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Navigating the noise: how I became a more confident mum

Once I was calm, in control and able to problem-shoot a million issues without breaking a sweat. I thought critically about everything and I got paid to “cut through” as a corporate lawyer.

But as a first-time mum, even a cry would send my nerves sky high, my brain into panic mode and trigger the “I can’t do this” self-talk. A first vomit (no one talks about that gruesome milestone!) saw us racing to the Royal Children’s Hospital. And I was drowning in information and advice that was often contradictory, irrelevant and usually unsolicited.

When you become a mother there’s so much noise from the sidelines: from the pages of books; from the internet; from family and friends; and, even, from complete strangers.

One time when Little Mate was around six months old, a friendly-faced woman approached me at the shops. She poked her head into the pram and said “ah, he looks ready for a sleep.”

Those words instantly triggered my anxiety. Settling the little guy at night was challenging for us and I’d been told that he should be self-settling to sleep in his bed during the day. Quickly I made tracks for home, stopping only to poke Little Mate out of his increasingly sleepy state and chastising myself for being out too long.

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Now after two more kids and eight years, it’s different.

Now I call advice that does not suit the unique characteristics, personalities and needs of our family at a particular day or time: “noise”. I’m not saying that advice about a daytime nap routine is “noise”, but rather that there are other factors that also need to be considered – like a mum’s need for extra time out of the house – and, in that case, maybe daytime nap advice is “noise”.

While I still waiver and deliberate at times in making decisions as a parent, I no longer feel so overwhelmed by all the information and advice. Three things stand out as significant in my journey to more confidence.

1. Getting professional help

We sought professional help for one of our kids early on. Certain everyday tasks and some social situations were challenging for him: mainly, getting out of PJs, leaving the house and sitting still. Kinder was also not a happy place for him.

When you have a child that is different, you might wonder what you have done wrong – I certainly did. And while I was never that interested in making comparisons, it’s hard not to as a parent when a lot of things are measured in relative terms (eg the way children’s height and weight is measured in percentiles against other children).

Meeting with a developmental paediatrician and later, an occupational therapist, was the start of the turning point for me. These professionals gave us advice tailored to our children and our family. They reassured us about all the things we were doing right (many things they suggested we’d in fact already done) and offered us new strategies to try.

We found books and the internet were not particularly helpful. Sometimes in fact they stoked the fire of my parenting guilt when they suggested things that I could do when my child was a baby that I had not done (he was already three and a half)!

What I know now is that parenting books provide general guidance for a broad audience. When I look back on some of them now, what I see is not all the things I could have done but all the reasons why the book doesn’t suit our family.

They also cannot just be taken as wisdom because they’ve got a shiny cover – a recent study in the UK concluded that some books go against government advice on important issues such as safe sleeping: see Professor Amy Brown and Victoria Harries, “Some baby care books are giving advice that goes against safe infant care guidelines”, The Conversation, 4 July 2019 (http://theconversation.com/some-baby-care-books-are-giving-advice-that-goes-against-safe-infant-care-guidelines-117606).

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2. Finding someone to talk to

Some people have friends, relatives or parents they can call on to discuss parenting advice and information and whether it works for their family. Maternal health nurses can also be good for this.

My number one “go-to” has been and remains, our nanny, Jess. For more than six years, we’ve had the benefit of her wise and supportive counsel. Jess came to us with about 10 years of nannying under her belt, childcare and teacher’s aid qualifications, a life lived around children and a desire to always learn more. And she knows our family intimately.

Our relationship has always been a two-way street and most “Jess days” start with lots of chatter. We both bring ideas and observations to the table and workshop them in the context of our family circumstances.

3. Getting some “wins” on the board

There were lots of little wins along the way, like weight gains, smiles and rolls, first words and first steps. But one thing that really stands out to me now as having really boosted my confidence as a mum was when our little guy, who’d detested kinder, bounded into the school gate on day one of Prep with not much more than a “see-you tonight Mum and Dad.” We really haven’t looked back since.

