On May 9, 2017 at 4:55 p.m. my daughter, Mayla London Kahn, was born. When I look at her my heart fills with so much love it feels as if it might burst into a million pieces. It is hard to imagine I spent most of my pregnancy trying to hide her from the world.
Hypothetically, I always wanted a family—imagining that “some day” I would have children. In reality, my career as a photojournalist came first. It was difficult to mentally shift to what I considered a conflicting identity—mother. But aging was a catalyst for deep reflection. Ultimately, my desire to have a family finally came to the forefront, but feeling like I was running out of time was the deciding factor.
Even before my husband, photographer Greg Kahn, and I tried to have a baby, other female photojournalists told me not to tell anyone if I did get pregnant. They said it might hurt the amount of work I get. In a dual freelance household, that is a terrifying proposition. So, when I got pregnant in August 2016, our plan was to hide it for as long as possible.
It was bittersweet. As a little person grew inside me, I felt the spectrum of physical and emotional changes and wanted to share. But, feeling the need to keep it a secret to protect my livelihood dampened my elation. I felt isolated and tongue-tied.
When I was about seven months pregnant I went to a photo conference and finally wore something that didn’t hide my bulging belly. Around the same time I posted a image on Instagram that my husband took of me doing prenatal yoga —baby bump in full view. I was nervous to hit the “share” button. In the caption I talked about feeling good in my full body and about how I was done hiding it because of repercussions it may have on my career.
Immediately, I was offered support through Instagram comments and personal text messages. I heard from men and women, editors and photographers and people outside of the industry. Several women reached out personally to tell me they felt the same fear I did about having a baby and what that would mean for their careers. I know one freelance photographer who worked right up until she had her baby, hiding her stomach under big clothing the entire time, and went back to work a week after delivery.
Another friend emailed to tell me she has been conflicted about the “mama talk and photography for years,” but now, at 40 years old, she just wants to live her life and is going to try to have a family.
I’ve been heartened by some of the reactions of my clients. One male editor told my husband that us having a baby would not affect how much he hired us; in fact, he hired us more. Another female editor worked with me around my delivery and future assignments and even brought food to our home after we had our daughter.
Sometimes, when people know you’re pregnant, they make a decision not to hire you, thinking they have your best interests at heart. For instance, I was asked by someone to shoot a job that landed around my due date. I declined because I didn’t want to leave the client in the lurch if I went into labor (I didn’t), but offered that my husband could do the job. She said she loved his work, but would pass on him because she knows how important the days leading up to and after having a baby are. But, for us, what was most important was making enough money to sustain our family. With good intentions, she was making an assumption about what was best for us. After that I didn’t tell clients about being pregnant if they didn’t already know.
That was a unique case. The truth is, I will rarely know if pregnancy prevented me from landing an assignment or if I was being considered (or not) for a job in the first place.
When women told me to keep my pregnancy quiet, I assumed it was because they had been discriminated against during their pregnancies. Their fear became my fear—and anxiety. In retrospect, I wish I would have had a heart-to-heart with my regular clients and editors. I think it would have dispelled misconceptions and strengthened relationships. That could have helped not only me, but other women, too.
There will always be clients who don’t know how to deal with a pregnant photographer. But more communication is always better, and every pregnant woman has to decide for herself what she can handle and be honest with clients about her limits.
Throughout my pregnancy, I carried the same amount of gear, traveled, pursued personal work and I never missed or had to cancel an assignment. I worked until my due date because I was healthy enough. And it proved that pregnant didn’t equal fragile.
Lexey Swall is based in Washington, DC and is the co-founder of the photography collective GRAIN. Her clients include AARP, The New York Times, Bloomberg Business Week, Financial Times, Stern, The Guardian, TIME, Wall Street Journal and The Times (London).