Birth photography the Netherlands

If you see the title of this story then you’ll probably think; ‘what on earth?’ This is the remarkable and beautiful story of a homebirth in Geleen inLimburg, but before I begin with that, I need to go back in time.

It’s February, I’m standing with Jeanette at the ‘9 month exhibition’, and I’ve just decided to take a break when Jeanette calls “I’ve got two people here who want to know more about birth photography!” I hurry back and meet Sanne and her mother Carla. They’re really enthusiastic about my photos but the question is will I travel to where they live: Geleen? To be honest, as a Zeelandgirl, I don’t really know where Geleen is (Limburgsomewhere, is about my best guess) but, I do know that Sittard is exactly on my 2 hour driving distance limit. Sarah, a midwife who has been following me on Facebook since I started out, lives in Sittard. She’s always enthusiastic about my work and regularly directs her pregnant patients to my site to get some idea about giving birth from the stories and pictures. Geleen turns out to be rather close to Sittard and, more coincidentally, Sarah turns out to be a good friend of Sanne’s and will be overseeing the birth! Brilliant news, I finally get to meet Sarah! While we are talking, Carla (Sanne’s mum) tells me that Sanne and her husband Deivy will be getting the birth photography as a gift from her. It’s such a touching, lovely moment that all four of us have tears in our eyes.

At the exhibition we get to know each other a little and we seem to click. Sanne will try to come toZeelandwith Deivy, but if that doesn’t work out then I’ll be meeting him on the big day. Sanne tells me that Deivy is from Italy and that at first they lived there together, they still speak Italian together, but now that they’ve been inHollandfor three years, his Dutch is getting a bit better.

After the exhibition, I decide to email Sarah to say how great I think it will be to get to meet her. She doesn’t reply straight away, and when she does it’s not good news. She starts out positive enough, she’s looking forward to the birth and the fact that it will be photographed but she has something to tell me too, and it’s important I know from the start. Her 35 year old husband to be has been diagnosed that week with leukaemia. Their life has been turned upside down. I read the story with shivers down my spine. She writes that she and Gerzon always saw a day when they themselves would become parents somewhere on the horizon and had thought that, should it ever happen, I should photograph the birth. This will make the birth of Sanne’s baby extra emotional for her.

In the time that follows (March and April 2012), I follow the story closely. Sarah starts a Facebook group for Gerzon, to try to find a stem cell donor. They look for whatever publicity they can and they also decide to get married a month earlier. At the same time Sanne’s pregnancy is going really well and her due date, the 1st of May gets closer and closer.

On the 26th of April the time comes. Carla calls to say that Sanne has already had cramps all night and that it is now beginning to look more and more like real contractions. Plenty of time in between contractions for now, but at least I’m prepared. By4pm Sarah is on the phone; 2 cms dilated: I decided to get driving.

At6.30pmI arrive in Geleen. I’m sure I’m at the right house, but I see a face I recognise through the window: Gerzon. I recognise him from all the photos and the You tube film they made to attract attention to stem cell donation. The door is opened by a young man whom I don’t know. He’s wearing gloves that look a bit whitish. I’m confused. Midwives’ gloves can look a bit whitish after an internal! Once I get inside, it slowly dawns on me what he’s doing. This is Deivy, the father to be, and he is making pizza! Fresh, real Italian pizza. Wow, I have landed on my feet! I gather from Gerzon that Deivy and Sanne were supposed to be making pizza at his and Sarah’s place today. Gerzon had said, “the baby will arrive after the pizzas” and it looks like he was right. I go upstairs and finally meet Sarah. She’s just broken the waters and Sanne is 4 cms dilated. Carla (Sanne’s mother) is supporting her and is finding it pretty tense herself. Not surprising, she’s about to become a grandmother for the first time.

I decide to first take photos of the dad downstairs who’s wrapped up in the pizza. It’s not often that the kitchen is turned upside down and that the father to be is making pizza rather than sitting next to his wife. He is so nervous it’s touching. He tells stories in his broken Dutch and at the same time he’s preparing everything, he says ‘I get tranquilo when I’m cooking’. He’s overwhelmed; he’s going to be a dad. He’s even planning to deliver the baby in the last moments himself: good on him! Then he starts to talk about theDominican Republicwhere he grew up (I was already confused by the blanket from theDominican Republicthat was lying ready in the baby room; I thought he was fromItaly). In fact, he came toItalywhen he was ten, with his mother, brother and sister after his father disappeared without a trace from one day to the next. What a horrible story. He says that his father is with him in spirit and that later he’ll be watchingSofia’s birth from behind his photo. Lovely.

I go upstairs again. Sanne had said in advance that she wanted to be made up for the photos. But, she’s been having contractions since 1.30 in the morning and somehow hasn’t found the right moment to get dolled up! Now and again, Sarah asks flippantly, ‘do you want to put your make up on now?’ Eventually, between contractions, it is Sarah that makes sure that Sanne is looking her best for the photo shoot. Now, not many women can say that they got a mid-labour make over from their midwife. Sanne is finding it tough, but she’s doing really well. If there is such a thing as an innate gift for breathing exercises then Sanne has it. Carla tells us that Sanne hadn’t really been to anti-natal classes. She went twice, decided the women only went there to complain about pregnancy niggles and that it wasn’t for her. So, she really is a natural talent. Sarah is laying everything out ready, and together we do final checks of the bed and the lighting (Carla has brought a lamp from her house, which we have commandeered as the birth lamp). Everything is set, we are ready.

