If you’ve read any of these so far, you’ll know I don’t really tell short stories and this one is no exception. This is also the most personal of my photography stories so far. So, don’t say I didn’t warn you. 🙂
When I’m not taking photos, I’m a preschool teacher. Apart from photography, I have to say that it’s one of the best jobs in the world. Yes, we don’t get paid a massive amount, there is stress and pressure and tough days but there are also days where the laughter just doesn’t stop. The feeling you get when you know you helped a child realise a new talent or achieve a new goal. It’s priceless, absolutely priceless.
It also meant that even before I had my own, I got very good at photographing children. I learnt how to anticipate the moments, how to keep up with their energy and their play. Working with children means I know how to connect with children – pretty vital for a children’s photographer, huh? I know how to break down the barrier that a camera can put between you and a child so you get genuine smiles and not confused, furrowed brows and mistrustful expressions.
But all that? That’s not why I want to photograph your family. It’s part of why I like to think I’m a great children’s photographer but that’s not what I want to share with you today.
So, let’s look back five years (I can’t honestly believe it’s been five years! How is that possible?!) or maybe, just over five years would be better. I was pregnant, with our first child. Arguably one of the most exciting and terrifying times in a young woman’s life. My husband and I were decorating the nursery, we had furniture shipped over from the UK, we were planning. We were planning so much. Things we were going to do with our little one, places we’d take them, things we’d teach them. We bought a shiny new camera to take photos of our little one. Add to all that the fact that not only was I having my first child, I was having my first child in a foreign country.
My due date came and went and my blood pressure was rising, they also discovered at that point that baby was breech. That means they were pointing the wrong way for those who might not have experience of the term. Baby was sitting on their bottom rather than being head first ready to make their entrance into the world. All of which meant they thought it best to admit me to hospital and try to induce me.
That didn’t really work. I was having zero contractions, zero anything and so with still rising blood pressure they decided a c-section was the best option for all concerned.
True to form, even that didn’t go exactly to plan. I was told I’d have my c-section the following morning at 9am which would give my husband, Mark, time to walk the dog and get to the hospital. So I was awoken at 7am by a smiley nurse who brought me my backless gown and cap and informed me the lady scheduled for her c-section before me had had her baby naturally in the night. Yay for her! That meant I’d be the first operation of the day…at 7.30!
PANIC! I had to phone Mark and tell him to get to the hospital pronto. We didn’t have a car than so he had to sprint around with the dog and try to jump on a bus!
Somehow he made it and soon we were minutes away from meeting our baby. After a little while, although it was probably longer than I remember, we heard a cry. It was all very ‘Wizard of Oz’, a voice muffled by a face mask announced from beside my head that it was a boy. We cried happily and kissed and prepared to meet our son. Then a louder voice from behind the green curtain called out, “No, it’s a girl!” This is perhaps why the nurse at my head worked on this side of the curtain and not at the other end. It was a girl, we saw her and we cried more before Mark was called over to wash little Evelyn. I couldn’t believe it. We were parents and we had a beautiful little girl.
After a few days in the hospital to make she and I were ok to go home, we brought our daughter home for the first time. She was so small and so quiet, her cry was so soft you could barely hear it. We had three wonderful days with her at home, starting to find our own little routines, and then suddenly something wasn’t right.
In the early hours of her eighth day of life I woke up to her whining a little and got ready to feed her but she wouldn’t feed. I tried for a while and then she drifted back to sleep without taking anything. I figured she’d wake up again soon enough when she was hungry and went back to sleep myself. By morning she still hadn’t taken any milk and was still making this unsettling whining sound. There was something wrong.
I had a nurses appointment that morning to check on my c-section and so I took her with me and asked the nurse to take a look at her. She checked her temperature under her arm, finding no trace of fever, and said if I was worried to take her to the hospital to be looked at. Obviously worried that my tiny baby hadn’t eaten in almost 12 hours I pushed the pram around the corner and waited for a bus. By the time I got to the hospital I was feeling really awful, I was so nervous and worried. There was a queue for the check in window so I took her down to the far end of the hall and tried to feed her again. I was convinced if I could get her to feed then we’d be able to go home. But she didn’t.
