I first met Zoe, an ecstatic birth educator, when she booked a maternity session with me. From the moment we met we became friends, and she became my muse. I have a big interest in the different transformations we as humans go through, and I’m passionate about trying to find ways to document these pivotal moments in our lives.
When she asked me if I would photograph her ecstatic freebirth, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. The birth space is where I feel at home. We then began talking about capturing the whole transformation of Zoe becoming a mother for the first time.
Zoe shares her ecstatic freebirth
I wanted to birth my son into the world through love and pleasure, for his journey to begin in peace and free of any trauma. Being trained as an ecstatic birth educator and witnessing many births unfold that the birther declared to be ecstatic, I knew with every cell of my being that my body was wired to do this, and a rhapsodic birth was what I desired and deserved. For years I had been open to the possibility of a birth that transcended pain to discover realms of ecstatic sensation and even the potential of orgasmic pleasure. I was filled with the greatest excitement to finally have my opportunity to experience it.
Birthing my son unassisted gave me the space to affirm and deepen my core strength by fully surrendering to my intuition. The intimate ceremony we created truly put me at the centre where I could be witnessed, honoured and, if I asked for it, supported too. While I had prepared myself completely to release control, to open myself to ecstasy and to allow the divine to unfold, I knew that the environment was entirely at my orchestration. Being able to tap into my ever-changing desires throughout labour, and vocalise them, sustained a space where I could let my body take over and do what it instinctively knew to do, and to enjoy the rolling ride.
I had spent my entire pregnancy preparing myself to trust my body, and when the time of birth arrived, there was no question: I was sovereign unto myself. I was a woman birthing a son, and no greater power could ever lie outside that, so it was unquestionable that I should begin to look externally for direction. After birth, I thought I would reflect on the experience as empowering or liberating, and to some degree it was. Yet the surprising beauty I found was that an unassisted birth didn’t leave me feeling as though I was strong and courageous. I had found a place within myself where birthing unassisted was so primally integrated that the experience was not something extraordinary; it was something accessible and available to anyone who was prepared to let their strength be their softness. My utter surrender to softness led me to a pleasurably ecstatic freebirth.
Zoe on having a lotus birth
Late in pregnancy, I felt a strong urge to have a lotus birth, so we kept the placenta attached and shrouded it with salts, dried herbs and dried flowers from our garden. We kept it warm and wrapped in a coconut shell, as we waited patiently for our son and the placenta to decide when they were ready to detach.
It was a ritual to cleanse and dress the placenta every day to keep it fresh and help it dry out. He slept so sweetly while I did this, and I could feel how keeping the placenta attached was supporting him with a smooth transition into this world.
By the fourth day, the umbilical cord had become dry and hard, so we had to take increased care when moving around. As I lay in bed surrounded by my partner, mother and sister, the baby began to stretch. I held him and his cord moved in between his toes. Calmly, but certainly, he gave one strong kick with his leg and his cord detached instantly. He gave a short cry and tears began to roll down my face and I could feel he was fully grounded into this world now. He was ready to start his journey and we were no longer in the in-between.
I felt incredibly emotional about the placenta releasing, and it took a while before I felt ready to let go of it (eventually burying it in the forest where my labour began). I was overwhelmed with gratitude for my body, the placenta, and my baby, and the gift it had given us, yet equally enveloped in grief, as it marked a definite transition between maiden and mother as the initiation into motherhood was now fully complete. As I whispered goodbyes filled with prayers and offerings, I still didn’t feel ready to transition into this new stage. I cried for what was left behind and I cried for the purest love that flows for my son.”
Zoe’s breastfeeding journey
In the days that followed the birth as I tried to feed directly from the breast, my son found it difficult to latch on, and I was struggling to express any colostrum. I began to crash from the high of birth as I quickly realised that breastfeeding wasn’t coming as naturally as I had expected.
After three days my milk still hadn’t come in, and we were advised to supplement with formula. This broke my heart and I wasn’t prepared for bottle-feeding. When we gave him the first bottle of formula, I was filled with so much grief, yet so much relief, knowing that he was being fully nourished. After the first week, I began to search for a milk donor so I could feed him another mother’s milk as this felt more natural and my heart had started to yearn for community and sisterhood.
I soon found another mother who was so generous to donate her milk and I continued to express my own milk. Feeding him milk that was created with another mother’s love for her child was the next best thing to feeding him myself, and I was immensely grateful for this act of kindness. Another layer of relief washed over me amid the sheer exhaustion of both feeding and pumping.
After visits to lactation consultants and a wonderful craniosacral therapist, we discovered he had tongue-tie. Once it was released by our independent midwife at home, feeding slowly began to improve, and with every feed I became more confident that we would eventually be able to exclusively breastfeed. The success of that was short-lived. I struggled with a lot of nipple pain and the worry of him not receiving enough milk. Another two weeks passed, and we discovered that his tongue-tie had reattached so, after another week, just a few days before he turned 2 months, we had it cut yet again.
Even though we are continuing to navigate our journey while he rediscovers how to exclusively feed on the breast without depending on formula top-ups, with each feed we become more confident and our bond continues to deepen. It was through local support groups that I got through the dark moments when I could have given up, and now, through determination and grit, I am filled with joy to be fully breastfeeding.
You can find out more about Zoe’s work by visiting zoepayal.com.
Published in issue 77 of JUNO. Accurate at the time this issue went to print.