In 2015, I faced Mother’s Day thirteen days after cremating my beloved Tamlorn. Tam was my first pregnancy, silently miscarried before 12 weeks. I was devastated and could not bear to be around anyone else. I took Tam’s ashes down to a quiet camping place by the beach, and slept in the back of my van so that I could weep and paint and be silent, and talk to them as much as I needed to when Mother’s Day dawned. I wrote letters I never sent to my own Mother, to my Godmother, to other women who have mentored me. On another day I went to visit my Mum with a gift and celebrated her. That evening I returned home and Rose and I planted a peach tree in Tamlorn’s memory. But that morning I needed to be alone with my raw grief. I couldn’t bear to pretend for a moment that I could think or breathe about anything other than my dead child.
It wasn’t my first Mother’s Day with grief. I wanted children but have fertility problems. After a long term relationship ended with me fleeing homeless to a domestic violence shelter, I was glad I’d not had children, but I also grieved what might have been. Approaching my 30th birthday, the cut off I’d been given by doctors if I ever wanted to carry a child, I started to read books on grieving infertility. On bad days I would get stuck crying in the baby aisle at the shopping centre, entranced by the sweet baby things I had no need of, full of hopeless longing.
My beloved partner Rose has suffered the loss of six unborn children before we met. Mother’s Day is a day she greets with a dread horror. The first time it came around for us as a couple, I bought her a candle. I was scared of intruding on her grief, but I was more afraid that she might think no one remembered her pain and her babies. It was a small token, given carefully. She wept. There was an endless pit of grief in her, utterly black and desolate. It was a wasteland of broken dreams and profound loss. Unnamed babies and lonely hours of heartbreak and suffering through their loss had left a wound in her so deep I was afraid nothing I did could help. But down in that darkness was now a candle. In among the memories of times she’d been told to ‘just get over it’ that ‘they’re not really babies’, or that ‘your body is killing your babies and no one knows why’ was something else – recognition that she was a Mother. It was the start of something different from suicidal depression and terrible suffering for her.
The second Mother’s Day we spent together, we were invited at the last minute to join her some of her family for a dinner. Delighted, we attended. Being around this little family was bittersweet on that day. I held her hand. The children ran around wildly after bath time, a riot of hugs and wet, clean skin and perfect smelling hair. The light in the home was golden orange. We were glad to be there and holding onto our own sadness tightly. After dinner, the Grandmother rose to clear the plates away and another person said ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be doing that on Mother’s Day!’ We were asked to do the dishes, as the only adult women present who were not Mothers. We did so without complaint. It was several days before I erupted with rage at home, bursting red hot from my numbness at their casual insensitivity and my own silence. Mother’s Day always brought with it these injuries, so slight to others, and such searing, sobbing, wrenching pain for us. The anniversaries that pepper our year, of conception dates, death dates, due dates for babies we never got to meet have a private anguish of their own. But the constant stripping of identity that is Mother’s Day is a different kind of agony. It comes with so many casual comments – that ‘we can’t possibly know what it’s like to have children of our own because babysitting isn’t the same’. That ‘it will be wonderful when one day we can be Mothers’. Or, knowing we planned to have children together; ‘so which one of you is going to be the real Mother?’
What is a real Mother? She carried that child herself. She is the genetic Mother who produced the egg. She’s not transgender, or a stepmum, or a godparent, or a nurturing aunt. She hasn’t adopted or fostered or taken on young people in need. There’s so many stories Mother’s Day doesn’t speak to. Most of all – she has a living child. We strip the name Mother from those who do not, and unlike widows, our language fails to replace it with anything to signify the loss. We are not-Mothers, not-real-Mothers, not-really-Mothers. There’s no place for our experiences on Mother’s Day, in the same way there’s no place for the experiences of those of us with abusive or absent Mothers. What there is instead is a lot of swallowing down that pain and trying to survive the day.