Trying not to cry I went back to the check in desk and explained that my baby wouldn’t feed. The nurse didn’t look that concerned until I mentioned it was her eighth day of life. Then her expression changed. She told me to sit down and a doctor would be with me shortly. I texted Mark saying we were going to see a doctor and that I’d come to meet him after to let him know how we’d got on. I still thought we’d be going home in an hour or so.
We were ushered into a room but instead of one doctor there were three, which soon jumped up to five and a lot of worrying looking machines were pushed into the room.
There was a lot of Finnish flying back and forth, some I understood, some I didn’t. I had a nurse gently suggesting, “Maybe Mummy would like to wait outside.” I replied tersely, “Maybe Mummy would like to know what’s going on!”
They hooked her up to a heart monitor and were putting blood pressure cuffs on. Another doctor squeezed into the room. I could feel tears starting to fall down my face and all I wanted to do was hug her.
Then I heard the sound of the heart monitor flatline and they said I had to leave the room.
I was so scared. I’ve never ever been that scared. I phoned Mark in floods of tears telling him he had to get to the hospital, that something was really wrong.
The next few hours were horrible. We were in the relatives room with no idea what was happening to Evie, where she was, what they were doing. We just kept crying and hugging and wondering what we’d done wrong. Phoning our families back home, trying to get flights for our mothers to fly over the next day.
Then, sometime in the afternoon, the doctor came in and sat down. It was her heart. She’d been born with two rare conditions that he assured us were not something anyone could have found before that day. She was missing one of the arteries that took blood away from the heart and down to her lower body (Interrupted Aortic Arch) and there was also a hole between one of the other veins and arteries. She would need surgery down in Helsinki as soon as possible to rebuild the missing section and the patch the hole. It sounded so simple in one way and terrifying in another. She was so small, her heart even tinier.
The next few weeks were the most challenging of our lives. Our mothers flew over from the UK the next day to meet their little granddaughter in ICU. At that point we didn’t know what was going to happen. We had to wait for a week until they had a space for her down in Helsinki and then she was flown down by air ambulance, we followed on the train. She had heart surgery when she was two weeks old and from then on she made a miraculous recovery. She ‘woke up’ on Father’s Day, we all came back up to Oulu a week later and she came home at the end of June.
Now she’s a very tall, very bouncy and extremely loud five year old who you would never suspect was a ‘heart baby’ apart from her scar.
I feel awful when we go for her check ups at the heart clinic and she’s so obviously healthy. It’s a form of guilt that my baby is ok and there are mothers and children sitting there who aren’t nearly so lucky but I have to try not to feel that way.
We were very lucky. We know that. So many things could have gone wrong. The bus could have been late. I could have ignored my gut and just gone home to try feeding her again.
Because of what happened we also missed a lot of things. We barely held her in that first month – we’ve made up for it since believe me! – I couldn’t feed her myself, something I regretted for a very long time. Once she came home we could only pick her up like she was a tray so that her chest would heal. We couldn’t have any visitors for the first month so the house was as germ free as possible. All those plans we’d made were put on hold.
But as a result we also gained a unique sense of perspective.
We didn’t worry about the little things any more. We saw very clearly that there were things that truly mattered and things that didn’t.
Now, you might be wondering what all of this has to do with my wanting to photograph your family.
Well. I saw, all too clearly, how quickly things can change. Children are only children for such a short time. They grow so fast and all too soon the only record of how small they were is our memories and photos.
Somehow I’m now the mother of a five year old and a two and a half year old. How did that happen? When? They were so small not so long ago!
For a long time I couldn’t look at the photos I took of Evie in the hospital. Some I still can’t look at without crying but I am so glad that I have them. At the time I didn’t know if they’d be the only photos of my little girl that I’d get to have. The shiny new camera that was supposed to capture adorable shots of her sleeping in her Moses basket and feeding took very different photos indeed. Yes, the photos had a lot of medical machinery in the background and tubes instead of her nursery and toys, but that didn’t change the fact that they were photos of our beautiful, incredibly brave, amazingly strong little fighter who still inspires me every single day.
And that is why I want to photograph your family. To capture the smiles and the personalities, the laughter and the memories so you can keep them forever. One day they’ll mean even more than you realise.