Mothers’ Day is a day that celebrates mums and honours the role that mothers play in families and society.
But each year in Australia almost 2500 mothers suffer the death of their baby through stillbirth. 700 more women lose their newborns within the first few weeks of life. It’s estimated that another 103, 000 experience pregnancy loss through miscarriage.
That's one in every four women for whom the self-identity 'mother' rests on shaky ground.
For thousands of bereaved mothers Mothers' Day can be an acutely painful time. Sands is an organisation that provides support, information and education to anyone affected by the death of a baby before, during or shortly after birth, and CEO Andre Carvalho wants to recognise these mums.
“A bereaved mother’s experience of motherhood is inconceivably different to someone whose journey has taken the typical path.”
“Alongside the death of her baby she also loses her identity as a mother. Because hers is largely an invisible loss, her motherhood is not always recognised or acknowledged,” he said.
It’s a day that can be particularly difficult – even many years later – as so much meaning is entrenched in the concept of motherhood in society.
Since 2010 International Bereaved Mothers’ Day has taken place in the week before ‘traditional’ Mothers’ Day to give grieving mothers an opportunity to honour their role. It aims to give a sense of inclusion, community and comfort for women who have experienced miscarriage, stillbirth or newborn death. While they may not have a baby in their arms, they are still mothers and it’s important to share these stories.
Am I still a mother?
For an unforgettable few weeks in 1997 Sands volunteer Anne Altamore was a mother-to-be of twins - longed for babies conceived via IVF.
Sadly, very soon after seeing two healthy heartbeats, Anne suffered a miscarriage, claiming the lives of the two babies who would have grown to call her 'Mum'. After 12 harrowing years of IVF and another 17 failed embryo transfers, Anne never fell pregnant again.
"In all the years since I lost the twins I never considered myself a mother. I felt that because it was an early miscarriage, I didn't have the right to grieve," she said. “But to me, as soon as I saw those heartbeats, they were very real babies. I had all the same hopes and dreams of a life ahead with them as any other pregnant woman.”
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It wasn't until many years later when Anne first became involved with Sands that her identity as a mother was recognised.
"It was a watershed moment for me to be invited to a Sands meeting. To have others acknowledge and validate my experience. To be met with understanding instead of pity.”
Anne spend the day in reflection of her own experience.
"It's one day of the year when I give myself permission to grieve, something any therapist will tell you is an important part of the healing and recovery process, " Anne said.
All babies matter
Ashleigh Rousseaux is looking forward to celebrating her fifth Mothers' Day. Her eldest daughter Juliet, now five, is just reaching the age where she is getting excited to share in her mum’s special day, along with siblings Sophie (three) and Oliver (three months). However, Mothers’ Day is always a particularly bittersweet day for Ashleigh.
Her second child, Dominic, was stillborn in 2014.
“Since we lost Dominic, Mothers’ Day and other days like it are really difficult to cope with because they highlight how things are supposed to be and what the day should look like if Dominic were here,” Ashleigh said.
“There’s always this awareness that you're not experiencing the traditional Mothers' Day. We try to include Dominic in as many things as we can, like writing his name in cards, but the whole day is missing moments."
For mums like Ashleigh, the growing acceptance of International Bereaved Mothers' Day is a very welcome opportunity to have their motherhood seen and acknowledged.
It’s also an important awareness-raising day for the wider community
“[It] is a day where we can be ourselves, where there’s actually a place for people like us. It gives us some much-needed space for our babies who aren’t here,” Ashleigh explains.
“Our babies who’ve died matter to us just as much as the ones who are living. They’re just as present in every aspect of our daily life, but their presence is largely unseen.”
A missing presence
Heidi Welsh’s eight-year-old daughter, Evie, takes great pleasure in choosing a Mothers’ Day gift for her mum.
On the card she writes “Dear Mum. Love from Evie and Ellie”.
Evie takes great pains to always include Ellie – who was stillborn in 2017 – in the rituals and celebrations of family life.
Ellie tragically died in utero at 38 weeks gestation – just three days before Heidi's scheduled caesarean and right before Mothers’ Day.
“After Ellie died I tried my hardest to approach the day in a celebratory way, by focusing on my daughter, but my heart just wasn’t in it. I felt numb and flat. I wasn’t really there – I was just going through the motions,” she said.
“The death of your baby is the worst thing you can go through – it’s so multilayered.”
This year Mothers’ Day will present both challenges and blessings for Heidi and her family. They are approaching the first anniversary of Ellie’s birth and Heidi has also just given birth to her third child, a baby girl, Violet.
“Since Ellie died everything has changed. My whole personality has changed. What you expect of yourself and others changes and what you prioritise changes too,” Heidi explained.
“We had a moment in time with Ellie and then we had to let her go, but she’ll always be my daughter and I’ll proudly remain her mother.”
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