Lifestyle photographer Ashley Maisonet has been taking pictures of pregnant women for about three years, but this emotional maternity session was a first for her.
Maisonet had the privilege of photographing Bella Maia Anderson, who wanted to celebrate the upcoming birth of her rainbow baby, four years after losing her first child. During the photo shoot, she captured a powerful image of hope in the aftermath of heartbreaking tragedy.
“I have dreamed of becoming a mother pretty much all my life, and losing my first child, Harlow, was very traumatic event yet healing in many ways,” Anderson told The Huffington Post.
The mom shared her story of loss on her blog, An Angel named Harlow. When Anderson was six months pregnant with Harlow back in 2011, her unborn baby was diagnosed with Potter’s syndrome caused by bilateral renal agenesis ― a condition in which a fetus fails to develop kidneys during gestation.
Babies diagnosed with this condition are typically stillborn or do not survive more than a few hours after birth. After Harlow’s diagnosis, Anderson made the difficult decision to carry her to full term. “Carrying a child knowing she was going to die as soon as she left my womb was the worst experience of my life, yet it has shaped me in so many ways.” she said. “I learned so much about myself, spirituality and gratitude, and it has certainly changed me as a person.”
Harlow was born on January 17, 2012 and passed away shortly after coming into the world. “I got to hold her, kiss her and spend about one hour with her, and I would do it all over again,” she recalled. “There is something majestic about holding a newborn in your arms ― it truly transforms you.”
Over four years later, Anderson gave birth to her second child, Skyler Rose Anderson, on July 29, 2016. When she was three months pregnant with Skyler, the mom learned the term “rainbow baby” after a friend sent her a photo of moms celebrating their babies born after loss.
“I shared the photo with my husband and we both thought, ‘We have to honor OUR rainbow baby.’” Anderson said. That’s when the couple reached out to Maisonet.
Maisonet had never heard of rainbow babies, but was immediately on board when Anderson’s husband James brought out a paint set to decorate her pregnant belly.
“After the paint was on, there was a moment of silence that fell, and I saw Bella look down at her belly with her palms up,” Maisonet recalled. “It was stunning to me. I saw ... and I captured.”
The photographer was also moved by the image during the editing process. “I’m sure there were a million thoughts running through Bella’s mind while looking at her belly and empty hands smeared with painted memories of her beautiful baby,” said Maisonet.
“Was she thinking of what could have been? Did she see the paint on her empty hands and think about her baby ― the one who should have occupied those hands?” she speculated. “I couldn’t tell you, but I know thoughts like those were racing through my mind as I captured and later took time to reflection over the image.”
Maisonet shared the emotional image and story with the Facebook page, Birth Without Fear, where it was liked over 33,000 times and shared by nearly 18,000 people. Many Facebook users shared their own rainbow baby stories in the comments section.
The photographer hopes her picture can help others who have experienced loss find joy. “A rainbow signifies a promise that comes after a storm,” she said. “I can only hope that after mourning and after healing, mothers like Bella can find the courage to smile at the life that once was and celebrate it with a tribute that will live on forever.”
Echoing this sentiment, Anderson told HuffPost, “I would like to hug every mother who has lost a child if I could and to tell her I understand her pain.” She added, “We may never fully understand why things like a baby dying happen but we must press on to make our lives, ourselves and our world better.”
The Andersons love the photo, both for the way it represents their story and the way its meaning extends to their community in Orlando, Florida. “The Pulse nightclub attack had just taken place when we took this photo, so rainbow flags were everywhere,” the mom explained. “My husband and I thought, what a beautiful thing if we can take those photos to share our story but also, in a time of such pain and hate in the world, to be a vessel of love, life and most importantly HOPE!”
She added, “After the storm, there’s a rainbow.”