 

With children aged eight, six and two, I certainly don’t have all the answers (teenagers…argh!). But what I do now have are the tools to find the answers for our family. My number one tool in my toolbox is my gut instinct. Now I have enough confidence to trust it in all the noise.

Whatever stage you are in your parenting journey, I hope this post gives you comfort that you were or are not alone and, perhaps if you’re in the thick of it, some ideas for what might just help get you through it.

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Body safety education: protecting their innocence or taking it away?

At eight and six years of age, we’re sending our boys out into the world more and more without being right by their side.

As they grow, our ability to veto the people they come into contact with becomes less and less.

This trend will continue as the kids ask for more opportunities to be independent, which is something we’ll encourage to grow their confidence and resilience.

But how do we keep them safe?

The answer for our family is body safety education.

But what does that conjure up for you?

Do you wonder where to start, what words to use, how far you’ll have to go?

Do you feel sick thinking about talking about private parts with your kids?

Do you feel your child is ‘not old enough’ and fear you’ll end their carefree, happy and innocent childhood by talking about these things?

For my latest blog I spoke with Caroline Ellen, a Melbourne Mum of two with many years’ experience as a social worker and educator in schools on body safety. Caroline runs a business called ‘Safer Stronger Kids,’ which offers body safety courses for parents, as well as parent training and mentoring more generally.

In a series of posts on this site, I’ve been exploring the idea that ‘kids should be kids’ and, it’s variant, ‘let kids be kids’. It seems to me the values associated with these ideas, including kids being happy and having fun, and being sheltered from the worries of the adult world, may hijack talking to our kids about body safety. Some of the things we do because we want to ‘let kids be kids’ could compromise their body safety too – like giving their private parts nicknames and dismissing or minimising their feelings and jumping in to solve their problems.

If something is holding you back from talking to your kids about these things, I hope this post encourages you to think about it further.

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1. Goodbye innocence, hello worries?

“Some people say they’re worried their child’s innocence will be taken away in educating them on body safety. To that I say that body safety education does not take away their innocence, it helps to protect it by keeping them safe from abuse,” says Caroline.

Caroline also says that parents can be concerned about worrying their kids about the prospect of sexual abuse. But Caroline says the research shows that kids don’t worry more or become more anxious when they do body safety education. “It’s actually can be an empowering experience for them,” she says.

Caroline recommends that parents start giving body safety messages from when their kids are three and, otherwise, as soon as possible.

“It sounds early doesn’t it, but the secret is using age-appropriate language,” she says.

“And the advantage of starting early is that the messages can be reinforced over time. When you are wiping your child’s bottom, for example, you can talk about your child’s body parts and who can touch them.”

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2. What’s in a name?

“The way we name and talk about our private parts is a really good example of a topic within the body safety umbrella that parents really struggle with,” says Caroline.

“Parents can worry about telling their children the anatomical names for their private parts. It can make them feel awkward and embarrassed, perhaps because when they were kids these things were never discussed or were regarded as dirty or rude words. They may also feel that by using the correct anatomical terms, it may sexualise their child.”

“The other thing I hear frequently is that parents worry that their child will run through the playground shouting ‘penis, penis, penis’. To that I ask, have you ever heard a child running through the playground shouting ‘arm, arm, arm’? Kids will take their cues from their parents – if you are uncomfortable saying these words, if you react like they’re rude or dirty words, the kids will pick up on it.”

And this is not just an oh, aren’t we a funny lot us parents, light-hearted kind of discussion. It’s serious and may, according to Caroline, compromise their body safety in a number of ways.

“Firstly, if children sense that we’re uncomfortable talking about private parts, that they’re dirty words or they are shameful, including when we give them nicknames, they may not talk to us when something is wrong or if they experience sexual abuse.  Secondly, your child might have difficulty getting help if they are unfamiliar with the proper names for their private parts because the person they approach may not know what they mean or may be less likely to take it seriously. And, another reason is that the use of unusual nicknames may affect any investigation of abuse.”

