’t talking about an epidural anymore. Is this the woman who, during our chat, said that she had a low pain threshold?! Now, after today, she can’t say that about herself anymore. 😉

It is very busy in the hospital and at the moment only the independent midwife is there, the one who was with them at home. At midday she checks the dilation and it’s still the same for Nannerl. The midwife suggests that she sits straight up in bed. Not a comfy position for Nannerl but she tries her best to do it. You can see that it’s getting tougher for her now, but still she doesn’t say one word about the epidural.

Quarter of an hour later Jill walks in with rosy cheeks. Full of pride, she tells us that she scored two goals at hockey. Beforehand, Jill had said that she didn’t want to be at the birth but, now that she’s there, she actually doesn’t want to leave. We look at a birth album together and I explain to her exactly what’s going to happen. Jill already knows all about it and says that she doesn’t understand why people want to have babies when it hurts so much. She doesn’t want that in any case and if she were to be pregnant then she would bring her child into the world with a caesarean. What a shrewd young lady she is and not at all shy, it’s great to be with her! 🙂

In the following hour Nannerl finds it harder and harder. It is therefore decided to move labour rooms (as it’s called in Belgium) to one with a bath, to see if that brings any relief. In the meantime I go with Jill to reception to sort out a few things. We chat about all sorts of things, about the funny Dutch accent (hang on, you mean the funny Belgian accent), about how the Dutch always order “fries with” and that they mean “with mayonnaise”. Peggy and Nannerl have a chip shop as the British call it or a ‘frituur’ as they say in Belgium. We talk about hockey and the great Dutch women’s eleven (Jill knows more about them than I do) and naturally about how excited she is to see her little brother. When we get back to the room Nannerl is in the bath, she’s still finding it hard and that is hard for Jill to see. She can’t really stand to see Nannerl in so much pain and she looks on regularly with worried eyes, or she strokes Nannerl’s head really sweetly. As a distraction, she and Peggy play with the electrically operated moving chair in the room and Jill plays a few games on the Ipad.

In the meantime, Nannerl can’t get through the contractions with her breathing exercises alone anymore. I try to help her a bit, but I don’t want to be too much in the foreground. This is not my role and there are two midwives in the room, but it’s hard not to say or do anything when you see that someone is in so much pain. (Nannerl tells me later that she did find my help useful, which is nice!) It’s gone 1pm and Nannerl is getting to the point that she doesn’t think she can take much more and really wants an epidural. She comes out of the bath and a line is put in. There is one more feel to see if the epidural is necessary and that’s a good thing too because she’s 10cms dilated!!! Wow, that’s great! Certainly given that he’s still a stargazer. You go Nannerl!!! It’s now 13.20.

The epidural is scrapped and we head for the delivery room (this is another room again, in Belgium). The room makes me really happy because almost all around it are windows and it’s really enormous. Jill rides along on the bed. She is finding it all really interesting, even though it wasn’t the plan, her presence is as if it was meant to be. At 13.30pm Nannerl begins to push. The gynaecologist has been called away at that moment and isn’t there. Unlike in the Netherlands, in Belgium a gynaecologist oversees the final stage of delivery. Jill undoubtedly finds this part of the birth less stressful and really interesting. She and Peggy can already see a bit of his hair and the looks between them are indescribable :-).

