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'The grief felt like a full-time job.' How it feels to be on maternity leave without a baby.

This post deals with infant loss, and could be triggering for some readers.

Three weeks after giving birth, I sat on our couch at home and watched an episode of Survivor with our daughter nestled in my lap. 

I knew how strange it must have looked to anyone but us. The television on and an urn cradled between my legs - but I didn’t want to put her down. 

This is what maternity leave looked like for me, after I gave birth to my daughter Violet Grace at 23 weeks, perfect but still. 

I was on maternity leave with no baby. Instead of planning my baby shower, I was finalising the details of my daughter’s memorial.

A tribute to the babies we've lost. Post continues below.


Video via Mamamia.

When I was pregnant, all-day resting was acceptable and if I was feeding or nursing a baby, it would have been completely understandable. But I was neither pregnant nor nursing a newborn. What category did I fit in now?

After giving birth, one of the most common questions I was asked by people was, 'When are you going back to work?' 

Despite going through a full labour, I was asked this question for the first time only five days after I returned from the hospital. 

I know the person who asked it didn’t mean any harm, and they were probably doing their best to make conversation, but it devastated me. 

I had given birth less than a week earlier and I was already being asked about my return-to-work plans (thankfully not by my actual workplace!). 

My body needed time to recover from the birth, let alone my heart and soul. 

To me, the lack of understanding about the maternal needs of a grieving mother was just another example of the lack of understanding people have around pregnancy loss. 

Think about it this way: no one would ask a mother with a living baby if she was going back to work less than a week after giving birth. 

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I was fortunate enough to work in an environment where I was able to access paid maternity leave and I was encouraged by my employers to take as much time as I needed. 

Sadly, I am aware that isn’t the norm and not everyone who loses a baby is in a position to return only when they are ready. 

I also know, after speaking to other loss parents, that they didn’t necessarily want to take much time off - they just wanted to keep busy and work provided the perfect opportunity.

However, I can’t imagine going back to my desk a week after giving birth as if nothing had changed. 

Similar to any new mum, the first few weeks of my maternity leave were surreal and went by in an emotional haze. 

I was still a postpartum mother (albeit, without a baby in my arms) with all the hormonal changes that go with it.

I was sleep-deprived, and my body was completely unrecognisable. 

Instead of waking up to a crying baby, I was the one crying in the middle of the night. 

Instead of meeting with the local Maternal and Child Health Nurse to talk about my baby’s weight gain, I was meeting with funeral directors and looking at tiny coffins.

Instead of searching online for the perfect pram, I spent my time trying to find the perfect urn. 

Although I wasn’t working, most days working on my healing and grief actually felt like a full-time job - and this is why workplaces need to acknowledge the needs of grieving parents, both male and female.

According to Fairwork Australia, if an employee’s baby is stillborn or their child dies in the first 24 months of life, they can take up to 12 months' unpaid parental leave. 

 Meagan and her husband at Violet's memorial. Image: Hayley Hickman Photography.

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Their employer can’t call them back to work or cancel their unpaid parental leave.

In 2021, the federal government also introduced legislation that will add miscarriage to the compassionate and bereavement leave entitlement, which means two days of paid leave will be provided to those who miscarry before 20 weeks.

To many parents, two days still feels very little. And, how many parents can afford to take unpaid leave to grieve, especially if they’ve had medical bills to pay? 

I have never been so grateful for my workplace and their understanding. 

This was not a holiday. In fact, the time I took off for maternity leave felt like a full-time job at times. 

Yes, I spent days on the couch unable to move from the weight of my grief.

But, as time went on, I also needed this time for healing; attending support groups, finding and going to a therapist, and trying to work out a Plan B; if Plan A was raising our daughter.

I poured my energy into fundraising to support the hospital where I gave birth. 

By the end of my maternity leave, we had raised enough money to create a special room in the hospital to support grieving parents, including a 'cuddle cot' that allows families the choice to spend more time with their baby.

I also began to write, mainly because I was scared to forget any details of my daughter, which became my book, Still a Mum. 

After Violet was born, I knew I was ready to return to work when I could get through a whole day without crying every time someone asked me how I was doing. 

My return to work came with so many extra layers of emotion. Unlike many working mothers, I didn’t have to worry about pumping milk, or fears that my daughter would be unhappy in childcare. But I still had the same mother’s guilt - would people think I was trying to 'move on' and leave my baby behind?

I was also nervous about how people would treat me - whether they’d tiptoe around me or, worse, never mention that I’d become a mother.

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I wish I could say it went smoothly, but it didn’t always. 

I was told by at least five well-meaning people that it was probably "good for you to be out of the house". I have a feeling their image of me on maternity leave consisted of a pyjama-wearing woman, rocking in a corner crying all day... which was sometimes true.

One man told me, 'My wife had two miscarriages but didn’t need to take off as much time as you.' Another colleague told me that it would all be okay when I eventually had a 'real baby' as I would be able to move on and forget all of this.

I was grateful to the parents who had private conversations with me about their losses. It made me feel less alone, as I navigated being a different kind of working mother.

My advice to any parents experiencing infant loss is, please take the time you need if you can - you deserve the same rights as any working mother, even more so. 

Healing is a full-time job and the most important one you will ever have. Don’t feel pressured to move forward and return to normal, when your normal has been shattered.

Two years after Violet was born, I gave birth to her brother, born through IVF. 

Right now, I’m on maternity leave again, with two children at home - my son asleep in his bedroom and my daughter’s urn still in the living room. 

Coming home from the hospital with my son was a very different experience to coming home with empty arms, but, in both cases, time and space were crucial.

I may not ever be able to bring Violet to 'bring your kids to work day', but taking maternity leave helped me acknowledge her life and I’ll always be grateful I took that time to be with her memory.

Meagan Donaldson is the author of Still a Mum: a Story of Modern Grief and Life after Loss. Follow her on Instagram at @violets_gift.

If this has raised any issues for you or if you would like to speak with someone, please contact the Sands Australia 24-hour support line on 1300 072 637. 

You can download Never Forgotten: Stories of love, loss and healing after miscarriage, stillbirth, and neonatal death for free here.

Join the community of women, men and families who have lost a child in our private Facebook group.

Feature Image: Supplied/Ken Spence for Heartfelt.