3. Building confidence in their feelings

We all want happy children. We want our children to look back on their childhood and say it was happy.

Sometimes we can be too quick to jump in and solve our children’s problems: to turn that frown upside down!

And sometimes we might dismiss or minimise their feelings. I know I do it when we’re in a rush to get out the door. Does “you’ll be right” sound familiar or “don’t worry, everything will be all right in the morning”, or even “don’t be silly”?

And while this all comes from the right place – from love and a desire to make everything better – it could actually be compromising our children’s body safety.

Caroline says we need to allow children to express their feelings and have confidence in what they are feeling.

“It’s an important component of body safety education – to help kids listen to their bodies, to encourage them to trust their bodies and to give them the message that we trust them too,” Caroline says.

It means that if they are in a situation that makes them uncomfortable, they can process the messages their body’s are giving and they know we will have their backs to speak up and remove themselves from the situation. Makes sense, doesn’t it!

4. Culture of consent

Another really important aspect of Caroline’s body safety education program for parents relates to teaching kids that they are the boss of their own body and body bubble (and that each other person is the boss of their own body). This discussion is a building block to understanding consent.

Caroline urges parents to not just have these conversations with their children, but to create a culture of consent at home as well.

“Sometimes this is the hardest part”, says Caroline. “As the parent, we can rely on our size and our strength to get things done. Like, for instance, getting our children to brush their teeth, getting them into the car or the pram pronto or even changing their nappy.”

But what kind of culture does it create? What is it telling our children for when they are older and beginning to have sexual relationships?

Our boys like to kiss Miss Gubby goodnight. But lately she’s been saying ‘no’. Yes, I want my children to be polite and I want to foster strong sibling relationships. But what am I telling Miss Gubby, and what am I telling the boys, if I allow them to force it? As Caroline says, no one owes anyone else physical affection. So at these times, with Caroline’s wise words in my head, I explain that Miss Gubby is the boss of her own body, that the boys can ask for a kiss or a cuddle (and they should ask first!), but she can decide if she agrees or not, just as the boys also have that power to decide if someone asks them too.

While Caroline acknowledges that we parents cannot always ask for or wait for consent (for example, nappy changes or where a child needs to see a doctor but doesn’t want to), we can explain the reason why we need to do something (for example, to keep the child healthy or safe), make the situation more comfortable and give them some choices around it.

In her course, Caroline also talks about that tricky situation where a friend or a relative asks for a hug or a kiss and the child doesn’t want to.

“It’s really important that we don’t override the child’s feelings because we want them to trust their feelings. We want them to know that they are the boss of their own body and they can give and refuse affection as they choose and that they have our full support to do so. Of course we also want our kids to be polite, but there are many ways to greet or farewell people or to thank them for gifts. Saying hello, goodbye or thank you are also polite gestures,” says Caroline.

A high-five is a favoured gesture in our family – and I know our kids generally feel comfortable with a high-five in most situations. So when they’re trying to come up with a gesture to mark a greeting or a farewell and they’re a bit stuck because they sense the person might want more than just words, this is often the one I suggest!

PS

And, on the subject of high-fives: if you made it this far I’d like to give you a virtual one! This is not easy this stuff. In fact, it’s hard, really hard, to get our heads around. It’s the stuff no one tells you about when you’re waddling around with baby no one on the way and it’s oh so important.

I hope this post has been thought-provoking reading. Any questions or comments, please let me know!

In terms of help getting started talking to your kids about body safety, I’d hand on heart recommend Caroline’s body safety course to you. Caroline offers tools for having the conversations and creating a culture at home that promotes body safety. While founded in academic research and years of experience, Caroline’s advice comes with a healthy dose of reality. “Some days we don’t get these things right, me included,” she says.

