“My Why” by A Mum’s Voice
Grab a drink, take 5, have a read of my conversation with Antonia!
I was really thrilled to meet Erika Townend at a Birth, Bump and Babies event in Surrey.
As with lots of incredible women, I am meeting these days I soon found out that Erika is not just a birth photographer, Erika is also a doula and a Hypnobirthing teacher. She also has two children of her own. We sat down for a chat for me to learn lots more about her, what she does and what drives her. I love to get to the root driving forces for women who run their own business because there is no one more in demand or time-poor than a mother of small children. I often find these mothers who run their own businesses have a deep passion that drives them. That is exactly the case with Erika.
What is birth photography?
What does Erika capture?
How does she know what to photograph?
How did she come to be a birth photographer? I asked these questions and plenty more…
Erika has been a doula for around six years now. She is co-chair with Kate Hargreaves for the Maternity Voices Partnership (MVP), an independent committee made up of service users and maternity staff to include Doctors. The MVP is all about collating information about birthing peoples experiences and how they can help support and improve the services which feed into the fantastic NHS Better Births programme.
I really wanted to understand how Erika came to birth photography as it is a relatively new area for us Brits. I know it is quite popular in America and even Australia but in the UK, we are just starting to see the value and beauty in capturing these once in a lifetime moment.
A: Erika, let us start at the beginning, how did you come to train as a doula?
It was during my labour with my first baby, I personally received a lot of comfort and support from a close girlfriend and I distinctly remember thinking why doesn’t every woman have this available to her. Now normally midwives can offer this support to some degree, subject to their workload, however, the birthing person has not built that relationship beforehand, they do not know each other, their personality. It was a very different kind of support than what my husband was able to offer. I really enjoyed being supported by a woman who had been through childbirth herself. My connection with my girlfriend was very different from what my husband offered, and I got a lot from that. My husband was happy with the dynamic, and the whole birth felt very comfortable with both there. I went on to ask my girlfriend to be at my second birth too, which again worked well.
With my first baby, I had an induction over four days due to gestational diabetes. Having the support of my girlfriend, was invaluable.
“I thought if I can give what she gave me then that’s what I want to do. I wanted to help women have better birth experiences. Becoming a Doula felt like a calling.”
I had a very demanding and physical labour the first time around, but emotionally I felt so well supported with my friend as my birth partner. I think that was part of the reason I recovered so well. I think you can get past physically demanding labours quite quickly, providing there is no significant tearing. But I truly think that it is when a woman does not feel fully emotionally supported, that she can struggle particularly with her mental health.
“If a woman feels supported in the true sense then she’ll find she has more strength than she ever knew.”
After the birth, they were concerned about my baby’s sugar levels and so they took him to the special care unit to monitor him. I was dazed and naively I was not aware that I could go and visit him. It was only when my birth partner and friend, Emma, returned to see me that she asked where the baby was. I explained he was in a special care unit. Emma was the one who asked the question of whether we could go and visit him. Without her, I might have gone even longer thinking that I could not see him. To this day this memory cuts me to my core with sadness and lost time.
“Birth partners are valuable not just for the birth, but for afterwards too. I genuinely love my work.”
Becoming a mother changes many people and for me it allowed a new woman to evolve and blossom. Whilst learning what this encompassed and going on to have our second child I created time to explore a new world. When my children were a little older, I went on to have doula training with Michel Odent (the Godfather of all things birth and natural birth). Michel is now 87 years old and still practises and continues to publish books. I found him mesmerising. He is very softly spoken and that coupled with his French accent means you really do lean in and pay attention to every word he says. It is like Michel is demonstrating how you should behave in the birthing room. I found him a real comfort to be around.
I waited until my youngest child was five and in school before I could really give myself to becoming a doula. It took a little while to gain traction, maybe a year and a half before business became busy. My first client was my sister-in-law!
A: Did you feel confident from the beginning, becoming a doula?
Yes, I did. I really felt that after the training I had the confidence to pursue my instinct of being “with woman” though with no medical training! Yet I simultaneously knew that I had lots to learn.
I also had a valuable personal experience that I knew would contribute to what I could provide. Of course, my business did not grow fast but it came in time and still to this day love to network.
A: That’s fascinating. Your personal experiences and your growth in your career seem inseparable. I love how your journey into motherhood has shaped your business and the service you provide. Having seen the impact of having a female as a birth companion first-hand you can really empathise with how supportive and important it can be for some pregnant women to have a doula/ a friend / a female relative at their birth.
