Cherie Ayrton was elated to learn she and her husband were expecting twin baby boys. With two little girls at home already, she said “the excitement was unreal.”
“Two boys to complete our little family! How lucky were we!” she recalled thinking as she wrote about this chapter of her life for the website Love What Matters.
But on Christmas Day of 2017, Ayrton said, she told her sister that it felt like something was wrong.
Her feeling turned out to be more than just a fleeting thought. At Ayrton’s next ultrasound appointment, just two days later, the sonographer couldn’t detect a heartbeat on one of the babies, whom she had already named Johnny. The couple spoke with a specialist and learned they’d lost him.
“My worst nightmare had become my reality," Ayrton said.
Johnny and his brother Tiger, the surviving boy, were fraternal twins, which was lucky, Ayrton said, because “if they were identical, we would have lost both.”
She went on to carry the boys until 38 weeks. It was gut-wrenching.
“I had to slowly watch my son (Johnny) break down. First, his little eyes, nose and beautiful lips became harder to see. Then his tiny fingers and tiny toes started to look like they were fusing together. Finally, it got to the point where he lost all of his features. It was torture. I dreaded every single scan because I was scared of what I was going to see next. But on the other hand, I couldn’t wait until my next scan was booked so I could see him, and see his brother -- (and) make sure Tiger was OK. Feelings of great sadness for my son, mixed with extreme happiness for my healthy growing baby, was a complete mind screw. I felt like a temporary coffin. Just waiting for the day to get him out so I could grieve. But then never wanting to give birth, because I knew once he was out, he was gone forever. It was me keeping him here. My body. My womb. My broken heart.”
To rewind for a minute, when Ayrton had first learned she was pregnant, she booked Sarah Simmons, of Charlie Horse Photography, for both a maternity session and a newborn session.
Despite the sad circumstances that had unfolded, once Tiger was born, the New Zealand women decided they would go ahead with the photos.
“When (Ayrton) contacted me to tell me they had lost Johnny, I was gutted for her and just felt awful,” Simmons recalled. “ … She wanted to go ahead with the shoot for Tiger and the plan was just to do a normal newborn shoot like any other, but when I saw Cherie post a photo on her Instagram of her daughter Charlie holding Johnny’s ashes and Cherie said she talks to him and asks him questions about what it’s like in heaven and stuff like that, and I realized then that Johnny was a part of the family as much as Tiger was -- so I really wanted to include him in the shoot, if Cherie wanted.”
Ayrton said she would love that.
“It was then I realized I actually had no idea how,” Simmons said. “So I just thought photographing them both in the same bowl would be nice, just like they had shared the same womb.”
Simmons had never had any of her work go viral before, and said she was amazed at how many people came across Ayrton's story and Simmons' photos on social media.
The women are now good friends, and said they really bonded over the shared experience of capturing the memory.
“(Simmons) helped me to heal so much without even realizing it,” Ayrton said. “This photo is comforting to me and my family. We are so blessed to have it. She wanted to represent his cord wrapping around his brother, and them in my womb together.”
Initially, the idea was for Tiger to be asleep in the photo.
“We are so happy he stayed awake,” Ayrton said. “It makes the photo even more powerful, I think.”
As for why Ayrton chose to share her story and her photos, it all comes down to opening up the conversation about infant loss and stillbirths.
“I just wish people knew more about them in general,” she said. “I was so blind to the fact it would ever happen to me, which made it so (much) harder to deal with. I'm just trying to spread a bit of awareness around it so people don’t feel so alone.”
No one wants to talk about this because it hurts too much, Ayrton added, but said when something like this happens, it seems as if no one know how to treat you, and then people back away.
“There’s a lot of self-blame with child loss, because we as mothers are meant to protect our children, so if anything happens, we feel like it's our fault, even if it was out of our control,” Ayrton said. “Women (sometimes) don’t want to talk in case they are judged, because we judge ourselves -- when in fact, if we just shared our journeys more, people would be more supportive and tell you it's not your fault. You definitely need people there to remind you (of) that.”
Tiger just celebrated his first birthday. Simmons said she photographed the boy with Ayrton recently, and called him “just the smiliest, happiest baby.”
“I’m so grateful to have such a powerful photo of my boys together forever," Ayrton said.
All photos used with permission from Cherie Ayrton, copyright Charlie Horse Photography