For more about Safer Stronger Kids and to learn about Caroline’s body safety course, see @saferstrongerkids on Facebook. A new look body safety course for parents is launching in November 2019!

 

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From laundry hang-outs to lunch dates: Seven cracking tips for one-on-one time with your kids

A photograph of Katie, Dave and their 8 children

Parenting experts everywhere talk about the benefits of one-on-one time with your kids.

From helping your child to feel important and developing their own unique identity, to warding off negative attention-seeking behaviours, one-on-one time between parent and child is a go-to parenting strategy.

For me, with three under wing, one-on-one time is something I’ve aspired to but generally found difficult. I manage the household solo on most weekday evenings and, by the time the weekend rolls around, all-in family time becomes the priority.

Recently I raided my friend Katie’s bag of tricks for one-on-one time ideas. If anyone would know, it would be Katie with eight kids ranging in age from 20 years down to nine years (with twin girls at positions six and seven).

Katie’s tips for one-on-one time are practical and insightful and I think bring one-on-one time within the reach of all families.

1. Make the snippets count!

Not all one-on-one time needs to be planned weeks in advance or involve expensive or elaborate outings.

Katie suggests making the little moments count too, like a trip to the shops, the doctor or the dentist, doing chores at home or time in the car.

“If you’re heading out to run errands, invite a child along and build in a quick stop at a coffee shop. Or make the most of your time on the sidelines at soccer or tennis practice – bring a book to read together or chat and have some cuddles,” says Katie.

“Car trips to and from sport and work, even driving lessons (there’s a whopping 120 hours of one-on-one time in that!) are great for engaging one-on-one with your child. Because you cannot make sustained eye contact, I find the conversations cover a broader range of topics, including things they may be embarrassed to raise at other times.”

2. Be bold and schedule more elaborate outings too!

This means that the child looks forward to their special time. It also means that the other children know about it and also know when their turn is coming up, minimising resentment and jealousy.

“When our family was younger, we took a more scheduled approach to one-on-one time. One child a month would get special one-on-one time with a parent. We would allow the child to choose the thing they wanted to do (and choose the parent they wanted to do it with). It could be a trip to the movies, lunch, a bike ride etc,” says Katie.

Katie finds their family plans these outings less and less now as their calendars are full and need to be more flexible.

“These days we prefer not to plan things as much. The danger with making plans is we may have to cancel or postpone them when things come up,” says Katie.

3. Notes, texts and other personal interactions

As your children grow, the ways you interact with them will change and expand. Katie considers that text messages with her children can count as one-on-one time.

What about a note in your child’s lunchbox wishing them well in the school’s speech competition?

Or what about a shared diary or notebook that can be used to communicate thoughts or ideas in writing just between you and them? Sounds kind of Elizabethan doesn’t it? But maybe it could help your child work through issues that are bothering them and that they don’t wish to raise in a spoken conversation.

4. Sign them out for a lunch or coffee date!

Sign your child out of school during lunchtime for a quick bite to eat or a coffee while the other children remain at school or in care.

“This works where all children are in care, kinder or school. It’s also a great strategy if it’s hard for one partner to cover the other partner with the other children. Years ago we had a babysitter for the younger children at various times. Having cover for the younger children allowed me to grab one of the older children from school or allowed me to take one of the younger children out alone,” says Katie.

“When we do take a child out of school at lunchtime, we’re really conscious to be back before the end of lunchtime so that the outing does not interrupt the child’s classroom. We also encourage our kids not to make a big deal of it with their friends and classmates as not all kids may get the same opportunity,” she says.

5. Call on a “sub”

One-on-one time doesn’t always need to be with mum or dad. Enlist trusted friends and family members to spend special individual time with your children.

In Katie’s house, for each child’s birthday, Grandma takes the child out for lunch and to buy a present.

“This has become a very special tradition in our family. Each child looks forward to their special time with Grandma around their birthday.”