We try to encourage Deivy to come upstairs but, at this moment, the pizza is his life, his distraction. He had intended to make pizza for Gerzon, so he’s making pizza, too nervous to do anything else. Eventually we steer him upstairs where Sanne has only one thing to say: “get in the shower, you stink of pizza.” He starts to look totally desperate, the pizza is not ready yet, and now he has to shower and he has to stay upstairs! He goes back downstairs and when I catch up with him fifteen minutes later, he’s fiddling with the pizza again! One of them is ready so we boot him back up the stairs. Gerzon, the Grandpa to be and I tuck into the pizza (I’m secretly pleased it got finished because this is delicious pizza). Davy pops downstairs in his towel to check that it tastes okay. “Get lost Daddy! Up stairs! Shoo!”

From that moment on, he’s upstairs and he’s not leaving. It’s8pmand Sanne is 6cm dilated lying on her left side. The baby doesn’t have her chin to her chest and Sarah is hoping that this position will help spur her on. The contractions are stronger and Sanne’s finding it hard to breathe them away. To make matters worse, she has to go to the toilet, which is downstairs. With help from Deivy, her Mum and Sarah she gets there. Slowly, she starts to feel a sensation of pressure. When she’s back upstairs, after a great effort, she really feels the need to push and she’s right, we can see the baby’s hair. It’s9.20pm

She lies back down on the bed and soon we can see the head. Just before his daughter is born, Deivy looks to the heavens, as if he’s saying a speedy prayer, or maybe he’s thinking of his father. Unfortunately, next to the head there is a little hand, Sarah has to free it, but then Deivy can take hold of his daughter and hand her to Sanne. It’s a beautiful, special moment. In the presence of Grandma and Grandpa, Gerzon (who came upstairs with Grandpa at the last moment) and Sarah,Sofiais born at9.33pm. She is perfect.

There’s laughter and tears and everyone is mighty proud. Deivy ringsItaly, bursting with pride, he’s hugging everyone, running around like a headless chicken and says that Sarah and Gerzon are to be godparents to littleSofia. Or maybe Sanne said that, I don’t know, there’s so much going off. Grandma can’t take her eyes off her granddaughter andGrandpa is edging closer for a better look! Everyone is congratulating each other.

Sanne makes the next hour exciting, the placenta doesn’t arrive straight away. So,Sofiais put to the breast to try to encourage the placenta to come away.Sofia, like her mum, is a natural and guzzles away at the breast immediately. The placenta is still keeping us waiting. In a homebirth you can wait for an hour, but after that you have to be admitted to hospital. Sarah, the homecare maternity nurse, and I exchange occasional looks and hope and pray that the placenta will arrive. At exactly 10.33PM, an hour to the very minute later, the placenta is delivered… phew!

In the meantime the news of Sofia’s birth has spread like wild fire and there seems to be rather a lot of people downstairs. Sarah suggests bringing them upstairs now so that Sanne and Deivy can have some quality time as a couple when they’ve gone. She’ll do the checks under the watchful eye of the visitors. I think it strange, she’s talking as if the living room is rammed full. But as one person after another comes upstairs, it seems this really is the case. The whole room is packed out, unbelievable, I’ve never seen the likes of it before. To chorus of ‘ohs and ahs’, the occasional tear, and Sarah explaining as she goes along, allSofia’s checks are carried out. The conclusion is; she’s perfect! She’s dressed and then Deivy picks her up, walks towards Gerzon and handsSofia to him. The room falls silent, you could hear a pin drop. At the other side of the room, there are big hugs for Sarah and a few people start to cry. I wonder if there’s something wrong with my auto focus, everything’s gone blurry. The auto focus is fine, I just have tears in my eyes too. This lovely touching moment is also a harsh reminder. I hope with all my heart that the next time I’m in the area I’ll be photographing the birth of Sarah and Gerzon’s baby.

I stay longer than usual, the times flies by. I make great pictures ofSofiaand we chat about how the birth went. A couple of weeks ago I gave away an ‘Epi-no’ on my website, a devise promising a shorter second phase of delivery and to reduce the chance of cuts or tears. Sanne’s ten minutes of pushing were indeed pretty short for a first delivery, but when a baby’s hand appears next to their head, tearing is unavoidable. How the birth might have gone without that we’ll never know. But, Sanne found the exercises with the Epi-no a positive experience.

When I eventually do say my goodbyes, I get big hugs from everyone. What a lovely warm family this is. Downstairs, Deivy is at it with the pizzas again; shame I have to drive all the way back to Middelburg or I’d be hanging around for another of the delicious pizzas.

What a privilege to be in Geleen with such lovely people; Sanne, Deivy, Carla, Sarah and Gerzon. Thank you all for your amazing hospitality. I hope you all enjoy this beautiful little miracle together and Sarah en Gerzon: I wish you strength and better days ahead.

NB the photo where Gerzon and I are enjoying the yummy pizza was taken by Sarah.