I Wish, I Wish

Words & Photos by Martha Swann-Quinn

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Artifact Uprising Hardcover Photo Book on wooden surface next to pink lily and eucalyptus
The following is a story of pregnancy loss — a narrative of heartbreak, but also hope.

I’ve spent my life preserving family memories. From blurry snapshots capturing life as a little girl, to the hundreds of weddings and family milestones I’ve documented for more than a decade as a photographer, the story of life for me has always been told through photographs.

Like many people I have a well-established ritual of printing favorite pictures. After marrying, my husband and I filled our shelves with collections of photographs celebrating road trips and adventures with our beloved pups. It was only a matter of time, we thought, 'til baby books and family albums with photographs of our children would be on display too.

Framed sonogram laid out next to baby garments and nursery decor items

Little girl climbing up wooden patio stairs

For me, there was never a question about how our story would unfold, perhaps because growing up, words like “miscarriage” and “stillbirth” weren’t in my daily vocabulary. They were terms that, in my mind, were only ever whispered, and surely referred to tragedies that had happened long ago — to women living in another time. I hadn’t learned that nearly one in four pregnancies today ends in miscarriage and that one out of every one hundred babies is stillborn.

Pregnancy loss for me was always shrouded in mystery and silence, until one morning I opened Instagram and read a post my friend Hannah’s husband, Mike, had just shared.

First, he thanked family and friends for the outpouring of love and well-wishes received a week earlier when they had shared they were pregnant. But now, their celebrations would have to wait. Hannah and Mike had lost their baby.

It was Mother’s Day weekend.

Portrait of husband consoling wife taken by Martha Swann-Quinn
Photo by Martha Swann-Quinn of woman's hands holding up baby shoes

Heartbroken for my friends, I also felt helpless in the face of grief and at a loss as to how to comfort them. I wrote a simple note sending them my love, but grasped for meaningful words. Later, when Hannah thanked me for the note, she told me that one of the hardest parts of their loss was the silence that followed. Friends and colleagues who just weeks before had congratulated them on the pregnancy never said a word when the baby died. Their story, like those of so many others, was being relegated to whispers.

The more I learned about pregnancy loss and the silence and stigma that so often accompany it, the more I wanted to do something, however small, to help break that silence and overcome that stigma.

I thought again about my love for storytelling and documentation, and how sharing a difficult journey can make the storyteller feel recognized and seen. As a photographer, I believe that the images we make hold the power to create change, and so I set out to tell stories that would help anyone walking a similar path feel a little less alone.

The images we make hold the power to create change, and so I set out to tell stories that would help anyone walking a similar path feel a little less alone.

I posted a short message about the project online, hoping that perhaps a few women might be willing to talk about such a sensitive subject with me and collaborate on a project together. Within hours, I had received messages from women all over the country who wanted to share their stories.

Over the next few months, I talked with dozens of women and families. When we were able to meet in person, we sat and chatted, often for hours on end. Afterward, we created portraits and other photographs to accompany their stories.

I photographed Hannah and Mike in the garden where they had sat under the stars, wrapped in a blanket, the night they lost their baby. One woman met me at the cemetery where her babies were buried. Another asked me to photograph her as she got a tattoo memorializing her two losses. Still another woman met me by a lake where she often watched the sun set, remembering the baby who was stillborn at twenty four weeks. She had named him Aiden, which means “light.”

Reflection of light from the window on the wall
Shadow silhouette of tree leaves cast on the wall by light from the window

What surprised me most as I talked with families was the joy so many found after loss. One woman who shared her story was pregnant again and making plans to decorate the nursery. Another woman talked to me while cradling her rainbow baby — a phrase that would quickly feel familiar in conversations with parents who had experienced loss. For them, their child is the rainbow after the storm.

One of the most poignant conversations was with a couple who remembered losing two pregnancies more than thirty years ago, before the births of their many children and grandchildren. As we spoke, they reflected on the peace they found after learning to “grieve well.”

I too was reminded that joy, like grief, can shift. I became pregnant just as I completed the first collection of interviews. A few weeks later I sat in a darkened room, draped with a paper sheet, and heard the three words that brought our world crashing down.

“There’s no heartbeat.”

double exposure photo by Martha Swann-Quinn of woman sitting against the wall
Photo by Martha Swann-Quinn of empty bed visible through crack in the door

The late summer sun was shining outside, but there in the darkness, we were losing our baby.

I had spent countless hours with each of the women I had photographed. I had listened to their stories and cried alongside them as they remembered each and every loss. Even then, I was not prepared to hear those three words.

I heard them again, echoing in my ears a few months later when we lost our second baby, less than a year after losing our first.

“No heartbeat.”

“No heartbeat.”

“No heartbeat.”

Time passed, and I continued to write. The last story I added to the project was my own.

I titled the project I wish, I wish: Stories of Loss, Love & Motherhood and shared our stories online as they were completed. As the final collection took shape though, I knew that the most fitting tribute would be something more enduring than a post or web page: a printed book of the narratives and portraits. Carefully crafted and beautifully bound, the stories and photographs would become a family album of sorts for the babies we never got to know.

The last story I added to the project was my own.

Photo by Martha Swann-Quinn of a written story inside of her Artifact Uprising Hardcover Photo Book

Photo by Martha Swann-Quinn of several pregnancy tests lined up on the edge of the sink

I’ll never forget the day the book from Artifact Uprising arrived on my front porch. Holding the stories of our babies in my hands was incredibly healing. I felt at peace, knowing that by the simple act of sharing our journeys and the stories of the babies we had lost, we ensured they weren’t forgotten.

A collection like this is never truly finished, and I know that I will continue to add to it for many years to come. Countless other stories wait to be told — those of more diverse communities and experiences, of fathers who also experience the heartbreak of loss, single mothers who often grieve alone, losses amongst the LGBTQIA+ community, couples who experience secondary infertility after a healthy birth, and so many others.

Here, like the project itself, our stories remain intentionally unfinished. Some women experienced additional losses, while others welcomed their rainbow babies into the world. Still others continue to wait and hope.

This volume offers a snapshot of each experience — no more, and no less.

Interior pages of Artifact Uprising Hardcover featuring photos by Martha Swann-Quinn
Interior pages of Artifact Uprising Hardcover featuring photos by Martha Swann-Quinn

Following our losses, I too was often urged by friends and family to remain hopeful as I looked to the future. But as the months passed, though I did continue to hope, the dreams I had for my future family slowly shifted, and I realized the most overwhelming feeling I had following our miscarriages wasn’t hope, but love. Love for the babies we had lost, love for my husband, love for those who held us in our times of grief and waiting, and love for the many families who had come before us, shared their stories with us, and made us feel seen in our journey.

Now, years later, as I hold our daughter in my arms, that’s what I see when I look at these stories.

Through loss and fear, through excitement and hope clouded by uncertainty — in the end, I still see so much love.

Rays of light flooding in from the window onto the dedication page of I Wish, I Wish by Martha Swann-Quinn as a sprig of lavender rests on the page
Through loss and fear, through excitement and hope clouded by uncertainty — in the end, I still see so much love.

Everyone has a story to tell.

About the Author

Liz Bell Young headshot

Martha Swann-Quinn is a wedding and portrait photographer helping families to preserve their unique legacies and tell their most meaningful stories. Her work has been featured in gallery shows including the traveling exhibit The Art of Infertility and she is dedicated to exploring the many dimensions of reproductive justice through collaborative projects. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and daughter, and still makes time for adventures with them — and their beloved pups too.

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