Ashlee Dean Wells
I am a queer non-binary human. a parent. partner. photographer. friend.
I live in Chicago.
I have have three children, two living, one deceased, and am currently pregnant with our fourth.
Xavier is 12. Nova Emery is 5 and Aurora Eisley was stillborn due to complications from Twin to Twin Transfusion Syndrome (TTTS) in 2012.
I’m currently working on a photo documentary, which is likely why you’re here.
The number one question I get asked from clients, from the press, from friends these days is why this project exists. My response is both vast and simple. General and hugely personal.
The project exists because humans, particularly women, are judged too crudely on the way we look and are often told we don’t measure up. Because no real person can compete with the tools in Photoshop and glossy magazine covers. And because parenthood is sacred and should be celebrated.
This project exists because sometimes babies are born too soon. Because sometimes babies die. Because sometimes the best laid birth plans and the reality of our births are two very different things. And because sometimes they are everything we dreamed just the same.
Because regardless of how our babies get here we should be proud and, regardless of how we choose to feed them, we should be able to feed them where we choose whenever they are hungry.
This project exists because women and men and society need it. Because our sons and daughters deserve more. Because we deserve more.
This project exists because normalizing what is normal is a need this earth has been denying for too long.
This project exists because as feminists we have an obligation to be intersectional, inclusive, and aware. Because the personal is always political. Because the choice to become a parent and our reproductive rights and freedoms are connected hand in hand. Because our voices are so much louder when we shout together.
And perhaps most importantly because we humans, in all of presentations, identities, and abilities, are beautiful - stretches, stripes, scars and all.
The personal (if you’ve the time):
My son Xavier was born when I was 23. Although young, I had researched and planned exactly how things would be. I trained to be a doula while pregnant. My midwife joked that I was the woman in all the textbooks with the perfect pregnancy, measuring spot on, healthy, and active. We would have a water birth at home and our family would be as we dreamed. Until I went into the late stages of labor unexpectedly at 28 weeks. We arrived at the hospital within an hour of realizing what was happening to find I was fully dilated with bulging waters. They fought me to hold him in, screamed at me not to push, yelled at me for screaming in panic and forcibly held me down and made me push him out while flat on my back even though my instincts told me to counter the back labor and his posterior position differently. He cried and I had to fight once again to even look at him before they whisked him away to NICU. As traumatic as it was I was proud that I’d at least been able to birth him vaginally. And even though he was 12 weeks early he was healthier than expected. 46 days in NICU, no hiccups to home and we never really looked back. He nursed until he was three, the weight melted off me and my body was vastly unchanged aside from a drastic increase in bra cup size. I occasionally lamented my lost third trimester but I was ultimately proud of us both.
Several years later my photography career shifted and I refocused my studio to pin up and boudoir work. I started a new company, Windy City Pinup. Every day I worked with regular women who were absolutely beautiful but felt somehow broken. They didn’t just want an experience and timeless photos of themselves; they wanted me to nip and tuck them into post perfection. They self-consciously picked at supposed flaws that we couldn’t see if we tried. We only saw women who were gorgeous and brave and intelligent and strong; they all too often saw the opposite. I made it my job within our pin up world to promote body positivity and self-love. To encourage women to embrace their curves and themselves and step outside their comfort zone. My business partner and I spent many hours after shoots discussing how absolutely wrong these pervasive issues with body image all were. It was upsetting; it wasn’t okay but I didn’t personally identify.
I joke that hippies raised me. Nudity was normalized in my house and my own body was always something I loved. I was in control of it. It was capable, strong, and its the only body I was getting so I may as well enjoy it.
Fast forward a couple of years and I was pregnant again. I met with a team of midwives whom I immediately adored and planned the home birth I’d missed out on the first time. Everything was perfect but I was measuring a bit ahead of dates so my midwife encouraged us to have an ultrasound before going away for a couple of weeks. I soon learned that my body was nurturing not one baby but two.
I set off the next day on a high, drove cross-country and named both of my babies. Their personalities suddenly so distinct. I felt oddly complete in a way that made me reconsider how I ever felt whole before.
First on my agenda upon returning home was a follow up ultrasound and 2nd Trimester screen. Moments after the wand hit my belly I knew something was terribly wrong. They were spending way too much time on one of the girls, the pictures didn’t look right, they were too quiet and then they left me all alone. I was called into the hall and told my midwife was on the phone. I only remember flashes of what she said between the tears but she told us we had a stuck twin, my girls were terribly sick, it was almost always fatal and referred us immediately to an MFM (doctor of maternal and fetal medicine).
