"I think I knew from a young age that I wanted to have children one day," recalls British photographer Imogen Freeland.
It was this innate draw to motherhood that led Freeland to start her new series, Birth of a Mother, which features intimate photographs of pregnant women and new mothers at home. Some of these women she knows, others she met through the project. Some of them are strangers who reached out to her via Instagram when they saw the first pictures being shared. Over time, she has accrued an emotive constellation of images which detail the collective and individual experience of becoming a mother – highs, lows and all.
Freeland grew up in Cambridge, alongside two older sisters and a brother. "I was very influenced and inspired by my siblings growing up," she says. "My sister is an artist and when I was little, she would run art classes for children from the shed in our garden. I spent my summers doing these with her, making large sculptures and learning to paint and draw." She first experimented with photography when she was around 9 years old. Her brother had turned his bedroom into a darkroom. "We’d process our film in my parents' wardrobe, crouched in the dark," she remembers warmly. Her sister also encouraged her to express how she was feeling in drawings and so she poured any frustration or upset into things she could make with her hands. "This way of working with my emotions had a profound impact on how I learned to use photography to navigate my experiences in life," she says. Later on, Freeland fell ill with Lyme disease. It lasted for five years, leading to an incredibly isolated and introverted period of her life. Those early life lessons became more important than ever. "I’ve since continued to use photography in this way, but learned to do so with more awareness."
As life unfolded, Freeland watched her siblings become parents and worried that perhaps she might not. She personally experienced some of the realities and complications of motherhood firsthand. "I’d had a termination that I found very difficult," she says, "and at that time a lot of my friends were trying to get pregnant and struggling too." Some were experiencing the heartbreak of miscarriage and others the struggles of fertility treatment and IVF. "It was a long way off all of our expectations," she says.
Subsequently, she started to ask questions like: When does being a mother begin? And the ordeal of birth? And the very moment of conception? Or, she thought, is it something beyond and before that, rooted deep in one’s intentions? "Behind 'the miracle of conception', innumerable tragedies, failures and unhappy accidents lie unspoken. For me, there is a tapestry of hope and disaster where motherhood begins, moments where the border of being a woman and being a mother is crossed. It became increasingly important to me to make work to explore this."
The images in Birth of a Mother are sensitive and incredibly beautiful – painterly even, like classic portraits that celebrate the textures of skin and subtleties of human gesture – but they’re unquestionably honest, too. They don’t shy away from revealing the scars of real bodies and the most tender, tired moments. In one image, a woman breastfeeds her daughter as she lies down to rest, her son curled up next to her; in another, a young woman stretches out on her bed in a pool of morning light, rubbing her eyes. Their children are intimately connected to their bodies by small hands and mouths, or yet to be born. It was crucial to Freeland to depict motherhood like this. "I think the postpartum body is often shrouded in shame and hidden away rather than celebrated how it should be, so I wanted to capture the beauty in this physically transient and fragile time. The project was made as a response to a culturally very dispassionate gaze, loaded with the distortion of unrealistic and unrepresentative beauty standards that so brutally discount the heroism of motherhood."
There’s a sense of the images distilling feelings of waiting, pacing and anticipation – feelings that really help to visualise the quiet anxieties of impending motherhood, and the physical and emotional preparation women work through. "A lot about becoming a mother involves patience," she says. "Even before becoming a mother, you are waiting for that moment." The women in Freeland’s pictures sleep and stand at windows, time passing a little slower.
When she became pregnant with her own son, Freeland found the pregnancy gruelling. "I’m not sure I ‘glowed’ at any point, and I suffered from prenatal depression because I felt my experience didn’t fit the social norm." Though she describes becoming a mother as "incredibly defining" for her, she is forthcoming that the day-to-day acts and rituals of mothering can be undeniably challenging. This shouldn’t be forgotten or eclipsed. "This is a common experience and most mothers go through the motions of worry, disappointment, frustration, guilt, competition and fear along the way." She often considers her biggest takeaways from the time she’s spent meeting these women and a lot of it comes down to representation. "The Instagram image of the pregnant and postpartum super-mum is a sham or fiction for most. It’s an unrealistic example that makes women feel inadequate when they pursue, and can’t achieve, that impossible standard." It’s more important than ever to see truthful representations of motherhood and for a variety of un-retouched bodies to make it into the mainstream.
Hearing these women open up has been a truly moving process for Freeland. "A lot of them told me about their experiences of miscarriage, IVF and abortion, and talked openly about their fears and struggles. This has had a profound impact on how I feel as a woman." She photographed somebody recently who had conceived using a sperm donor and IVF after deciding that starting a family was her choice to make, whether or not the right partner comes along in the future. "I feel incredibly empowered by her. It’s experiences like this that underline the work."
The emotional investment that goes into making sensitive, socially engaged images of this kind stretches into the way certain moments stay with a photographer. That’s especially true for Freeland, with every new exchange wrapped up in shared empathy and love. Her favourite image from the series remains one depicting pregnant twin sisters sitting on a bed, limbs entwined and bumps touching, each of them gazing intently into the lens. This one will always be special, she says, "because it was such a rare, special and significant moment to capture two twin sisters experiencing it together."
From the beginning, Freeland wanted to encourage a genuine and more open dialogue around the common triumphs and struggles of motherhood. "As women we’ve learned to internalise our challenges as failures and have in turn become increasingly private about our experiences, which has a devastatingly isolating knock-on effect." These pictures, she hopes, will offer comfort and companionship to the women who need to see it, and help all of us to feel less alone.