Just before 1pm the gynaecologist comes in and he’s not happy that there’s a child there. I understand why, but the way the Jill is sent out of the room could have been different. Poor girl. Now she has to wait in the room or on the corridor on her own. It’s a shame. From that moment the atmosphere takes a turn for the worse. The baby is not doing so well and doesn’t really seem to be able to fit through the birth canal. The gynaecologist, (who is otherwise really friendly) tries to motivate Nannerl to push harder, but she’s pushing with all her strength. Naturally it doesn’t help that he doesn’t explain very well. It’s decided to push on the bump. I have never seen this before, but the force with which her bump is pushed on is enormous and Nannerl doesn’t flinch. But, it doesn’t work. At a given moment, the midwife who’s pushing on her bump doesn’t have the strength for it anymore. So she is switched for the midwife who came with them from home. She doesn’t push hard enough (can you imagine) so someone else is brought in who sits by the head end of the bed and pushes with her full weight on Nannerl during a contraction. I keep an eye on Peggy because this is really not pleasant to watch and that doesn’t go unnoticed. There are at least 5 other people besides Peggy in the room and you notice that it mustn’t take much longer. I say a quick prayer that everything will be alright. There’s a cut made, but still no baby…I start to get breathless. There’s even harder pushing, more encouragement, more pushing on the bump, more pulling on her legs to keep them open and finally at 14.21 a little boy is born. But he is weak and is very white, it’s a horrible sight. Nonetheless, I see two happy faces, two proud mummies, until they realise that it’s not going well and the baby is also taken away immediately to the room next door. In the first instance I’m not allowed to go along to take photographs but Peggy does go to watch. It really seems to take an eternity and it seems like my heart is beating 3 times as fast as normal until, thank God, I hear him cry. I ask if I can take photos and I can. He really is beautiful. And I’m so happy that he moves, breathes, cries and looks pink! (Later when I’m editing the photos I see that the time between taking him away and him crying took 2 minutes, but heavens they were the longest minutes ever!) He can stay very briefly with his mummies and then he gets taken to neonatology. When the door of the labour room opens Jill is sitting there. Peggy walks up to her and gives her a big hug and there are tears in her eyes. In the background the midwife walks off with Lou. Jill hasn’t seen him :-(.

I walk back inside again, but straight away someone from the ward asks if somebody can come and stay with Jill. It seems best that Peggy stays with Nannerl, so I go to Jill. She’s still sitting on a bed on the corridor with her heart in her stomach, It’s a shame. We go back to the room together and I show her some photos of Lou on my camera (in which he’s doing well). She asks lots of questions and I explain that it was really difficult for Nannerl to get him out because he was in an unusual position and that that’s why he was helped by the gynaecologist with a vacuum pump. To explain what that is, I make a link with a toilet plunger. Well, that’s what it looks like. Slowly she perks up and soon after that Peggy is back in the room because she is going to see Lou and naturally we are going too. Sadly, there’s another disappointment for Jill here, she’s actually not allowed to go inside neonatology. Only the parents are allowed. So no photos either. L Of course Lou is lying quite far from the window so we can only see his little feet thrashing around. I set my camera on the ‘easy setting’ and I give it to Peggy with a few instructions. It’s daytime and the light is perfect, if she takes enough photos there’s bound to be some good ones in there (and that turns out to be the case, she can always start a 2nd career). 🙂

