When Sarah Oliver lost her newborn baby, she channelled her grief into making dress-up costumes for other children. She tells Cloe Willetts how it’s helping her heal, stitch by stitch.
At her kitchen table, Sarah Oliver sits and sews sheets of mustard fabric into a child’s dress-up cape. Her husband Doug is at work on a dairy manufacturing line and so, other than the humming of a busy sewing machine, it’s quiet in their Hamilton home.
The joyful cooing of a baby – their firstborn daughter, Amalie – has been replaced with deafening silence. In March last year, just four weeks after her birth, Amalie passed away from a brain tumour.
Now Sarah fills her weeks sewing aprons and miniature wands under the affectionately named label Amalie’s Room, which the former early childhood teacher started as an outlet for her grief.
“All I have left from Amalie is her room and so after the first lockdown last year, I started to make things she’d want to play with in there if she was here,” says Sarah, 30, who grew up in Morrinsville, in rural Waikato. “It’s really nice to have her name out there, to always be spoken.”
Sarah met her Whitianga-born husband at a nightclub in Hamilton almost a decade ago, when the two were university students studying teaching. She fell for Doug’s humour and he admired Sarah’s similar positive outlook on life. They both also longed to find someone to start a family with.
“Growing up, I’d say I wanted to be a mum when I got older. That was going to be my job!” Sarah recalls. “I had a really cool childhood and enjoyed just being at home with Mum, baking or helping fold washing and making the beds. I asked myself what job I could do to be the closest thing to a mum, and that was a teacher.”
After living and working in England with Doug for a couple of years until 2016, Sarah suggested they try for a baby. “I was happy to start before we got married, but Doug wanted to wait, so we did. We got married in 2018 at an old renovated country hall in Te Aroha. Straight after, we said, ‘Let’s do this!’”
But the newlyweds soon realised falling pregnant wasn’t the piece of cake they’d expected. “When you start trying for a baby, you naively think you’ll just fall pregnant. Every month, I’d take a pregnancy test and wonder why it wasn’t working,” says Sarah. “I wanted kids so badly; we went straight to a fertility company in Hamilton and found out we needed to do in vitro fertilization (IVF).”
The hopeful mum-to-be started with hormone injections in November 2018, and it took two attempts before she fell pregnant with Amalie. “I couldn’t believe it! It almost felt surreal,” she smiles. “Everything went smoothly and I loved being pregnant.”
Doug was equally ecstatic, having left teaching for a less pressured job in the dairy industry. He wanted a career that allowed him to switch off from work when he got home, so he could focus on his young family. “We’d get up early to go to baby store sales and thought a lot about what reusable nappy brand we’d use,” he grins. “Sarah even had the stroller by the time she was 14 weeks.”
The pair were more than prepared by the time Amalie graced the world on February 17, 2020. Sarah remembers, “The house was all renovated and I’d spent so many hours in her room pottering around and moving things, folding and refolding clothes.”
They’d also picked a name. “Amalie was quite popular when we were in England and, because we did relief teaching, it kept popping up all over the rolls,” Doug says. “We’d never really come across it in New Zealand and it stuck with us. We thought it was beautiful.”
Precious, brown-eyed Amalie arrived by caesarean. “She was perfect and the first thing they said was that she had a lovely round head, the perfect shape of a C-section baby,” Sarah smiles. “It’s kind of ironic they commented on that when there was so much going on in there we didn’t know about.”
Doug recalls his newborn daughter being measured and examined under the theatre lights. “She was two centimetres above the average height, with mousy brown hair,” he says tearfully. “I remember thinking she was absolutely perfect and so gorgeous.”
Amalie loved to fall asleep during a warm bath and had no problem taking to breastfeeding. But at around two weeks old, she began to display unusual signs.
“She wasn’t doing the newborn mouth reflex when she was hungry, or bobbing her head around like when she was first born,” says Sarah. “Feeding got harder as she wasn’t latching, and her eyes started shaking.”
