Today's post is a piece written by Aaliyah in Action founder, Liz O'Donnell and Start Healing Together founder, Jackie Mancinelli.
We Are Not Just Teachers - We Are Mothers First
By Jackie Mancinelli & Liz O’Donnell
When I first read Liz’s story online, I could not stop staring at the accompanying photograph. In it, she cradled her daughter, Aaliyah. Instead of Liz looking overjoyed at meeting her daughter, she looked heartbroken. I recognized myself in that photograph because I have a very similar one from when I first met my son, Richard.
In 2016, I had an emergency C-section to deliver my son at just 33 weeks along. He was in distress, and the doctors decided that it was best to deliver him and allow the NICU team to work with him.
Once he was born, I expected to hear a cry, but instead I heard silence. And then murmurs between the doctor and midwife. I could hear snippets of their conversation: “lots of blood…” “not a placental abruption…” “placenta looks intact…” I could see a flurry of movement to my left as the NICU team took Richard. I screamed for someone, anyone, to give me information, but I was ignored.
I learned later that he died from heart failure resulting from a fetal maternal hemorrhage, an incredibly rare complication. After an hour of the NICU team going to herculean lengths to save his life, his father and I said goodbye to our son, our firstborn.
The weeks and months that followed were a blur. The days blended together as I slept, read, watched TV, and attempted to eat. I listlessly coasted through my days, hoping to keep my grief and emotional pain at a tolerable level.
I looked forward to returning to my teaching job the following September, just four months after delivering Richard. However, I was apprehensive about how I would be perceived: Will my former students be afraid to talk to me? Will my new students want to transfer out of my class? Will my colleagues talk to me? Will everyone act as if Richard did not exist? As anxious as I was, I was not prepared for those first few weeks.
Firstly, my students were absolutely wonderful. My former students gingerly approached me in September to ask how I was feeling. My new students would notice if I seemed a little quieter than usual and ask if I was doing okay. I even had one student bring me a gift to symbolize hope for the future because she spent the summer thinking about my son and me.
Interactions with my colleagues were an entirely different experience. They were visibly uncomfortable in my presence, and at times, some would walk away from me, even in mid-conversation. At the time, this made me feel angry and alone. My grief was already an isolating experience, and now the one place that made me feel most comfortable just added to my turmoil.
In retrospect, I can understand my colleagues’ reactions. Grief is uncomfortable, period. If someone loses a baby, it becomes unbearable. Suddenly, those well-seeming phrases we tell to those grieving a parent or a grandparent no longer fit. What do you say to someone who just lost their baby?
So when I read Liz’s story, about her mistreatment at the hands of the DC Public School system, I got angry. To be denied maternity leave because her daughter had died felt mind-boggling to me. It was then that I reached out to Liz to offer my support and to see if she wanted to work together.
I’m Liz O’Donnell, a Jersey girl who has been living in D.C. since I started college here in 2008. I’d always wanted to be a teacher. After I graduated from GWU with my Masters in Elementary Education, I decided to take a job where I student taught in the District of Columbia Public School system. I worked there for seven years and ultimately left because of unfair treatment from DCPS and my principal after my daughter was born still on December 1, 2020.
When I decided to take my extreme disappointment and shock with my school district to social media I had no idea what would ensue. I had been granted paid-family leave a couple of months before Aaliyah was born still- only to have it immediately taken from me when they found out Aaliyah didn’t take a breath. While I respect opinions on bonding time as the sole reason for PFL, this is not properly stated in the DC law; therefore, I am still entitled to the leave for “birth of a child.” The social media post took on a life of its own and was shared and reposted thousands of times. Women from all over the world reached out to me with their own stories of stillbirth, infant death and miscarriage - sometimes a combination of those. I felt so ignorant each time I read another story - HOW was all of this still happening in 2020?!
Making the tough decision to post a photo of me and my sleeping daughter, Aaliyah, led me to connect with hundreds of women with similar stories. One of those women was Jackie. Between the Jersey connection, and the teacher connection, I instantly felt comfortable speaking to her about my loss and in turn also learned about her son, Richard. We discussed how often those in education experience perinatal or neonatal death and how the expectation is to return to the classroom immediately.
Attempting to “reenter” society after such a loss is traumatic enough - when you need to return to a classroom full of children it’s an added layer you don’t anticipate. Students know that you’re expecting, and young students cannot grasp the idea that “the baby died.” This can cause undue stress during a time when stress is already your new normal - nobody wants added layers of it.
Jackie is creating an incredible organization in Start Healing Together. Bringing educators that have experienced pregnancy and infant loss together in a safe space is huge for their mental health. Knowing you aren’t alone is so critical during such a traumatic time and I think school districts making this a priority will show their employees, many of whom are women, that they are valued and cared for. We cannot properly care for children when we are not being taken care of ourselves, Start Healing Together addresses this and I am so happy to see Jackie flourishing in this space.
While Jackie is building a space for educators, I’m building a space for self-care after loss in my own organization, Aaliyah in Action. We prepare self-care packages for families and distribute them to hospitals, who then offer and provide the packages to families after a perinatal or neonatal loss. Friends and family can also order packages for loved ones through our website.
Steadily building Aaliyah in Action has given me a purpose I did not think was possible after experiencing such a loss. We seek to provide a tangible form of bereavement support as self-care is often forgotten after experiencing the loss or death of your baby- yet it is the most important element for survival in this new life. Aaliyah in Action has so many plans for 2022, and I look forward to making this a nationwide organization in the name of my daughter, Aaliyah.
Jackie Mancinelli is a high school English and ESL teacher in New Jersey. She is the founder of Start Healing Together, an organization dedicated to supporting educators experiencing pregnancy loss and infertility. She is also the New Jersey Ambassador for Count the Kicks. Follow Start Healing Together on Instagram and Facebook, and check out their website. To learn more or start a chapter at your school, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Liz O’Donnell is a former elementary school teacher, originally from central NJ, living in Washington DC. She is now a private tutor and stillbirth advocate, not only starting Aaliyah in Action but also serving as PUSH for Empowered Pregnancy’s Co-Director of Communications. Liz likes to say her role in stillbirth advocacy is both proactive in her work with PUSH, working to prevent stillbirth, and reactive with Aaliyah in Action by providing comfort after a loss.