real life

Her birth photo went viral around the world but it hid the most heartbreaking secret.

One incredible morning in March 2015, the most astonishing thing happened. I birthed my sweet second daughter into my very own hands, on my bed, while my husband snapped a picture.

No one else was there, save the cat (hiding somewhere I’m sure) and our older daughter, who was sleeping soundly in the room next door.

I had expected to have an entire birth team with me when she arrived, to be relaxing in a tub in our living room, for my big girl to be at a friend’s house and a photographer to be capturing important moments of labour, birth, and the early hours after. But things didn’t happen the way I’d planned or expected.

The thoughts you have whilst giving birth. Post continues below. 

My husband showed me the now-famous picture not too long after she arrived, as the doula supported me in nursing the baby and we waited for the midwife to come. The moment I saw it, I knew the photo was a thing of power. I just couldn’t have imagined where it would go from there.

Many now know what happened with the photo one year later, after I shared it with a private Facebook group dedicated to discussions and support around childbirth. It was banned. New York Magazine wrote about it. It went viral. The world took in this image.

"I know how to trust myself, as a mother and a woman and a human." Image Lailo Varsa.

In the first days of its news life, I made the mistake of reading people's comments, including the negative ones. Some said I looked like a man. Others said I clearly wanted to show off. One woman wrote me, complimenting me on its beauty, and chided me for sharing it outside the circle of my close friends and family. I soon learned not to read these, but what sank in about their criticism was this: They just don't get it. I thought, if they only knew what happened in my life that led up to that moment - then, maybe, they would understand its true power, and its importance in my life.

So, a couple weeks in, I shared the story with a reporter I trusted implicitly, as she was recommended to me by a dear friend. We worked on it together, crying at times, stopping to exclaim over the wildness of it all - at the deep unfairness and the incredible joy that is life. At the stories that somehow make sense, years later. Steve Jobs said, "You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards." This is my backwards; here are my dots.

".... if they only knew what happened in my life that led up to that moment." Image supplied. 

Twenty and a half years ago, in my second month of ninth grade, the 14-year-old me was babysitting for two kids - a little boy of almost two, and an eleven-week-old baby named Catherine. I was Catherine's first and only babysitter; her parents had a wedding to attend, so I was charged with her care. I put her to sleep and she died.

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It's still so hard to believe - that such a thing can happen, and actually did, to her, to me, to her family.

SIDS took her life; both medical professionals and her parents knew within a few hours that I did nothing wrong, and nothing could have been done to prevent her death or save her.

The problem was, I didn't know. I was at an age of much turmoil, when others' opinions of me mattered deeply; I was also a control freak, which meant that if something went wrong, it had to have been my fault. But it wasn't, and it took me many years to figure that out.

"My birth was not a coincidence - it was meant to be." Image Jennifer Messina Photography.

It wasn't until I was reading a book about a man who lost his daughter to SIDS that it hit me - I was still carrying around my guilt, so much so that I had never really grieved. I didn't think I needed to, or deserved to - she wasn't my baby. But I did need to; my hurt deserved space and time. So, with the help of amazing therapists, an incredible family, great friends, and eventually, the love of a great man, I healed. I became a mum.

I live most days with my priorities in pretty good shape, trusting that my children - both girls - are healthy, safe, and becoming exactly who they're meant to be.

When I feel fear and anxiety creeping in - as happens when one is sick, injured, or just not quite herself - I know what to do. I know how to trust myself, as a mother and a woman and a human. I like and love ME - because I am no longer wrapped up in the idea that I am the one who ruined one family's life, that Catherine died because of something I did or did not do.

"I live most days with my priorities in pretty good shape." Image supplied. 

I am loved and supported by Catherine's family, and in particular, her mother, an incredible woman who reminds me of my own mom because she is so good at loving, and so forthright about her own imperfections that she knows when to laugh something off and when to cry with me. I am someone I can trust.

My healing has changed everything. If I hadn't healed from this horrible event, I wouldn't be me - and I certainly would not have been able to bring a baby girl into the world by myself. My birth was not a coincidence - it was meant to be.

My hope is that others will see my photo, read my story, and be changed. I hope that more women will believe in themselves, that what seems impossible, in birth and in life, can become one's reality. I believe in the power of women. I learned to believe in myself because others believed in me. We all deserve that.

Francie is also known as TheMilkinMama, and through her small business, she's made it her mission to teach breastfeeding women to hand express their breastmilk. She has recently transitioned to her new career after thirteen years as a middle school teacher. She lives in New York City with her husband, two daughters, and cat.

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