After infertility, other struggles, these moms are grateful to hear 'Happy Mother's Day'

by 24USATVMay 10, 2024, 6 p.m. 23
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Amy Riley remembers the time someone wished her a happy Mother's Day and she broke down in tears, right in the middle of a Wegman's supermarket.

"I found Mother's Day to be impossible," the Collingswood, New Jersey, woman said. She had been pregnant six times, but none of those pregnancies lasted. Motherhood, she worried, might never happen for her, and the realization and the reminders were painful.

A former board member of the Recurrent Pregnancy Loss Association, Riley finally became a mom to Betty Sue 4½ years ago and, after another nonviable pregnancy in 2020, she gave birth to twins Pearl and Lucy via in vitro fertilization nearly two years ago.

Riley is among many women nationwide who know firsthand the hope and heartbreak of fertility struggles − but who will be grateful on Sunday to celebrate with families they thought they might never have.

Riley, who says Mother's Day will probably be as joyfully chaotic as any other day, credits "IVF doctors who were willing to take a chance on science" to help make her family complete.

The day still brings up some complicated feelings. "I still feel very emotional about it, because I didn't think I could ever be a mom. I still find it a little hard."

Riley, a researcher with Population Media Center, understood the good intentions behind people telling her not to lose faith through her reproductive journey, but it didn't always bring comfort.

"People would say 'Be hopeful,' and I would think, this is such BS, but it's true," she said. "If you really want to be a parent, there are so many kids out there who need you. There are ways to do it. There is hope − it just may not be along the path you thought it would be."

He closed 'the gap of the dark years in between'

Stacy Schwab had her daughter, Kelsey, when she was young, and she desperately wanted to give her a sibling. She would tell Kelsey she'd be a big sister, then go into a spiral of depression and despair each time she lost a pregnancy − and, when she gave birth to a full-term stillborn boy she named Levon James, that pain seemed almost unbearable.

The losses "were heart-wrenching," she said. "I would see other moms with strollers and cry. People would say, 'But you have Kelsey,' and I wanted to say, 'Which of your children would you give back?' There was no offer of emotional support back then. I felt unseen and unvalued." Mother's Day brought memories of loss, and guilt over her grieving.

When Schwab, who lives in Buffalo, New York, got pregnant in 1999, she didn't tell anyone at first, worried she might again suffer a loss.

Soon, though, her son Cassidy was born, named for a song by her favorite band, The Grateful Dead:

What you are, and what you're meant to beSpeaks his name, though you were born to meBorn to meCassidy...

Blow the horn, and tap the tambourineClose the gap of the dark years in betweenYou and meCassidy...

There were dark years in between for Schwab and both her children; she struggled with depression and substance abuse and escaped an abusive marriage. She tried to hide her pain from her daughter especially, until Kelsey, searching for mementos to create a Mother's Day gift, found old sonograms, clothing and a blanket.

"She came to me and said, 'I had another brother, didn't I?'" Schwab recalled. "It was a beautiful moment." Kelsey made ornaments for Schwab to honor Levon, and mother and daughter bonded anew.

Schwab is years into her recovery and tries to help others through her own harm-reduction and outreach; she calls her children "my best friends and my adult roommates" and said Mother's Day is "a glorious day."

An older mom, grateful to another mother

Tracy Bach Gillespie knew the man who had become her husband in high school, but the New Jersey couple didn't really connect until several years later.

After marrying in 2017, they wanted to start a family, but Gillespie soon realized, "Mentally, you think you're young, but your body says otherwise."

Fertility treatments, and bitter disappointment, would follow. "I peed on so many sticks," she remembered, but as she would approach her second trimester, she'd be told the pregnancy wasn't viable. Her husband thought they could adopt but also waited until she was at peace with the decision, too.

She threw herself into research, chose an adoption agency − and waited.

On Nov. 2, 2019, the Gillespies flew to Utah and had dinner with a pregnant young woman and her mother; the following day, the agency called them to the hospital because the woman had gone into labor. "We connected with her from the first Skype call, and when we met her, it was just such an easy, natural conversation," she said.

"I have a 4-year-old and I'm about to turn 50," Gillespie said. "I'm well aware of being the oldest mom in the group."