Each year, Rose and I have moved further away from staying quiet and allowing other people to decide our story for us. We have both stopped trying to get over our experiences, or to look like we are coping. We buy each other gifts on days like Mother’s Day, and we go somewhere special together and hold hands, and cry. We tell friends or share on our social media what the day means to us. I write and paint about pregnancy and miscarriage and grief. When people ask us if we have children, or how many we have, we have started to count those not with us, or to say simply ‘none living’. With Tamlorn we changed the pattern completely and mourned them in public. They were given a name, they were cremated. We planted a peach tree in their memory. We told people, not only that we were pregnant – despite the advice not to- but that they died.
I started to push back against the wave of well-meaning people who inflicted pain in a thousand small ways. It took time to find ways to gently say things like ‘I know you mean well, but that hurts me to hear’. I also found a rising sense of rage that those of us who were suffering were expected to keep it hidden, for the sake of those who did not wish to be disturbed. This anger I tapped into when people pushed hard, trying to make us stop grieving, stop considering our losses ‘real’, or failing to be optimistic enough about how God/the universe was going to provide. I lost patience with those who kept pushing their ideas on either of us, even when we expressed pain. Some relationships were burned. But in small ways, the pain was less. There were far fewer of these constant new wounds from people around us, and when they did come we were no longer as silent or accepting. Speaking up and pushing back changed the pain. It was like slowly drawing poison from deep wounds. They were still deep and terrible, but not driving into suicide or despair. Other relationships grew stronger, friends saw us more clearly, understood the bitter-sweetness in our lives better. Our hearts were more visible. We asked for what we needed, told people what it helped us to hear. People who loved us connected in ways that didn’t hurt.
We also started to be part of events or support for others who had experienced miscarriage or loss. We sat weeping and numb together at a walkathon and released a white balloon. I called helplines and attended a support group. I saw in the trauma and devastation of other people’s stories our own pain reflected. We were not alone, not crazy, not unusual in this world at all. I saw in others and myself the symptoms of severe trauma – very familiar to me as I was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder at 15. No one seemed to be acknowledging to any of us that these experiences could be deeply traumatic, with fear, blood, helplessness, horror, death, and a terrifying indifference from many of those around us. I felt like I had fallen into a secret underclass of people staggering home wounded from a war nobody speaks about.
Talking to others who have suffered multiple losses with no living children yet, for the first time Rose and I didn’t stand out and we didn’t need to hide anything. When I called the Sands helpline, overwhelmed by fear and a sense of death when we started trying to conceive again after Tamlorn’s death, a woman’s voice held me in all the shame and terror of how profoundly broken I felt, and told me exactly what I needed to hear: this is normal. It drives us crazy. It drives us into breakdowns. This is what it is. You do not need to be ashamed. Don’t carry it alone.
So, this year, as Rose and I are expecting again, we approach Mother’s Day with grief, excitement, and a determination to do what we need to do to affirm to ourselves that we are Mothers, and that our needs and grief counts. We will find private moments to hold each other and talk of our babies. We will give small gifts and be gentle with ourselves and each other. If people exclude us or advise us in ways that hurt we will push back gently. We will be together or apart as we need, in company or privacy as our hearts require. We will tell our babies we love them. We will ask our friends and family to be gentle with us. We will hurt, and hope, and mourn, and celebrate each other, and love. As Mothers.
If you require support after reading this blog please contact
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Sarah K Reece
Sarah K Reece is a ‘mad artist’, poet, and public speaker. She and her partner Rose have each experienced miscarriage on their hard road to becoming Mums. They live in Adelaide with their non-biological teenage daughter and as many pets as their unit can fit. Sarah lives with disability and is a passionate about mental health. She uses her business to fund networks that offer free community resources for vulnerable people. Sarah creates art such as ink and oil paintings and sculptures to make her private experiences public, gently opening up spaces about taboo topics such as pregnancy loss. You can find her art and personal blog at sarahkreece.com