And now that Katie’s eldest child can drive, he often takes one of the younger children out for a special treat too.

“Emma loves basketball and will accompany Luke to his basketball games (she scores the matches). This is a special time for both of them and I see it as strengthening their sibling bond.”

6. Be flexible and let it evolve over time

With serious parenting runs on the board as a mum of eight over 20 years’, Katie says it’s also important to acknowledge that what the individual child needs and what the family can manage will change over time.

Perhaps elaborate and planned one-on-one time is out of the question at the moment for your family because of work or other commitments or because flexibility in the calendar is key (as is currently the case for Katie’s family). But that may change down the track, so Katie suggests being open to change and also aware of your current limits.

7. Consider each child’s individual needs

Photograph of Katie and one of her children.

Katie says that some of her children ask for or seek out one-on-one time with her. Others don’t ask for or seek it out at all. And some only need it some of the time.

And what they ask for or seek out differs between them.

“One of our children likes hanging out in the laundry with me. That child will often follow me into the laundry and we will chat while I do the washing,” she says.

Katie uses the walk home from school and those first minutes as her children enter the house after school as a time to gauge who might need some special time alone with her later in the afternoon and evening.

“I know when things are off and can generally tell when someone might need some attention later on,” she says.

“My advice is to go with what they ask for, seek out or otherwise need,” says Katie.

To me that seems to be the key to all of this. After all, one-on-one time is really all about treating your child as an individual.

PS

I’ve tried out some of Katie’s ideas since first chatting to her about this blog:

  • The lunch date during school lunch time idea turns out to be gold, gold, gold!
  • A movie for two is also a winner!

To make those things happen, I’ve had to rethink how I spend my time when Jess our nanny is here. From now on its no longer purely kid-free time!

Speaking with Katie has also helped me appreciate the little and spontaneous moments I have individually with my kids every day (and the moments other important adults in their lives also have). The mornings when one child wakes first. Bath time when the other children are playing. A few kicks of the footy outside with our number one sportsperson Dames. Damien and Miss Gubby’s Saturday morning swimming lesson. And the wonderful moments that our children share one-on-one with their grandparents, their godparents, other significant adults and with Jess our nanny. These moments all count too!

I also feel like I now have permission not to always be planning the big, bold and elaborate one-on-one outings I’ve always aspired to but found hard to make happen – because sometimes in family life they just aren’t possible!

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The Letdown Season 2: Delivering Babies Or A Reality Check?

Image of a mother in her child's room. From the Letdown Season 2

Note: this post contains reference to abortion and might be difficult to read.

Last year I wrote about how the Letdown Season 1 provided a reminder to us parents that we are not alone in the challenges we face.  Like many others I have chatted to about the show, I saw so many of my own experiences reflected in that first Season.

I could also make a long list of the scenes from episodes 1 and 2 of Season 2 of The Letdown, currently airing on the ABC, and add a “just like me” comment to the end of those too.

But the early episodes of Season 2 do that and so much more.

Significantly we learn that women just like us and families just like ours can face the difficult decision to terminate a pregnancy. And that women just like us and families just like ours indeed do terminate.

It provides a reminder of the diversity of our stories and challenges us to think about abortion as not just someone else’s issue. 

Audrey (Alison Bell) in Season 1 is me with my eldest (Little Mate) as a newborn: struggling to work out where I belong. Struggling to work out sleep strategies. Struggling to chart my own parenting course. And Jeremy (Brendan Cowell) is Damien: soothing, calming, understanding, supporting. At the end of Season 1, Audrey and Jeremy are us when they find out they are pregnant again and on track to have two babies under two.

