When Ashlee Wells Jackson was preparing to have her first baby at the age of 23, she was ready.
She’d read all of the books, trained to be a doula, and had everything in place for a healthy home birth. Even her midwife joked that she had the textbook perfect pregnancy. Until, that is, Jackson went into labor at only 28 weeks.
Her son survived, and today is a happy and healthy 9-year-old. But Jackson’s idea of a picture-perfect start into motherhood had changed forever. And they would be shattered once more when she got pregnant again — this time, with twin girls — and received the devastating diagnosis of severe twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome. After an emergency surgery at only 24 weeks into the pregnancy, Jackson simultaneously became the joyful mother of Nova and the grieving mother of a lost daughter, Aurora.
On her website, The 4th Trimester Bodies Project, Jackson describes the process that she had to go through to reconcile her new identity as a woman and a mother, at once broken and beautiful, scarred and strong, happy and hurt. She wrote on her website:
“I don’t know how to change to the world, but I do know how to take photographs. I needed to learn to look at myself, my story, my scars in a different light and I needed to offer the same lens to women everywhere. And so we started. Just 5 months after my surviving daughter came home from the NICU, in June 2013, I stood on the other side of my camera for the first time in a long time. Against a sweep of white seamless, in my underwear with her in my arms I captured with one image the year of hell, sacrifice, loss, and now hope and healing we had been through.”
That first picture spurred an inspiring project that has now led to the photographing of over 1,000 women sharing their real postpartum bodies, celebrating in the stretching and the scarring and the skin that has quite literally made them mothers.
Together with Laura Weetzie Wilson, Jackson’s project has turned into a book that celebrates the uncensored beauty of motherhood. Jackson and Wilson have spent years touring the country and shooting women in their Chicago studio for the project, watching through a lens as women go through a transformation before their very eyes to loving their bodies.
“Women are often told to erase all the signs of pregnancy because it makes them somehow less once a baby is on the other side,” Jackson told me over the phone while I sat transfixed by a woman who seems to hold so much wisdom about a topic that personally is plaguing me. (Spoiler alert: I hate my stomach after four kids.)
“The images that we’re presented with daily, before we are even aware of it, they become ingrained in us. Learning that those things aren’t necessarily true and changing the dialogue takes intention and time.”
Jackson stresses that the transformation from woman to mother and the daily journey to body acceptance and love, is one that is so individual.
“Regardless of how women come out on the other side [physically], we never know how things are internally,” she explains. “I think that’s what where we need to celebrate and respect every body. We can’t know, even for ourselves, how our bodies, how our minds, how our lives change. We can attest that it’s even different pregnancy to pregnancy. Letting down that comparison lens we put on is so important, because the conversation needs to include everything.”
Luckily for all of us women who could use a little help learning body love and self-acceptance, Jackson plans on releasing three more volumes of her book and will be continuing tours to photograph women through 2016. Part of me wishes so much that I could be a fly on the wall in Jackson’s studio, watching a woman merge her new physical and emotional identify as a mother, in a body she might not recognize.
The journey to motherhood is about so much more than a physical transformation. Our bodies bear the imprint of the babies we have carried, no matter how long they are with us, and if Jackson is able to show how beautiful those bodies are, maybe even the most stubborn among us will start to see it for ourselves, too.