This photograph was taken on April 12, 2008. Damaris was nineteen years old, Andrea was seconds old, and I was twenty-five. I was in the corner of the delivery room trying to be as inconspicuous as I could be with a Hasselblad camera attached to a large tripod. I remember fumbling around with the manual focusing, certain that I was going to miss capturing the image of Damaris holding her child for the first time.
That year as a Lewis Hine documentary fellow I was collaborating with a group of adolescent mothers to record their experiences. Our end goal was to create a body of work, including their photographs, my photographs, and their words, that could document their reality. We envisioned that this work would tell the entire story of adolescent parenting, including both immense struggle and unconditional love. As a part of working together, Damaris wanted me to be there in the hospital with her to document the moment when she became a mom.
After I took this photograph, I made one nice print, which I promptly gave to Damaris. At the time, I thought that this photograph had less to say about adolescent motherhood than some of the more complicated images of young mothers and their children. The photographs that I ended up choosing for exhibits felt more balanced. They demonstrated love while hinting at the difficulties of being an adolescent while raising a child. This photograph did not hint at struggle. Instead it demonstrated the universal joy of motherhood.
A couple of years later, I returned to Chelsea, Massachusetts and spent a week living with Damaris and 2 year-old Andrea. When I walked into their apartment, one of the first things that I noticed was this photograph displayed prominently on the wall. Seeing it brought me right back to that captured moment, and I realized that this photograph has everything to do with adolescent motherhood and all motherhood. Now, when I look at this photograph, I remember the intensity of emotion in that room and notice the care of Damaris’ open hand enveloping Andrea for the first time. It is a photograph that is similar to many other photographs hanging in many other homes, but it is also Damaris’ moment, and a part of her story that I was there to share.
It has been four years since my time as a Hine Fellow. I am currently in my second year of a clinical psychology PhD program and am planning my dissertation research. For my dissertation, I am working with women who use substances during pregnancy. Although there is plenty of research showing the negative impact of prenatal use on child outcomes, the research that is available does not focus on women’s experiences using substances during pregnancy. Despite working with a very different population of women now, I have the same mission that I had working with adolescent mothers as a Lewis Hine Fellow. I am asking questions, listening, and trying to understand. I need to hear women’s stories and allow their experiences to enter the conversations that impact policy change.
In this work, this photograph reminds me that I need to hear not only about the barriers and difficulties, but also about the love and connection during pregnancy and after a child is born. We cannot forget the wonderful parts of parenting that are common to younger mothers, older mothers, and mothers struggling with addictions. The women that I work with now, just like all of the women that I have ever worked with, adore their children. Yes, they have unique struggles with addiction, but not every moment hints at this hardship. They also gave birth and held their child for the first time, cradling with caution, and smiling adoringly. When asked about becoming a parent, they look back and remember the unconditional love
Despite the harm their substance use can cause, these women also want to protect their children. Many of them recall trying over and over and over again to stop using during their pregnancy, but lacking support, and being too afraid to seek out help. Their desire to protect is a piece of the story that cannot be forgotten but that is too frequently cast aside. As we consider the best interests for mothers and children whose lives are compromised by addiction, perhaps our greatest ability to help women get clean and stay clean is unlocked by remembering that caring, protective, and joyful moments are also a part of these women’s stories. I believe that our greatest ability to help women may lie in connecting with the love and motivation that already exists inside them. As a researcher working with women who struggle, I have learned that even for women who struggle the most, not every moment hints at hardship. Some moments are just absolutely wonderful.