Season 2 starts with the same level of familiarity. The setting is Stevie’s first birthday party:

There I am finishing a birthday cake with lashings of buttercream icing and lollies at 1am in the morning – actually it’s almost 3am and it’s Little Mate’s 5th birthday I’m cramming for – disaster struck earlier when the rocket ship of sponge rolls failed to stand vertically (yes, two cream-filled sponge rolls, one on top of the other). Not possible it turns out…

There we are considering questions about party entertainment… Sugar-filled or sugar-free baking? Alcohol for the adults (who’s party is it anyway?) For Dames’ 5th birthday, I spent weeks on the party bags, to the point where I had kilograms of soap sent from WA for me to melt and set into shapes with a plastic dinosaur inside…

There I am with visitors arriving before I’ve had a chance to shower and do my hair the way I want it…

It’s a look from the outside in and it is hilarious. It feels normal. It feels like my experience. I know it.

But while I’ve got one eye on the fun and hilarity and the trip down memory lane, the other is on Audrey: her abdomen, her demeanor, what she’s eating, what she’s saying (just a bit like the tabloids dissecting every glance, every move a couple of very famous Duchesses have made over the last few years)…

Yep, I’m looking for signs that Audrey is pregnant.

We see Audrey drinking champagne and eating what appears to be soft cheese at Stevie’s party. And I think: well the drink is okay – the contemporary guidance permits an occasional one when pregnant. That soft cheese, though Aud, I’d definitely steer clear of that.

We see a flash back to a discussion between Audrey and Jeremy about Audrey’s doctor’s appointment. With all the complications from Stevie’s birth, we learn that this pregnancy is high risk. And I think: you’ll need a highly experienced OB Audrey, love. Let me know if you need any recommendations…

Later we hear Audrey ask Jeremy: “Did we do the right thing?” and are left hanging on for episode 2. And I wonder: what “thing” was it?

As episode 2 progresses, the signs that Audrey and Jeremy have decided to terminate their pregnancy mount: Audrey donates her maternity jeans; Audrey talks about needing a distraction and is more confused and indecisive than usual; and, there’s a flashback scene involving Audrey selecting a movie that includes an abortion in the storyline.

But, honestly, for me it takes Audrey to give us the statistics – that 1 in 4 women terminate a pregnancy and the majority of those women are mothers – for the penny to really drop…

Followed by a denial from Audrey though, there’s a small part of me that still thinks perhaps that penny’s still wobbling on the edge…

Why does it take so much for me to see it?

I think it’s because choosing to have an abortion sits uncomfortably: not with my beliefs necessarily, but with my experience. I see Audrey just like me and Audrey and Jeremy just like us. And yet, we have never considered an abortion. And I have never personally known anyone to have had an abortion either.

And that is the absolute genius of The Letdown in the first two episodes of Season 2 – it demonstrates to us that people (and families), including people (and families) like us, terminate pregnancies.

We aren’t told what to think about abortion in The Letdown (indeed the program offers a variety of viewpoints and perspectives). Instead we are encouraged to think about it and to think about it not just as someone else’s issue.
The Letdown Season 2 is currently on ABC – 9pm Wednesdays. All 6 episodes are also available now on iview.

 

I hope it is entertaining but also thought-provoking viewing for you. I would love to know what you think and whether in viewing it you shared my experience.

Lauren x

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When a baby sister dies: talking to kids about death

An image of hands wrapped around tiny feet

Note:

  1. This post contains reference to stillbirth. It might be difficult to read. Please read it only if and when you are ready.
  2. This is one family’s story. I encourage you to seek help in the context of your own circumstances.

Tragedy. Crime. Death.

We shelter our kids from these topics and other cares of the adult world to let them “be kids” for as long as possible. We turn off the news. We discuss after bedtime.

But what happens when death visits your immediate family?

In 2013, Susannah Rose’s second child was stillborn at 38 weeks gestation.

How Susannah and her family enabled their two year old daughter to experience the loss of baby Clementine, and how they continue to acknowledge and honour Clementine, is all at once both heartbreaking and inspirational.

This is Susannah’s story.

Susannah’s story

Lauren Gardiner (LG): What is the background to your experience?

