Jerusha Sutton has the privilege of being present for that life-changing moment when a parent sees their baby for the very first time. We talked to her about her work as a doula and birth photographer.
Why did you become a doula?
I had attended a friend’s birth as a support person before I knew what a doula was, and I felt right at home in that role. I was blessed to grow up with a mother who had very healthy views on birth, so I was never fearful stepping into that space.
A few years later, post-college, I was an out-of-work actor and was very aware that I could get to the age of 50 and still be doing the same thing, so I decided I needed something else that filled my soul. One of my dearest girlfriends was pregnant and said, “You need to be a doula”. That was nine years ago.
Do you take birth photos when you’re attending as a doula, or do you separate these two roles?
Sometimes they are separate, but I often do the two together. When that’s the case, my doula role is my priority and I take photos when time and space allow. I’ve never not been able to find the time, I just keep my camera nearby, pick it up when my hands are free, roll off a couple of shots, then get back to the role of support.
Can you tell us what the best thing about being a doula is?
It is such a privilege to witness people going through the transformation of becoming a family, and bringing a new soul into the world.
I love witnessing women in their power, even when they are at their most vulnerable.
A birthing woman is really something to behold. I feel very honoured to be welcomed into that space.
What’s most challenging part of being a doula?
Oh…there’s plenty of challenges. The puke! The poop! Seriously though, being on-call is intense. The hours and unpredictability are challenging. Being ever connected to your phone and having to drop everything at a moment’s notice and head to a birth, which could take two hours or two days, can have a big impact on your day-to-day life. Not being able to spontaneously head out of town. I’ve had to leave my husband in restaurants and theatres many times! I think the effect it has on your lifestyle is the most challenging, but it becomes your norm.
How has being a doula changed your perception of birth?
I don’t think my core beliefs have changed so much – I came into this work with a strong belief that birth works and that hasn’t changed. However, my perceptions of how we treat birth in our culture have deepened immensely.
We have a long way to go, as a society, to get back to a place of trusting birth. It would be incredible to live in a world where we didn’t fear birth, and we trusted women.
Do you ever encounter criticism for being a doula?
Honestly, it’s rare to get criticism. Occasionally there are medical caregivers who are not exactly welcoming to doulas – I guess it’s a territorial thing – and my aim is always to win them over with kindness and clear intention in my work. I try to help them see that we are all there for one purpose, to support a labouring woman, and we all have very different roles in that which can work beautifully together with everyone on board, supporting each other. It’s of no use to a woman to have tension in a birth room, so if I ever feel any resistance I do my best to dissipate it.
What do you think are the advantages of having a doula for the mum?
Continuous female support is the big one here. There is much evidence to state that continuous care from a female support person leads to better outcomes for mum and baby. It gives her someone to bounce her hopes and fears off, someone to help her explore her options and then someone who comes to her in labour, and looks after her in whatever way she needs, right through until after the birth. Having someone who isn’t a medical caregiver means that a doula is completely focussed on her emotional, physical and psychological needs.
What do you think are the advantages of having a doula for the dad?
It’s funny, often dads or partners are resistant to the idea of a doula to start with, because they think a doula will take over their role. Generally, after the birth, they are the ones shouting from the rooftops how awesome having a doula is! It’s a huge responsibility to expect a partner to be the one and only support person…there is so much going on for them. They are seeing their loved one going through an extremely intense experience, they are about to become a father, they’re trying to remember everything they learned in birth classes and provide the right comfort measures at the right time, and on top of that, birth can be long and tiring!
Having a doula means there’s someone there who can reassure them that everything is ‘normal’ and that although it is intense, their partner is ok. It’s also someone to look after the camp so they can take a break, eat, have a quick snooze, whatever it is they need to come back and continue being an incredible support.
Do you have any advice for parents-to-be looking for a doula?
Go with your gut. Feeling comfortable in the presence of your doula is the most important thing. Trust your instincts. A doula may be super experienced, but if you don’t feel at ease with her it’s not going to work. I would say to the dads/partners – if your wife/partner is keen on doula support, try to be open to the idea. Meet a few and really talk it through. Yes, you are both becoming parents, but she is the one who has to birth this baby so try and help her have all the support she feels she may need.