At 3pm Nannerl is back in the room and we go there too. Peggy talks about little Lou, full of pride and she’s frustrated for Jill that she couldn’t be there. Despite the fact that Lou isn’t with them, Peggy and Nannerl are over the moon, they are glowing! Lou’s first observations are good, so with a bit of luck he can come to the room soon, therefore I decide not to go anywhere for the time being. We move from the room all together and Nannerl can go in a wheel chair to Lou to see if she can breast feed him. The hospital had just tried to express some milk but that hadn’t worked yet. Latching on should work better, naturally. Nannerl seems to feel okay but she has the idea that she’s bleeding. Now, that doesn’t stop straight away, so that can be normal. When we arrive at neonatology, Jill and I have to wait in the corridor again. So, after a while I give Peggy the camera again. She and Nannerl have to wait a long time before anyone comes to help them with Lou and it’s boiling hot inside. When Lou in finally lying in Nannerls arms for the first time and she tries to feed him she doesn’t feel well. I see it coming. She goes deathly pale and despite the fact that she doesn’t faint, you can see that she’s no longer with it. Lou is quickly put back in the incubator and we all practically run across the corridor with the wheelchair to a bed.  When Nannerl steps from the wheelchair into the bed she loses so much blood despite the ‘pampers’ she’s wearing. Once she’s lying flat again, she’s okay. It all took too long, and that in combination with the heat was just too much. When they come to check on her, Jill and I are sent out of the room again, so we sit together on the corridor again. We become best mates in the meantime and we sit and chat together. I’m happy that she’s there, it’s nice. J When we’re allowed back in the room, Jill calls family and friends to tell them that she’s got a baby brother. When people ask if it went well she says that it was difficult and that he was brought into the world with a toilet plunger! Whahahahaha! Peggy goes to see Lou again and Nannerl is just lying on the bed, glowing. She says she’s proud of herself that she managed it without an epidural. Rightly so. Quite a power woman! Meanwhile, Jill makes sure that Nannerl looks good again and brushes her hair. She also gets a very cool t-shirt, which she displays with pride and they busy themselves with the book that they had running in the frituur. Everyone put in money to guess the when the baby would arrive and his weight and length. Someone has come very close with 4th of May (spot on), 2750gm (he is 2770gm) and 48cm (he’s 46cm). It turns out to be Nannerl’s sister! I keep hoping that Lou can come out of the incubator; because it’s just that his temperature is a bit low. He only weighs 2770gm and small babies have more difficulty with this in general. I wait until 18.30 but it seems that Lou is not able to come onto the ward. I’m gutted. It’s so strange to end a birth photo shoot without any baby photos and not to mention the marriage proposal that isn’t going ahead :-(. I agree with Nannerl and Peggy that I’ll come back the next day. On the corridor, Peggy and I talk about the proposal, and even if Lou is already in the room she’s going to wait until I’m there so I can take photos.

I drive away on a bit of a downer and hope that everything will turn out right! That evening at 20.45 I get a text to say that Lou is in the room, so that’s good (though of course now I wish that I had stayed). We agreed that I’ll come tomorrow before visiting hours. Great, then we can talk, I can admire Lou and there’ll be a spot for a special moment that Nannerl doesn’t know about.


On Sunday the 5th of May, just before I want to leave, I get a message from Peggy: “wait a bit before you set off, because they’ve had to put Nannerl under again because she was bleeding too much. I’ll keep you posted”. Oh no, what bad news :-(. I hope they find the reason soon. I install myself in the garden in the sun and let Peggy know that I’ll set off when it’s possible. It takes quite a long time before I hear anything, two and a half hours later I get a message from Peggy that Nannerl is not back on the ward yet. But they do at least know that she’d had a tear in her cervix and that’s why she was bleeding so much. They have given her 3 litres of blood, which is quite something.  Eventually at 13.30, Nannerl is back on the ward but then the visitors are already queuing at the door. We agree that, if Nannerl feels well enough, I’ll come in the early evening.

That evening at 18.45 I get back to the hospital. Baby Lou is lying under a heat lamp with sunglasses on because he was looking a bit yellow. Otherwise he’s doing really well and it’s great to get to see him. Nannerl does look a bit tired (not surprising), but a lot better than when I left yesterday. It’s good to see. We talk a bit about yesterday, while I take photos of Lou. He’s is so alert, that it seems just like he’s just been born. He’s taking in the world around him very wisely! And then the moment comes to get him dressed. Nannerl is watching everything closely, so at some point Peggy asks her to look away. I don’t know who’s more nervous, Peggy or me! 🙂 She gets the bib out with the words “will you marry my Mummy?” and puts it on Lou. Then Nannerl is allowed to open her eyes. She looks with a big smile from Peggy to Lou and back again and I hear her say very softly, “of course.” What a lovely moment <3

They also have really cool rings. They’d chosen them together as presents for when Lou was born, but Nannerl didn’t know they’d be used in this way! Inside the rings are the initials of Nannerl, Peggy, Jill and Lou and if you put them together, they fit exactly. The picture is complete. It’s as it should be.

Dear Nannerl, Peggy and lovely, smart Jill: I wish you every happiness with little Lou!

The next day – Sunday May 5th