Susannah Rose (SR): Our first child, Eleanor, was born in 2011. The pregnancy was relatively problem free, and I had a water birth. It was all that we had hoped it would be.

In 2013, I was pregnant again with our second child. Because we’d had a relatively problem free experience the first time, we went into it feeling positive.

I just thought… I’m pregnant and so, in nine months, I’ll have a baby!

However, my second pregnancy was more complicated than my first.

Two weeks before my due date, I felt our baby, a little girl, had stopped moving. The hospital later confirmed that she had died. It was such a shock for us. I had heard of stillbirth, but I didn’t know that it was a possible outcome. Scans had identified that she was a particularly little baby, but everything suggested she was otherwise perfectly fine.

Eleanor was only two when our baby, named Clementine, died. We had read lots of books preparing her to be a big sister, I was visibly pregnant, and the nesting was complete.

LG: But then the baby suddenly wasn’t coming home. Not ever. How did you approach it with Eleanor?

SR: After Clementine was born, our midwife arranged, at our request, for a photographer from Heartfelt, a volunteer organisation of professional photographers that photograph families that have experienced stillbirth, premature birth or have children with serious and terminal illness (for more see https://www.heartfelt.org.au/) to take photos of Clementine.

We were asked if we wanted to include Eleanor in the photos.

Initially we said, “No.”

We thought it would be too much. Too confronting. Too difficult for her. Too upsetting. We wanted to protect her from the reality of the situation and our grief.

But our midwife, who was very experienced and knew us well, encouraged us to think about what the photos and the experience of meeting Clementine could mean to Eleanor.

In the end, we decided to invite Eleanor to be a part of the photo session.

And Eleanor wanted in.

The photographs, some of which include Eleanor holding Clementine, are especially beautiful and precious. They are really all we have to remember the short amount of time we had with Clementine.

And as it has turned out, the photos are incredibly special to Eleanor. It’s through the photos that she has a real connection to her sister.

E, S and C
Eleanor holding baby Clementine.

LG: How did you explain Clementine’s death to Eleanor?

SR: The same midwife prepared us to talk with Eleanor.

We were advised to share information that was appropriate to her age and to be guided by her and any questions she asked. For Eleanor at two years of age and in our circumstances, this meant:

  • explaining things simply and literally. Explaining that Clementine was “asleep” or “had gone to heaven” could have been confusing because Eleanor might have wondered where heaven was or why we couldn’t just go and get Clementine. Instead we talked about how your heart beats and that is how you know you are alive. We talked about how when a person dies, their heart stops beating. Eleanor could feel her own heart beating. She could hear it too. And then we talked about how Clementine’s heart had stopped beating and we couldn’t feel or hear her heartbeat. And this meant that Clementine had died;
  • being honest about the things we didn’t know – like why Clementine had died; and
  • answering Eleanor’s questions in a simple, honest and literal way. For example, Eleanor asked about where Clementine had gone. Given her age, we didn’t offer complex answers or attempt to philosophise with her. We shared our beliefs in very simple terms. We also explained that different people believe different things about what happens after someone dies.

Reading age-appropriate books about death to Eleanor also really helped us. We especially liked ‘When Dinosaurs Die’ and ‘Life is like the Wind’.

LG: Did others have different views about involving Eleanor in the grieving?

SR: Like our initial response, my Mum and Dad’s first response was – we need to get the car seat out, we need to pack up the cot, we need to get rid of all the things that were ready for the new baby because it is too upsetting.

But they were actually really open to the written guidance provided by our midwife (she gave them a leaflet prepared by Sands (https://www.sands.org.au/), a charity that supports people through miscarriage, stillbirth and newborn death) which encouraged an inclusive and open approach, to the point that once Dad had done everything in the brochure, he asked if there was another one!

LG: Did you show your emotions in front of Eleanor?

SR: I was in so much shock and so completely overwhelmed that I didn’t show much emotion or openly cry very much in the beginning.

