For years, when I fantasized about motherhood, I thought about Brooke Shields’s 2003 Vogue cover. Shot by Annie Leibovitz, Shields is soaking wet in the photo, as though she’s just emerged from water. Her long hair drips down her back and over her shoulder, and a nude slip clings to her bump. She doesn’t cradle her stomach but presses a hand against her back, turning to stare defiantly at the camera. It’s a photo that encompasses a kaleidoscope of feelings: strength, vulnerability, and a kind of ethereality. I thought that when my turn came I too would feel like a sea nymph, glowy and glistening with a perfectly proportioned belly. It turned out I was very wrong.
When my husband and I got the call confirming our positive pregnancy test, he burst into tears of joy while I was flooded with a feeling far more unexpected—one of pure dread. For as long as I can remember, I felt that motherhood was my calling, even when my girlfriends would admit to ambivalence. I was utterly confident in my maternal fate because I believed that by the time the day finally came, everything else in my life would have surely already fallen into place. I was going to be wildly successful, tastefully wealthy, and in possession of a perfect body, one that would magically bounce back into shape right after delivery. But when we got the positive result, I was so far away from any of those goals they felt nearly impossible to achieve on their own. Then when I thought about how I would do it as a mother, the obstacles seemed insurmountable.
Two weeks later, I started a new job and developed hyperemesis—essentially morning sickness on steroids, which left me vomiting with such regularity that one of my back teeth fell out. I was desperately trying to make a good impression at work, putting in extra hours to show that I was invaluable. I suddenly had a lot to lose and didn’t want my employer to feel that I was expendable when they found out I would be taking maternity leave less than a year into my tenure. Though these anxieties were largely unfounded, the stress and nausea started to eat away at me. I began to loathe being pregnant.
As the first trimester wore on and my symptoms persistently worsened, I stopped caring about my appearance. I wore my husband’s sloppiest shirts and turned off the Zoom camera for meetings. I couldn’t risk any of my colleagues seeing me vomit, but more than that I simply couldn’t stand to be looked at. My complexion was a mess, my eyes were covered in broken capillaries, and after a month of barely getting out of bed, I’d lost all muscle tone. The hyperemesis was wreaking havoc on me inside and out. I seemed to lose more of my life force each time I was forced to run to the toilet in anticipation of another bout. The more I threw up, the more I worried—if being pregnant took this much out of me, would anything be left after actually having the baby? My initial wave of dread started to seem prescient.
Finally at week 16, the vomiting eased. Though it never completely went away, I was able to go several days at a time without throwing up. As some semblance of selfhood returned to me, I began to really ache for the fashion I had given up. I wanted to reclaim something that had been lost to the pregnancy and that I feared would be completely and permanently swallowed by motherhood.
It was then I saw the photos of a pregnant Rihanna, her bump adorned with lavish belly chains that called attention to her condition in the most sensual way. It dawned on me that she hadn’t sacrificed any part of her identity to her pregnancy. With every sheer baby doll or gauzy crop top she wore, her sexuality and joie de vivre only grew. I wanted to have that kind of pregnancy too. I decided that if I was going to endure all of this torture, I needed something that would reassure me that I could take on motherhood on my own terms and in my own way. I needed my own Brooke Shields Vogue cover, my own Rihanna moment. If I could hold an image in my head of myself pregnant and loving it—if only for a moment—I believed I could come to terms with my deeper fears about the cost of motherhood.
When I spoke to photographer Jennifer Judkins, who specializes in capturing maternity moments—both during pregnancy and delivery—she was warm and inviting, instantly understanding my aesthetic concerns. On the day of the shoot, Jennifer was full of adventure, driving through western Massachusetts to find the exact right woods in which to capture me frolicking and stopping along the road whenever we saw the perfect light. She even coaxed me into the water, much to my delight.
I was nervous to see the photos, but they were everything I wanted and more. Looking at them, I saw the person I was before my pregnancy, before I started stressing about how motherhood might affect my individuality. I felt my mind and body link back together, and suddenly I was the most present I had been since the morning I got the call confirming my positive test. I started shopping for sexy lingerie and cheekily wearing my own belly-baring tops. In short, I was channeling Rihanna and finally having the pregnancy experience I had always longed for.
When I uploaded my photos to Instagram, I wrote a long caption explaining how conflicted I’d felt during the previous months. Almost immediately, my inbox was flooded. Women I hadn’t spoken to in years were sending me messages and comments, revealing that they too had these concerns, that they also feared motherhood might rob them of their essential selves. I realized not only how common all these feelings are but also how women don’t have any place to voice them. Every time I hear someone complain about their pregnancy, it’s always followed by the ubiquitous “but it’s worth it.” What if we simply take that as a given and instead allow a little room for venting, a little room for every woman whose delight at carrying a child is also met with panic at what she might lose? Perhaps we’d have fewer anxious mothers out there in the first place.
The day my husband and I brought our daughter home from the hospital, he presented me with a gift he’d been hiding in the closet. It was one of the photos from my maternity shoot, placed in a beautiful frame. In it, I’m floating on my back in a lake with my hair billowing around me and my bump peeking out from the water. I looked at the image and then down at my daughter sleeping in my arms. I knew then that though I had originally wanted a photo to remind me of who I had been before the pregnancy, what I got was the first picture of the two of us together, on a totally new and uncharted journey.