Beauty, strength and joy radiate from the gorgeous black-and-white photographs Ashlee Wells Jackson creates for her 4th Trimester Bodies Project, a photo documentary that celebrates the postpartum body. We spoke with the Chicago-based mom of Xavier, Nova and Aurora about why she created this groundbreaking project, and how her own journey to embracing the changes in her postpartum body has helped her find peace in the wake of a tragic pregnancy.
CS: Where did the idea for the 4th Trimester Bodies Project come from?
AWJ: As a woman, a photographer and an artist, I was privy to the dialogue that women have about their bodies, which all too often was a very negative one. I was always very bothered by what the media put out there and what these women felt. But it wasn’t something that I necessarily identified with personally—I’ve always been very body-positive.
I have a nine-year-old son, and his pregnancy and birth did not go as planned (he was born prematurely at 28 weeks), but I felt very empowered afterwards and was able to have an awesome breastfeeding relationship with him for a really long time. And I felt kind of like a powerhouse—being a mother was great.
That changed for me about three years ago in my pregnancy with my daughters. I was getting ready to get married to my now husband and we learned that we were pregnant. And things were great until they weren’t. We came home from our honeymoon and learned that our daughters were dying (due to twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome). My daughter Aurora lost her life and I ended up going into hard, unstoppable labour at just 24 weeks due to a surgery that I’d had to try to save my girls.
My whole dialogue changed. As a mother, it’s your job to keep your children alive—it’s rule number one, keep them alive. And I failed. I hadn’t been able to carry any of my children to term and I wasn’t able to give birth the way I thought my body knew how. On top of that, my Caesarean was infected and had to be reopened and heal open, which is horrific. I felt broken and ruined and didn’t recognize who I was anymore, physically, mentally and emotionally.
One day, in the shower, crying—which is what I did; that was the only time I had to myself between home and the hospital—I realized that I hadn’t looked down. I had developed this ability to ignore my body from my breasts to my knees, and it just hit me like a ton of bricks that I was these women—I was all of the women that I had been talking about. I was telling myself the same dialogue that I had questioned them repeating. I was buying into all the media standards of what bodies should look like—what makes you whole and what makes you worthy. And that’s the day I said, ‘I’m going to change this.’
CS: How did your body change physically after you had your children?
AWJ: After my first pregnancy, my body wasn’t all that different. With my second pregnancy, however, things have changed quite drastically. My twins had twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome, and with that comes excessive amniotic fluid. I gained about 80 pounds, most of which was water weight, and having to have a surgery to save them and then an emergency Caesarean delivery and a horrific healing process afterward, I have some pretty significant scars that are very prominent. And through grief and through domperidone, which saved my breastfeeding relationship with my surviving daughter but also has a side effect of weight gain, my body has put back on all of the weight I gained during my pregnancy.
So there’ve been lots of fluctuations and changes, and it’s been a very interesting journey of learning to—I wouldn’t say accept my body, because I’ve always been very body-positive and to me it doesn’t matter what it looks like; it’s mine, it’s the only one I get to walk around with, so I’m going to love it—but recognizing myself in pictures, in the mirror, as myself, has been something new to get used to.
CS: How did you feel about your body after going through that?
AWJ: I felt broken. I felt mad at my body. I felt like my body had failed me. I hated it. I don’t say that word often, but I hated my body for what it had done and what it hadn’t been able to do, because I believed that it could. I thought it was strong enough, I thought it knew the ropes, it had done it once before.
It was very, very difficult for a really, really long time. But a lot of that had to do with guilt and blame that I needed to put somewhere, and my body seemed the easiest scapegoat for that. I’ve grown to understand that my body actually every step of the way did exactly what it needed to do to give us the best possible outcome.
CS: How do you feel in your body today?
AWJ: I feel comfortable. I won’t say that every day is easy. There are still days that I see a photo and I look in the mirror and I have to giggle a little bit because, this is new Ashlee, this isn’t the Ashlee that I carried around for thirty-some years. But I feel comfortable.
The scar is a reminder of what we’ve been through. I have quite a few tattoos, and my hippie father never quite appreciated them. He loved scars, and he always told us that we didn’t need tattoos because we had scars that told our stories for us in more beautiful ways than blots of ink ever could—and that has really stuck with me.
I’ve got little extra bits of squish now. I’m soft, and it’s interesting that in this phase of motherhood that I’m in, I appreciate the softness. My kids having a soft place to lay their head, and strong but cozy arms to hold them, is something that I’ve really grown to appreciate.