The few times that I did get upset, I did try to hide this from Eleanor. I didn’t want her to feel scared or worried about what was happening.

But I know now that it can be confusing for children if we hide grief or sadness from them because they have fine-tuned emotional radars.

It’s taken more than five years and some counselling for me to finally allow myself to begin to feel the sadness of losing Clementine and to grieve our loss. Now I feel like it is okay to let tears come in front of Eleanor and Patrick.

I also believe that it’s important to show my children that it is normal and okay to feel sadness. It also gives them the opportunity to learn how to respond to someone who is sad.

LG: Five-plus years on, Clementine lives on in your family. What do you do to remember Clementine?

SR: The anniversary of Clementine’s death, which is also her birthday, is very difficult, both in the lead up and on the actual day. However, it is very important to me to acknowledge that day and it has become a family tradition to acknowledge it.

For Clementine’s fifth birthday last year, Eleanor took it upon herself to set up Clementine’s special birth photos and candles, a bit like a prayer circle at school. She had music and she led a prayer. It was very important to her.

Clementine would have started school this year. Eleanor asked a Prep teacher if Clementine’s spirit could join this year’s Prep class. The teacher was so lovely and responded so beautifully. Eleanor also took a teddy bear to school at the beginning of the year. This teddy is special as she was given to us when Clementine died. Eleanor took the teddy bear to school with her for a few weeks as her way of representing Clementine coming to school with her.

LG: Patrick was born in 2015. Does he also understand what happened to Clementine?

SR: Patrick is nearly four now. We’ve found it much more difficult for Patrick to understand the concept of having a sister that he has never met. When Eleanor organised the prayer circle on Clementine’s fifth birthday, Patrick had only just turned three and he found this confusing.

LG: Perhaps it’s easier talking to children about death when a person is old and sick, because the child is not old (and hopefully not sick). Does Eleanor worry about death?

SR: No, I don’t think so.

Eleanor has, from time to time, asked why Clementine died. And together with explaining that something went wrong in an age appropriate way, we’ve also talked about the fact that normally things don’t go wrong, and most babies are perfectly fine. So, Eleanor believes that most babies are perfectly fine (which is true). It’s also reinforced by her reality – she doesn’t know anyone else with a stillborn sibling.

LG: So, coming back to the “let kids be kids” idea, your experience suggests that it’s not a blanket response to protect and shield our kids from death and sadness. What do you think?

SR: I think that the idea might lead us to try to create a false reality for our children.

I think it is confusing and disorienting for children if we try to pretend that everything is fine when it isn’t.

I believe we need to use age-appropriate language to help children make sense of what has happened. I think books, like the ones I talked about earlier, can be very helpful in doing this.

We need to be able to support our children with their emotions and for them to know they can talk to us about what they’re feeling. I also think that as our children grow older, they may process the loss in a different way so the support we offer them needs to be ongoing and to evolve over time as their needs change.

I’d recommend seeking professional help if you’re feeling unsure about how to talk to your children about what is happening or has happened. When you’re trying to process your own experience and the feelings that go along with that, I think that guidance from an experienced professional can be invaluable.

More information about stillbirth

Stillbirth is when a baby dies before or during birth and can occur at any time from 20 weeks until full term (40 weeks) or later. While relatively rare, six babies are stillborn every day in Australia. (Stillbirth Foundation Australia, https://stillbirthfoundation.org.au/stillbirth/)

For more information, see:

  • Stillbirth Foundation Australia, a charity dedicated to stillbirth research – https://stillbirthfoundation.org.au/stillbirth/
  • Still Aware, an Australian stillbirth awareness charity – stillaware.org
  • Sands, a charity providing support, information and education to people affected by the death of a baby before, during or shortly after birth – https://www.sands.org.au/
  • Red Nose Australia, an Australian charity that aims to save the lives of babies and children and support people impacted by the death of a child – https://rednose.com.au/