You may recognize Angela of Milestone Images from her various Offbeat Mama features, or even her numerous apperances on Offbeat Bride (such as this Q&A). Today she’s featured in a slightly different light–through her work with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. You can find a Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep affiliated photographer in your area by searching the organization’s directory.
And a heads-up: this post may make you cry.
When Ariel first asked me to write about the volunteer work I do for an organization called Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, I wanted to start writing this entry right away. The problem was, I couldn’t find the right words to describe exactly what it is that I do.
Oh sure, I could give you the official version, the chosen words as sensitive as the fragile babies I photograph: “We are a network of volunteer photographers who are on call to serve bereaved families and honor their children through infant remembrance photography.” I could quote the mission statement right out of the training manual; words that fill my mouth as solemnly and earnestly as a prayer, oath, or pledge: “To introduce remembrance photography to parents suffering the loss of a baby with the free gift of professional portraiture. We believe these images serve as an important step in the family’s healing process by honoring their child’s legacy.”
So yes, I am one of more than 7,000 photographers in the U.S. and 25 other countries around the world who are on call to go to hospitals and hospice locations where we shoot portraits of babies who only have a short time with their parents. Some of the babies are very ill. Some have already passed; some are born still, and others pass during our time together.
It’s easier to tell you WHY I do this than it is to talk about what I actually do.
There is a little girl I’ve grown up knowing about whom I never got to meet. In 1977, my mom and her best friend were both pregnant at the same time. They were colleagues in the same line of work, both expecting girls with due dates within a month of each other, and they both went to the same OB/GYN. They were so excited to be sharing the experience of their first pregnancies together, with all the hopes and dreams that come with that.
Mimi, my mom’s best friend, was devastated when her baby stopped moving during the eighth month of her pregnancy. Actually, they were both devastated. So was Mimi’s husband, of course, and my dad, too. It was every expectant parent’s worst nightmare.
My sister Amanda was born March 3, 1977. At the exact same time, my mother’s best friend was in labor at a bigger hospital in a nearby city, giving birth to a daughter she would have to say hello and goodbye to at the same time under the care of an OB/GYN who specialized in labor and delivery after fetal demise.
Mimi lost her own mother to cancer shortly thereafter, and in the throes of grief multiplied, she and her husband moved to Texas to try to make a new start. Mimi and my mom got together just once more to say goodbye, but my sister- then still an infant- stayed home with my dad. It was just too hard.
They stayed in touch and wrote letters, this being the 1970s and all. Mimi went on to have two healthy children. First, she gave birth to a son, Ryan, in 1978. Mom had me in 1979, and Mimi gave birth to another daughter, Lauren, in 1980.
Mimi didn’t actually lay eyes on my sister in person until 1988, when Amanda was eleven. My mom prepped us both, telling us in an age-appropriate way about Mimi’s firstborn, the little girl they’d both longed to watch grow up but never got to know.
Mimi is strong, and wonderful, and full of grace, and I know she looks at my sister as a reminder of where her firstborn daughter would be in life.
Eventually, we got to the point where we went to visit them, vacationing together in Boston, the Berkshires and Seattle. The four of us “kids,” Amanda and me and Ryan and Lauren, couldn’t get over how similar our moms were on those trips. They used the same catch phrases. They had the same all-too-familiar warning tone as we whined past bedtime. They whipped out identical AAA guidebooks dictating itineraries to the Norman Rockwell museum, the Native American story-telling salmon dinner, a gut-lurching drive to the summit of Mt. St. Helens in a minivan.
Our moms. They are the same, and different.
Mimi is strong, and wonderful, and full of grace, and I know she looks at my sister as a reminder of where her firstborn daughter would be in life. When Amanda got accepted to her first-choice college, coincidentally Mimi’s alma mater, she sent immediate congratulations and one of those all-important stickers for the rearview window of my sister’s car. More than 28 years after her losing her daughter, Mimi attended my sister’s wedding in the campus cathedral of that same college.
So I do this volunteer work, photographing families for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. Sometimes the parents have been prepared for these all-too-fleeting moments with their child from a telling ultrasound onward. Others, not at all.
I photograph the baby’s hands and feet, their little ears. I try to show how much hair each baby has, to document every little thing a parent will want to remember in the months and years ahead about a child they can only hold their hearts, not in their arms. I photograph the teddy bears and gifts sent as talismans of strength and faith.
I use the baby’s name as much as possible. I coo, and pose, and dress, and shoot. I know that for every child I meet doing this work, there are siblings, grandparents, best friends, entire faith communities and even blog readers who love this child, this entire family.
I use the baby’s name as much as possible. I coo, and pose, and dress, and shoot. I know that for every child I meet doing this work, there are siblings, grandparents, best friends, entire faith communities and even blog readers who love this child, this entire family. They won’t get the chance that I have to meet this baby. My pictures might be the only introduction they get, and so I treat my short time with the family as the honor and privilege that it is.
I go to the hospital with my cameras, a consent form, a brochure explaining how Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep came to be. I also always take a tiny knitted cap with me as a gift for the baby. My mother-in-law makes them. She, too, has walked this path, and she always asks me how the parents are doing whenever I get back from a session. “Sad,” I say, and she nods, because there really aren’t words to describe how devastating it is when parents lose their child.
Every family that Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep serves receives a high resolution CD of retouched images, completely free of charge. Most of the photographers, me included, also create slideshows set to music composed just for this purpose, and it’s up to us if we want to offer an additional gift.
You might be surprised, or possibly not, at just how many women have gone through babyloss. When I tell people about my work with NILMDTS, time after time, mothers and in-laws and grandmothers would open up, saying something like, “You know, Aunt Margaret would have loved to have a photo of Patrick….” and I would say, “Oh. Oh wow. I am so sorry. Who was Patrick? Please tell me about him.” The older generations in particular were encouraged to forget, as if that would ever be possible.
I’m not really sure why or how I have the ability to do this. Some of the other volunteers have gone through babyloss themselves, but I myself am not yet a mama. I don’t know how I can do this work in the hospital without crying or falling apart when I’m photographing people who are beyond devastated. It’s not a gift everyone has the ability to give. I can, and so I do.