The thought of people wishing her a happy first Mother’s Day this year is difficult for Tari Okoya-Koren. It will be the first Mother’s Day she celebrates with her seven-month-old son, Rufus. But even among her friends and family, some struggle to understand that she’s been marking this holiday for years.
“It just sort of makes me wince or cringe at the idea of someone saying, ‘Happy first Mother’s Day,’ because I have had three,” Okoya-Koren, 34, tells Glamour. Before Rufus, there was a baby she and her husband, James, jokingly referred to throughout her pregnancy as Zebulon. In March 2016, at 22 weeks pregnant, she says she began experiencing pain and went to the hospital, delivering her baby weeks before he would’ve had a chance to survive. Zeb lived for two and half hours, time he spent almost entirely in his parents’ arms.
“There was nothing wrong with him, but he just came too early,” Okoya-Koren says. After Zeb’s death, the couple struggled both with their own grief and the unintentionally hurtful responses from some of their relatives.
“It was just sort of like a script: ‘This is God’s plan. This was supposed to happen. Just move on,’” Okoya-Koren says. “No one wanted to hear how I felt. No one asked me. It was more like, ‘Now that I have said my piece, I am going to carry on my merry way.’ That was really hard, because it was my family, and I’m close to my family.”
Her first Mother’s Day after losing Zeb was particularly difficult, and she and James spent the day at the beach near their home, where they had scattered their son’s ashes. By her second Mother’s Day, Okoya-Koren was pregnant again, but wasn’t ready to share the news. She also wanted to honor Zeb.
“Not that I wanted people to say, ‘Happy Mother’s Day’—that wasn’t it. I understand that for most people, Mother’s Day means you’ve got a living, breathing child you’re taking care of. But the acknowledgement is helpful, the acknowledgment that it is still a hard day,” Okoya-Koren says. “I had a few conversations that day that felt like folks were just trying to get off the phone. They didn’t want to bring it up.”
This year, even after the birth of Rufus and the joy that has come with it, she braces herself for that same lack of understanding about a fundamental part of her identity as a mother of two. “I’m not whole. I’m missing one,” she says.
“I was a mother.”
Loss is common enough, we should be prepared to field tough conversations like this with the people we love. Early pregnancy loss occurs in about 10 percent of clinically recognized pregnancies, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, with approximately 80 percent of those miscarriages occurring in the first trimester. About one percent of pregnancies in the U.S. will end in stillbirth (or a loss after 20 weeks gestation), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and every year about 24,000 babies die within their first year of life.
For women coping with loss at any stage, Mother’s Day can bring with it a sense of feeling misunderstood or unseen, according to Kate Kripke, founder and director of the Postpartum Wellness Center in Boulder, Colorado.
“One of the hardest things about Mother’s Day for women who have suffered neonatal losses is that people are celebrating mothers who have children to show as an example that they are mothers,” Kripke told Glamour. “I think that is something people can really struggle with: ‘I feel like a mother, but I have nothing to show for it. So is this Mother’s Day really for me? Or is it just for women who have babies and children that people can look at?’”
Stephanie Lynn Cohen, 33, says she felt this way after the death of her newborn daughter, Madison Rose. Born in June 2016 with a congenital heart defect, Madison underwent open heart surgery and was on the waiting list for a donor heart. That September, the baby died suddenly when she was two and half months old.
“My first Mother’s Day after losing Madison was extremely difficult, since I was a mother but with no living children for others to see,” Cohen told Glamour. “Family and friends acknowledged me as a mom, and sent cards or messages. My husband, Matt, took me away to Bermuda last year for Mother’s Day to get away and to try to find some sun and joy.”
This year the holiday brings its own joy and challenges. Cohen is now a mom to her second daughter, Cameron, who is four months old. When people ask whether Cameron is her first child, she says she “hates to lie” and say that she is, and it hurts when even family and friends avoid mentioning Madison’s name.
“We want to remember.”
A common mistake people make when trying to support someone who has lost a baby is not mentioning that child’s name, Kripke says, and Cohen agrees. “It is very hard when others do not acknowledge my loss, either because they feel uncomfortable or they just don’t know what to say. [Often] people are shocked or feel bad or are obviously sorry when I say that Cameron is not my first child. I am proud and love to tell people about Madison. I love to talk about her because she was a person, she did exist, and I never want others to forget her,” she says.
Mentioning her child’s name is not going to suddenly remind a mother of her loss; it’s something she already carries with her every day, Kripke says.
“The reality is that woman is already grieving,” she says. “It is really hard for a woman who has lost a baby or a young child to make sense of that infant or child’s significance in the world and in their life. One of the things those mothers can really grieve about is that no one is going to remember them. So we want to remember.”
For Ryan Davenport, 31, remembering the two children she lost at different stages of pregnancy is very important. On Father’s Day 2010, she began having contractions when she was 34 weeks pregnant. When she and her husband arrived at the hospital, doctors told them that their baby, who they named Paisly Grace, had already died. The couple had photos of their little girl taken before leaving the hospital.
“She was perfect. Perfectly formed, perfect fingers and toes, perfect nose and yet, perfectly still. I will never forget holding her tiny body in my arms and the heartache of seeing no life in her perfect little body,” Davenport told Glamour. “My husband and I sat and held her, we sang to her, I kissed her cheeks. I dressed her in her ‘take home outfit.’”