The worried parents took Amalie to the GP, who said to return in two weeks if it continued. Sarah also spoke to lactation consultants and phoned Plunket multiple times. “I know something wasn’t right but every symptom individually could be put down to being a newborn,” she tells. “Amalie started sleeping longer and it was getting harder to wake her. We googled about her eyes shaking and it said it could be a brain tumour, which we thought was ridiculous.”
When Sarah couldn’t wake Amalie from an eight-hour sleep, the family headed to Waikato Hospital. “All her vitals were fine, but doctors wanted to get to the bottom of why her eyes were shaking, so they booked her in for an MRI,” says Sarah. “I thought it was to rule things out, so we could move on and diagnose what was going on. I didn’t realise how bad it could be.”
In a moment she describes as like something from a movie, Sarah sat beside Doug and her parents in a doctor’s room and learnt that Amalie had a mass on her brain. “Then came the dreaded C word: cancer. Due to where it was in her brain stem, they said nothing could be done.”
Doug remembers being taken by ambulance to Starship Children’s Hospital in Auckland the following morning, so the best oncologists could get on board. They confirmed the tumour was irremovable and said it would continue to grow.
“Chemotherapy isn’t allowed on babies that young, so there were no options really. It was so shocking and awful,” Doug says. “I had to ask how long she had, and they said it could be months or days. That was a really hard conversation to have.”
Just two days after Amalie’s diagnosis, she suffered several seizures. “They gave her morphine so she was comfortable; she never woke up again to feed,” recalls Sarah. “We were told it was time.”
Doug says his wife went straight into mum mode. “Sarah was amazing. She picked Amalie up and sat down with a cloth and was cleaning her face. She was the perfect loving mother, right until the end.”
Surrounded by family and views of the Auckland city skyline, the couple watched as nurses removed the monitors attached to their beloved daughter.
“She looked beautiful and peaceful, with the sun shining through the window onto her. Then she passed away in my arms,” Sarah whispers. “I don’t know how the hell I did that. But you just do when you’re a mum. You do whatever you have to.”
The last year has brought unbearable grief, but through their loss the loving parents have taken turns being there for one another.
“This type of thing destroys relationships, and in hospital I made a conscious decision that Doug and I were going to be OK together,” Sarah says. “We’ve had time to go to counselling and reflect and process it all, but it’s been massive for us to work on our communication. We kind of had to get to know each other again.”
And amidst the heartbreak has been joy. Late last year the couple decided to have another attempt at IVF and it was successful; Sarah became pregnant with a baby boy, due in June.
“We were really lucky to have had another embryo take from our first egg collection, so now we’re 24 weeks pregnant,” smiles Sarah, who shares they are naming their wee son Jackson. “We moved the nursery into another room and it’s all set up and ready. It’s nice for Jackson to have some of his sister’s clothes and things passed down to him, but also his own new space.”
With the joy and excitement of becoming parents again, Sarah admits there is also fear.
“Even though we’ve had lots of tests and specialists on board, it still doesn’t settle the tough emotions. But it’s so nice to have some hope back in our lives and to feel a sense of happiness again. It’s all a bit surreal.”
The heartwarming news of their second pregnancy is helping with the couple’s healing process after losing Amalie. Another part of Sarah’s healing was remembering the joy she finds in sewing.
The grieving mum began by making crowns for friends’ kids, before her mother suggested she try a cape and wand. Then Sarah recalled the trouble she’d had finding non-specific dress-ups for kids when she was an early childhood teacher.
“I wanted to make open-ended costumes so kids can use their imagination to be anything,” says the talented sewer. “The business has allowed me to look to the future again. It’s still really hard, but I’ve found this whole new level of strength in myself.”
It’s still really hard, but I’ve found this whole new level of strength in myself
In honour of the care Amalie received at Starship and other kids suffering from cancer, Sarah has dedicated a section of the Amalie’s Room website (amaliesroom.co.nz) for people to donate a crown to a child undergoing treatment in hospital.
“I tell myself that Amalie was always going to be sick and she came to Doug and I because she knew we were strong enough and had enough support around that we’d be OK,” Sarah concludes. “Amalie needed someone to care for her in that month, so she picked us.”