Amanda Steen is a 2011 NPR summer intern who will be graduating from Ohio University this fall with a major in photojournalism. She and fellow intern Linda Thrasybule produced this documentary about a homebirth for the program "Intern Edition." In audio, photos and video, they present Shannon Earle's story of having a baby at home with a midwife.
**Note: This video shows images of live birth.
Babies. Babies. Babies. I've got babies on my mind.
I think my body has begun sending subliminal, instinctual messages to my brain that I need to start formulating a plan to have a baby. I'm only 20 years old! But I'm not the only one who thinks like this.
I have friends who are obsessed, friends who like to sift through racks of baby clothes at department stores with the anxious anticipation that one day they will mother a child. Where is this coming from? I used to be one of those people who complained about the likelihood of getting a seat right in front of a crying, wailing baby on a 15-hour flight. "Just my luck," I would think. But now? Sign me up!
Shannon Earle labors with help from her husband Patrick at their home in Takoma Park, Md.
Shannon Earle labors with help from her husband Patrick at their home in Takoma Park, Md. Amanda Steen/NPR
So naturally, when I started brainstorming ideas for my Intern Edition story, I thought of babies. I had been reading some articles this past year about midwives and hospital vs. home birth, and I thought it would be interesting to follow a midwife for a day-in-the-life story. I found "Mama's Midwives" online and went to a meeting at one of their homes with fellow NPR intern Linda Thrasybule. I remember texting my boyfriend that I was so overwhelmed because there were about 20 babies in one room. (He was not as excited as I was.)
It was there that we met Shannon Earle, and nervously asked her if we could take footage and record audio of the delivery of her baby after knowing her for about 10 minutes. To both of our surprises, she said yes. Linda and I started to document the prenatal visits that led up to the delivery, until I got a call around 10:30 p.m. on July 17th that Shannon was in labor. Linda and I frantically rushed to her home.
The labor went smoothly and the baby was delivered in about 3 ½ hours. I got in touch with my inner wallflower and tried to be as "fly-on-the-wall" as possible in a small bedroom with an obtrusive camera and a deafening shutter click — even when drowned out by Shannon's wails.
After the baby is born, midwife Erin Fullam, left, takes care of Shannon Earle and new baby Kiera. Also pictured are daughter Riana, the father, Patrick, and his mother, Ann Earle.
After the baby is born, midwife Erin Fullam, left, takes care of Shannon Earle and new baby Kiera. Also pictured are daughter Riana, the father, Patrick, and his mother, Ann Earle. Amanda Steen/NPR
Prior to the labor I was having strange thoughts, like what if something goes wrong, and it's my fault because I jinxed it just by being there? Throughout the labor I was mostly worried that I was going to get in the way of the midwives or be asked to leave if things got too intense or if there were complications. At one point, I actually felt a little bit helpful when Shannon asked for water and I rushed to hand it to her. There was no way I would tell a woman in labor, "Oh, sorry, I'm in the middle of photographing the most painful experience of your life right now, wait till I get this frame."
When the baby was born, I felt like I had just witnessed a miracle. Before I saw Kiera with my own eyes, she was like a fantasy-enigma that we were all pretending was there inside Shannon's belly. I couldn't wrap my mind around it, and then all of a sudden, it was real — here was this beautiful, perfect baby girl with a body, breathing the same air I was.
Before Patrick cut the umbilical cord, the midwives, with Shannon's permission, asked if anyone else wanted to feel the pulsation of the fluids moving through the cord. In the moment, I was way too nervous to do that—but looking back, I think it would have been neat.
Kiera Breen Earle is seen at home five days after her birth. The midwives returned to the Earle's home for a post-natal check up and to see how Shannon was doing.
Kiera Breen Earle is seen at home five days after her birth. The midwives returned to the Earle's home for a post-natal check up and to see how Shannon was doing. Amanda Steen/NPR
After the birth, people said to me things like, "I bet you never want to have a baby now!" and "That's how we should teach kids to be abstinent." Yes, it sure looked and sounded like the most intense pain ever, but do I still want to have a baby? Absolutely. Will I have the baby naturally, at home? Check back in about eight years.
What I can say, is that I definitely felt encouraged by one of Shannon's midwives, Erin Fullam, who said to Linda and me, "People talk about how painful contractions are because they're so strong. But what we want woman to know is that the strength of that contraction is the strength of their own bodies. They are as strong as the contraction is. And so they are able to manage it."
Pretty powerful words.