Davenport and her husband held a funeral for Paisly, and had many visitors in the weeks that followed, she says. Afterward, she could tell people didn’t quite know what to say or how to relate to her. “So many times I wanted to shout, ‘Hey! I’m a mother! I have a baby!’ even though she wasn’t with me,” she says.
“A sense of closure.”
By Mother’s Day 2011, Davenport was pregnant with the couple’s second child, Montgomery. “My husband got me a Mother’s Day gift and card and signed it: ‘From Paisly and Montgomery,’ and that’s exactly what I needed,” Davenport says. “I also had friends who gave me keepsake-type things which I still have and cherish. I have a snow globe with her name engraved on it; someone preserved her funeral flowers in a pretty airtight glass; a stamped necklace, a picture frame—just things that help me remember her.” And things that show others remember her too.
Not everyone in Davenport’s life was receptive to the idea that she was a mother to two girls, though. She says she would put “little sister” outfits on her new daughter, and once an acquaintance responded to that by saying, “She’s not over that dead baby yet,” she says. “Awkward silence was also horrible.” The arrival of a healthy baby didn’t just erase her pain, and that was hard for people to understand.
“Even after having Montgomery, I grieved. Because I knew what I had been missing, in theory, I was seeing in practice with her,” Davenport says.
She lost a third child at 18 weeks, and she says she was given the choice between having her labor induced or undergoing dilation and curettage, a procedure often performed after miscarriage and in abortions. “Being able to hold Paisly gave me a sense of closure and memories to cherish, so I chose that route again,” Davenport says. “I birthed the baby with the placenta intact and watched the nurses open the sac to find a tiny baby boy, who we named Cohen Abel.”
Davenport planted rose and hydrangea bushes in her garden to remember Cohen and Paisly, and when the rose bush “blooms every year around Mother’s Day, it’s like she’s saying ‘Hey mom! I see you!’” The couple went on to have two more living children, Bristol, three, and Huck, one, and holidays in the family are about celebrating all five of their children, she says. “Every card from my husband to me, or vice versa, we sign all the kids’ names,” she says. And there’s a Christmas stocking, and new ornaments every year, chosen based on what they think the lost babies would have liked. But Mother’s Day requires a little more time for reflection.
“I am so grateful to have three healthy babies here to celebrate, but I also grieve that they aren’t all here. I wake up a little earlier on Mother’s Day and their birthdays to give myself time to think about them, and cry, or do what I need emotionally to get through the rest of the day,” she says.
“It’s about just being real.”
Christina Shorter lost her first child, Rhys Cordell, at 39 weeks, just one week shy of his February 2009 due date. Doctors could not tell her why he died, which made the grief even more incomprehensible to her—and the family members who were trying to support her through it.
“As humans, we want to make sense of everything. Some family members would debate, in front of me, reasons why he died. This was highly maddening and hurtful. Others would say, ‘You’re young and healthy. You can try again.’ This too diminished my pain and grief,” Shorter, 41, tells Glamour.
At a Mother’s Day brunch to celebrate her mother- and sisters-in-law, Shorter remembers her husband leaning over to whisper “Happy Mother’s Day” to her. “This was exactly what I needed,” she says.
But still, she says she didn’t feel she could embrace Mother’s Day until the birth of her second child, Hudson, seven. She is now also mom to Vivienne, five. “Our first son made me a mother, but I didn’t feel that I could own that title,” Shorter says.
“There are plenty of women who lose pregnancies who don’t yet actually feel like mothers,” Kripke says, whether it’s an early miscarriage or an infant loss—but many women do. “There is a lot of pressure and expectation to feel a certain way [after loss]. So we really just want to get curious with those moms. One of the best questions we can ask is ‘How are you feeling?’ rather than ‘You must be feeling,’” she says. Asking at all is crucial to making support feel meaningful. Sharing “concrete memories” helps too.
For example, try saying something like, “I remember how much she smiled. I remember watching you and him gaze at each other. He was so sweet, I still hold that sweetness with me. Wow, he was such a tough baby,” Kripke says. “It’s about just being real.” Cohen agrees, saying that she found the “stereotypical or insensitive comments such as ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ or ‘God needed another angel,’” some of the most hurtful following Madison’s death.
“The words are tricky: happy Mother’s Day. A woman who has experienced a loss is probably not going to feel happy on Mother’s Day,” Kripke says. Instead, “We want to say, ‘Hey, I recognize it’s Mother’s Day, and I’m thinking about you.'”
Okoya-Koren says she and her husband plan to celebrate part of this Mother’s Day on the beach talking about Zeb. “Every time we do that, it gets a little bit easier, and it’s not as sad to talk about him,” she says. And Cohen, who founded a nonprofit to help other babies with congenital heart defects, says she has now come to view the holiday through a different lens.
“Mother’s Day is a day to remember all moms with both living and nonliving children. As I have learned, Mother’s Day is also a day to remember and think of those who want to be mothers but for many reasons can’t be or aren’t at the moment, but wish they were,” Cohen says. “Women supporting women is most important—on this day and always.”