With that age comes experience, and Gillespie believes that has helped her be a better mother. She has maintained a relationship with her daughter's birth mother as well.

"I hate when people say someone 'gave a child up' for adoption," she said. "The love she had, the emotions she showed, the magnitude of it all, I'll never forget it. It makes her every bit a mother, too." The Gillespies send her a card and flowers each year for Mother's Day, and a short video with their daughter.

"I never want my daughter to think of her birth mother as someone who just gave her up," she said. "I want her to know that she was and is loved by her birth mother; I don't want her to ever question that. Her birth mother has a very special place in my heart. After all, she gave me the gift of motherhood."

When Christine Burnette was a teenager, a medical diagnosis led her to believe she would never have children. Being young, she didn't really think much about it.

But two semesters into her college career, a family member who was struggling to raise his children asked her for help. She agreed to take custody of her 1-year-old cousin, a baby girl with colitis, asthma and other medical struggles.

"I didn't know what it would take to raise a child independently," she said. At just 19 years old, suddenly she had to consider day care, rent (moving out of her dorm and into her own place), reliable transportation. "All those things had to just happen, but I did it and I stayed in school."

She earned two degrees, got married and continued raising her cousin, but as her friends started having babies, she realized she, too, wanted a baby. Her sister who was in their native Camden, New Jersey, saw a pregnant woman she knew was living on the streets and addicted to drugs, so she approached the woman, asking whether she considered adoption. Burnette's sister got her food, made sure she was getting medical care and did her best to make sure she had a safe place to stay. Eventually, Burnette and her husband adopted the child to whom she gave birth.

Burnette, 37, who works for the New Jersey Department of Children and Families, fostered and later adopted another child, then had a baby through IVF in 2017 − and that pregnancy revealed Stage 3 ovarian cancer. She underwent treatment while caring for her newborn, who has Down syndrome.

"My son saved my life," she said, because doctors told her they probably would not have otherwise found her cancer until it was too late. She and her husband adopted a fourth child as well, bringing their family to seven people. Three of their five children have special needs.

Burnette celebrates Mother's Day differently from most: She buys her children presents. "I celebrate them, because if it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be a mom."

Joking that she has "been momming so long, I don't know how to do anything else," Burnette said her life "is nothing like I thought it would be, but it's better than what I could have ever imagined."

Megan Hanson is a co-founder of the Recurrent Pregnancy Loss Association, so even though she now has two children (one through surrogacy and one via her own pregnancy), she's fully aware of how painful Mother's Day can be for some women.

"I got there in the end, but it was not easy going for a long, long time," the Seattle resident said. After several pregnancy losses, including two via IVF, Hanson and her husband opted to have a child with the help of a surrogate. In 2021, they became the parents of a baby girl.

A year later, Hanson had a successful pregnancy and gave birth to a son.

"Having my daughter was a beautiful, healing experience," she said. She hadn't given up hope for her own pregnancy but still understands how difficult that can be for many women.

"We always hope. It's part of human nature, especially with people who've had recurrent loss," she said. "Everyone is different, but people want to hope – even if that hope is so fragile and feels so scary."

Mother's Day for many women she has worked with is "a big, personal sorrow," a reminder of what they don't have even as others celebrate. It's a feeling of "I'm happy for them but sad for myself," Hanson said. She advises women to put their own feelings first, feel free to withdraw for the day and to lean on their support systems for help.

For those who might have a loved one going through infertility, she said: "Acknowledge and let them know you’re there. There's nothing you can do to fix, it but let them know, 'I know this day might be hard for you and I’m here if you ever want to talk about it.' It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that."

Her own Mother's Day will be spent with her family, she said, but with her thoughts on women who have struggled as she did. "My whole behavior has shifted," she said. "I don't post pictures of my kids, because I remember how seeing those photos was so difficult for me."'

She's grateful, too, to her daughter's gestational carrier, the woman who helped her become a mother. "I have a beautiful, wonderful relationship with her," an unexpected surprise.

"I thought it would be transactional, but it's ended up being this wonderful friendship. I send her a Mother's Day card; I say thank you because she helped me get to this place. She's got her own child and she's a mother in her own right."

Contact Phaedra Trethan by email at [email protected], on X (formerly Twitter) @wordsbyphaedra, or on Threads @by_phaedra.

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