On Choosing Not to Have Photos of My Babies

Footprints of My Babies

Every time I participate in a hospital parent panel, the subject of remembrance photos comes up. The parents on the panel talk about having photos taken of the babies they lost and how often those photos are later treasured. The hospital offers strong support for bereaved parents, and one aspect is encouraging remembrance photography.

I have spoken on panels many times over the years. The attendees are Labor & Delivery nurses, techs, and others who may come in contact with these parents. When the subject of remembrance photography comes up, I offer a different perspective.

I did not want photos of my daughters. And I do not regret that decision.

Yesterday, Chrissy Teigen spoke out publicly for the first time since losing her son, Jack, about a month ago. I had wondered a few times how she was doing. Not because she is a celebrity, but because I would wonder about any newly bereaved parents. That pain is unfathomable until it happens.

And the subject of pregnancy loss is kept so quiet that parents feel alone. They do not realize that 1 in 160 births in the United States are a stillbirth, like what happened with Jack. I had no idea until other women came up to me and said, “I know. I lost my baby, too.”

I read Chrissy Teigen’s essay on Medium, and I knew exactly how she felt while writing it. I could picture the tears that likely soaked her face as she typed out the words. I knew because I wrote just days after Nelle died, and Iris died. As hard as it was, I knew that I needed to write their stories. My story.

Chrissy also wrote about the raw photos that she had shared. The black and white images of the hospital room and cradling her son were raw and visceral. It was such a profoundly personal moment, yet by bravely sharing those photos, we could all feel it. Those who had no idea what it is like to lose a baby like that could see the pain. Those who had experienced pregnancy loss could say, “Yes. I know.”

The backlash against the photos was abhorrent.

In her essay, Chrissy wrote:

I cannot express how little I care that you hate the photos. How little I care that it’s something you wouldn’t have done. I lived it, I chose to do it, and more than anything, these photos aren’t for anyone but the people who have lived this or are curious enough to wonder what something like this is like. These photos are only for the people who need them. The thoughts of others do not matter to me.

-Medium Post, 10/27/2020

It was the most perfect response. The decision to take photos, and to share photos, belongs only to the parents.

Many years ago, someone I know had a stillborn baby at 35 weeks. This was long before I had entered the world of pregnancy loss. I remember feeling slightly alarmed at seeing photos of the parents, cradling their baby girl, wearing a lace dress, and wrapped in a blanket. Another woman said, “Why would they do that? It seems morbid.” I didn’t understand at the time.

And then that decision was put before me: Did I want photos of Nelle? Of Iris?

Photos were taken by hospital staff and could be placed on a USB drive in a box that was being sent home with me. I remember holding that box on my lap and thinking, “Other mothers are going home with a baby. And I am going home with a box.”

I was very firm that I did not want the photos. Nor did I want to see Nelle or Iris after they were born. They were carried away in a medical-grade tray, and the only time I ever held them was when the funeral home returned their ashes.

The hospital staff tried to gently coax me into taking the photos. I was told that I might regret it later. I could keep the USB drive tucked away and only look when I thought I was ready.

My answer did not change: No.

When I tell this on parent panels or share this in support groups, I explain my deeply personal reason for choosing not to have the photos.

I know what a baby would look like at 21 weeks (when Nelle was delivered) and 16 weeks (when Iris was delivered). I knew that at that gestational age, they would be mere fragments of the babies that they should have become. Their features would only be partially formed, the skin translucent.

When parents imagine the baby, they will bring home, that isn’t the image they have in their minds. They picture a 7-lb bundle with chubby cheeks and arms reach to grab a finger or stretch when sleeping.

I didn’t want that image of the baby girl that I had dreamed of to be replaced. And I knew it would be — that once I saw the photos, I would never be able to “un-see” the shape of how they were actually born.

So I chose to forego pictures. I didn’t even want them in my house so that I would never be tempted to take a peek.

I know many parents who have photos of their babies from similar gestational ages as Nelle and Iris. I have seen tiny hands and feet and kisses done on tiny foreheads. These photos hang in homes or are shared on the child’s birthday. I love how much comfort the parents find in their photos.

Instead, I have their footprints. The hospital inked their tiny feet onto cards for me. I had no idea this had been done until I looked into the box that came home with me after delivering Nelle. When I delivered Iris, less than six months later, I asked that the hospital make sure I had her footprints also.

I have often said that if my house were burning, I would grab the footprints. The photos of my family and my living children are safely stored in the cloud, and I could never lose them. But for Nelle and Iris, those footprints are all I have.

And so I share my decision to offer a different perspective: that every parent chooses how to honor their children. At the time, with no warning and no way to frame the experience of a pregnancy loss, I went with my instincts. I had to trust what my heart was telling me at the time, and, for me, it was the right decision.