They are the moments that change a mother's life, body and soul, and birth photographer Vanessa Mendez has dedicated herself to preserving birth stories, giving them life outside of mama's memory.
A recent birth she documented, the arrival of baby Indigo June, has gone viral because it highlights the beauty of birth and the incredible strength mothers possess.
"Women are filled with such power and such strength," Mendez wrote on Facebook, where her series of photos documenting Vanessa DeCosta's recent home birth has been shared nearly 350,000 times.
When DeCosta, now a mom of two, felt the early signs of impending birth in the early morning hours, she was preparing herself for a long labor like the one she had before giving birth to her first child, son Golden Wilde.
Knowing that her husband (who is in the Army's Interservice Physician Assistant Program) had a big microbiology test the next day, she let him sleep and took her phone into the bathroom where she settled into the bathtub, being as quiet as possible—but soon she couldn't be quiet anymore and it became clear that this labor would be different from her first.
"My body seemed to be taking over and every thought went out the window so my mind was only focused on getting through each second," she writes in a birth story posted to her blog.
This time, things were progressing faster. Her husband, Josiah, woke up and rushed into the bathroom, offering to call the midwife, but the mama-to-be had already alerted her doula, Desiree, and her certified nurse midwife, Nikki McIver-Brown via text.
Soon her birth team (including the photographer, Vanessa Mendez) was on the scene. DeCosta moved from the floor of the bedroom back to the bathroom as she waited for the birthing pool to be ready, and for her body to be ready. There were moments when she was struck by contractions so powerful she felt compelled to surrender, and she is glad Mendez was there to capture images of these raw, powerful moments.
"I remember thinking I was going to rip the door frame off I was gripping so hard," she writes.
Soon, the pool was ready, and DeCosta climbed in. She surrendered to the waves of her own personal ocean, and when the waves subsided she took a break, preparing herself for the contractions to come.
Her partner climbed in to give her support from behind when her body got tired.
"And a few contractions later I looked down and there was baby's head... RIGHT THERE, not going back up into my body but just.. sitting there. It stung but I was so happy to see it," she explains.
The burning was intense, but DeCosta waited for her next contraction before pushing. When it came, she rose to the challenge.
"I mustered my strength and listened to everyone cheer me on as I roared that baby out. I felt like a lioness in that moment. When I finally caught my breath and looked down, Nikki told me to reach down and pull my baby up."
The quick progress of her labor was not the only surprise for DeCosta that day. She didn't know the sex of the baby she was welcoming and was thrilled to pull a little girl to her chest. The family spent time bonding before her husband left briefly to take his microbiology test (which he did very well on, possibly the birth adrenaline counteracted the lack of sleep).
Since DeCosta shared her story on social media she says a lot of women tell her they wish they could do it too, but feel they are not strong or "hippie enough for that."
To DeCosta, it's a shame that more don't feel empowered to make choices about their birth experience. "For those women who do not think they are capable or think they have to fit into a certain box to birth at home, I say ignore everyone. You can be pro home birth and pro vaccines. You can decide not to breastfeed and still experience the beauty of home birth. You can have a low pain tolerance and still have an empowering natural labor," she tells Motherly.
"And for those who worry about the safety or legitimacy of it, I really suggest reaching out and talking to a licensed midwife in your community," she explains.
Home birth isn't for everyone (and only a small fraction of moms in America choose it) but DeCosta is so glad Indigo June came into the world at home. It's an experience she would never forget, and one these beautiful photographs will help her remember and celebrate.