Can you tell us what the best thing about being a birth photographer is?
The reactions of couples when they look at their photos is the best thing. Seeing a woman looking at images of herself giving birth and realising how beautiful she is and how powerful her body is. If her birth didn’t go to plan, having her see the journey and how it played out can be a huge help in the process of healing from that experience. That’s why I became a birth photographer – to hold a mirror up to women and couples so they can see that no matter how it unfolds, their journey is a beautiful one.
I also love photographing families as they grow, having been there at the very beginning. I often photograph a birth for a couple, then we do a newborn session and then regular family sessions over the years as their family grows.
I love watching little souls I witnessed entering the world, grow into intriguing little people.
What’s the most challenging part about being a birth photographer?
Making sure my invisibility cloak works! When I’m photographing a birth my aim is to be as discreet as possible, to not disturb the environment.
Being a birth photographer carries a lot of the same challenges as a doula – the unpredictability and the hours. The lighting issues are another challenge. Birth often takes place in the dark and photography is all about light. You’re constantly kept on your toes in quite unpredictable situations, with very little light to work with. But that’s the magic of birth!
Which is your favourite photograph to date?
I’ve chosen this birth photo (above) as the intensity of this couple, labouring together to bring their baby into the world, was truly one of the most exquisite things I have ever witnessed.
Have you attended a birth where the older siblings were present?
I love it when siblings are present. The main recommendations around siblings at births is that they are free to come and go as they please, and that there is someone dedicated to just being present for them. With those things in place, children are generally pretty chilled at births.
I’ve seen a little girl sit and munch through a bowl of crackers while watching her mum birth a 5kg baby in their lounge room.
I think it’s really healthy for kids to witness birth at such a young age – I believe those lucky children will grow up with less mystery and fear around birth, and just see it as a normal, albeit very special, life event.
Can you tell us about your work as stillbirth photographer?
I’m a very proud member of Heartfelt, which is an organisation of professional photographers who volunteer their time to photograph stillborn babies, critically premature babies and terminally ill children. We have dedicated members right across Australia and New Zealand. Of course, it is extremely challenging at times – as photographers we walk into the darkest moment in a family’s life, knowing full well that having photos taken may be the last thing they feel like, but on the flipside knowing that this moment is the only chance they will get to have photographic memories of their child.
People often ask how I hold myself together at these sessions and don’t let the emotion overwhelm me, but I find when I am in that space, the importance of getting those photographs always overrides the temptation to fall apart and weep.
The camera can provide a mask, which helps create a bit of distance from the situation, and the back of my camera has definitely caught a few tears.
I was drawn to this work after a girlfriend of mine had a full-term stillborn baby, and I saw just how precious the photos she took of her little girl were to her and her husband. They were her tangible evidence that they were parents, and that she had given birth to a beautiful baby girl.
As a doula and a birth photographer I felt that if I can support and document a family bringing life into the world, then surely I can support and document a family seeing life out of the world.
The beauty that comes out of these terrible situations can be breathtaking – seeing families pull together in their darkest moments, finding strength they never thought they had, and finding ways to honour the life of their little ones by helping others as a way of making sense of it all.
What advice would you give to someone interested in becoming a doula or birth photographer?
They’re both incredibly rewarding professions and if you are drawn to serving women, then go for it. If you have had babies yourself, make sure you have processed your own birth experiences, whatever they were. Your energy in the birth space is a powerful presence, whatever role you are in, and you want to make sure that presence is positive and open-hearted. Just know that being constantly on-call is a huge deal, for you and your family.
The lessons I’ve learnt and continue to learn all come at the right time, but I guess I had no idea of how I would meet some of the most important people in my life through this work, and how my heart would expand further than I could ever have imagined with love for this work that I’m privileged to do.
Jerusha Sutton is a 35-year-old photographer, doula and actor. She lives with her hilarious, cute, and somewhat stubborn husband, Andy, in NSW. Visit her blog and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.