Within days I heard the acronym TTTS for the first time. I wasn't even certain my babies were identical before I knew they were dying. They were stage 4 of 5 (5 meaning they had both already passed) and had to move fast. I were given three options - terminate the entire pregnancy, selectively abort one of my girls in hopes the other would do better or immediately travel from Chicago to St. Louis for an experimental surgery that was our only chance to save them both. That last option was the only option that felt right and so I made the 5-hour drive and 72 hours later we were in the OR. The surgery was deemed successful; they severed their vessel connections and drained 3+ Liters of excess amniotic fluid. I rested around hourly ultrasounds with a peace I’d never felt before. We had this; we were going to be okay.
In the morning they readied me for discharge and sent me down for a final ultrasound before sending us on our way. I lay on the table and waited for the doctor who performed our surgery to join us. Within seconds of the wand hitting my tender womb I was flooded back to our first fateful day. Something was wrong. He grabbed my hand and said the words I wish to this day I could unhear. Baby A. Her name is Aurora? I’m sorry but there’s no heartbeat. She was gone and we were left nothing but time and the distance back home.
In the days after, I started the processes of grieving and growing all the same. We were told that Nova was doing well and that there was no reason we wouldn’t make it to term. I marked my weeks with lengthy ultrasounds to check in on both of my babies. Nova’s growth and Aurora’s body within my womb. My fluid levels were still out of control (polyhydramino’s is a side effect of TTTS) but everything else was stable. Until it wasn’t.
I woke up at 3am amidst my 24th week in hard labor. Two days prior I'd had our weekly check in and the first ultrasound since our world turned upside down we had good news. While my belly measured 54 weeks at a meer 24, my fluid levels had stabilized, my cervix was closed, Nova was growing beautifully and Aurora’s body was stable. How could things so quickly go wrong? We rushed to the hospital and nothing would slow it down. The magnesium made me sick and slowed contractions but I was dilating still. They removed my cerclage and my MFM, knowing how important natural birth was to me, encouraged me to push. After no progress and Nova’s heart dipping, they encouraged an epidural. Once I had it, I couldn’t feel enough to push properly and before I knew it we were in the OR. My doctor promised I could keep trying as long as possible but Nova wasn’t doing well and they had to get them out. I was prepped for an emergency cesarean. I had a panic attack on the operating table and was further sedated so the rest is a bit foggy but at 11:11am Nova was born, with Aurora following a minute later.
What followed are days turned to weeks turned to months that are an instant and an eternity all the same. It was determined that the girls came so quickly due to a rampant E-coli infection that must have happened during our initial surgery. The infection ultimately spread to my cesarean incision and I had to be reopened and heal that way for the next 12 weeks.
We had Aurora cremated and surrendered her ashes under Twin Falls in Maui, HI.
Nova spent 100 days in the NICU, developed hydrocephalus and eventually came home with a VP shunt and an NG tube. We fought hard to exclusively breastfeed and continued until they self-weaned at 4. Nova is a super hero with special needs, exceeding all expectations - beautifully healthy and extraordinarily happy today.
Still, this journey left me feeling like a failure. Like less of a woman. Like less of a mother. My job was to grow and nurture my girls and I couldn’t even keep one of them alive? I wasn’t even able to give birth to them the way I know my body knew how? I know logically that this thinking is faulty, but it’s how I felt and suddenly I realized that I identified with all of those women that entered my studio. I was one of them. I avoided my midsection at all costs, I couldn’t look at my scar let alone touch it. I cried in the shower. I cried when anyone tried to touch me. I was broken and I wasn’t okay with it.
I don’t know how to change to the world but I do know how to take photographs. I needed to learn to look at myself, my story, my scars in a different light and I needed to offer the same lens to women everywhere. And so we started.
Just 5 months after my surviving daughter came home from the NICU, in June 2013, I stood on the other side of my camera for the first time in a long time. Against a sweep of white seamless, in my underwear with her in my arms I captured with one image the year of hell, sacrifice, loss, and now hope and healing we had been through.
We started with my photograph and this project has grown organically from there. Some days it’s a struggle but most days I see myself with the wholeness, beauty, and self love I did before. On the difficult days I look at those who surround me and find strength in their stories. I am grateful for each and every person who has had the bravery to join me on this journey and for the thousands who are following along with us.
Collectively we are healing, we are empowering, we are transforming, we are normalizing. We are not alone.