Now, onto your amazing birth photography. How did you make the move from Doula to Birth photographer?
I had moved quite naturally into taking graphs at people’s births because of my work as a doula. I had enjoyed being an amateur photographer for years and so it felt easy for me to offer and add in the idea of birth photography in the birth environment. I did not think of publicising my birth photography until it started to become more popular in the UK over the last 18 months.
A: Do you work as a doula and a photographer at the same time?
E: Sometimes I work as a doula and a birth photographer and sometimes I am just hired as a birth photographer.
A: How does it work if you are hired exclusively as a birth photographer?
E: If I am working as a photographer, I observe the natural build and journey of the labour and the final moments of birth very quietly and discreetly.
I am passionate about the need to do this intuitively, observe what is going on in that room. Intuition will tell me whether I need to stop or step out, or whether the couple needs time on their own.
I am also very respectful of any staff present and if I am in a hospital that I am on their property. I try to make sure I have good communication with the staff and a good working relationship with doctors and midwives.
“It’s so important for the birthing mother that everyone around here is respecting her space and working well together.”
All this comes with experience, you must read that room and you can not get it wrong as I do not ever want to shoulder the burden of negatively affecting one woman’s birth.
I come from a place of true respect for the birthing process and have learnt all about being a doula from Michel Odent.
“I understand the importance of privacy, comfort and support for the labouring woman.”
A: Why are you so passionate about birth photography?
“I truly believe that birth photography can help to heal in some situations.”
I had one lady who could not get rid of her guilt because she could not remember putting her baby to the breast immediately after birth. She was separated from her baby after the birth and then she experienced problems feeding the baby, she thought it was all her fault because she had not put the baby to her breast before they were separated.
I was able to go and visit her shortly a few days after the birth at home with her images when I heard her talk of this guilt.
I said “…hang on”
I was able to show her a photograph of the moments after giving birth where she had put her baby on the breast, and the baby had latched and was feeding well.
This really changed her memory and recollection of the event and something clicked for her, she permitted herself to let go realising she had not failed and after that moment she really embraced breastfeeding and it became much easier after seeing this photo.
Testimonials “Erika is a great birth photographer, she helped remind me of how positive my experience was as I was not present for part of it, I had an only faint recollection of events, Erika helped me piece together all of it, as a result, I am more confident about my bonding with L as well as breastfeeding.”
A: What’s your favourite birth photograph?
E: One of my favourite photographs is of a Dad reaching out to congratulate his wife just as she was giving birth. These moments would otherwise be lost or forgotten about and it is beautiful that I am able to keep them alive so that these parents can relive the birth from a different perspective. I get to capture that moment for an indefinite period.
“It was amazing having you here at our twin labour. I found your presence so calm and reassuring. We love our birth photography slideshow we will happily cherish & share them for years to come.”
A: Do you like taking photographs of Dads? I maybe naively assumed you would be all about the mother and baby!
E: YES! of course taking photographs of the dad is so important! The Dads are so often the ones taking those first photographs and they can get missed out. If I am there though I get to photograph those beautiful first skin to skin moments.
A: Whilst I know that you must photograph the woman in labour and the birth of the baby, what else do you capture in your photographs of a birth?
E: Wow! the list is endless! Its the story of those hours or days, how it unfolds from the small details in the room to the time, the sun rising or setting, the gentle touch or the firm push on the mother’s hips to help relieve some of the pressure, the loving gaze, or the tiredness in the face, the worry and everything in between to the more practical aspects like the moment of birth, the first feed and the first time they weigh and dress the baby.
Often immediately after birth, everything feels like a whirlwind for the parents, and so it is nice to capture it frame by frame for the family, so they can look back over it later. I capture all that amazing body language between the birth partner and the woman.
I really love the permanence of photographs. Whilst our recollections can fade, you can always have the photographs to look back on. I am surprised we are so happy to invest in wedding photography and we do not consider the same for the birth of the person you created.
Erika also specialises in postnatal photography; she can photograph you in your most beautiful natural state which I think is so in harmony with the idea of taking things easy for the first 40 days post-birth.
Erika works in and around Berkshire, Surrey, and Hampshire. She really is a wonderfully warm and compassionate human being.
You can read all about Erika’s birth photography here
If you would like to learn more about what a doula can offer, you can read more here
If you would like to talk to Erika about Hypnobirthing, then follow this link
You can also follow Erika on Instagram