While grieving over the loss of her stillborn daughter Robyn, Fern Treacy filled her insomnia driven nights with sewing to pass time. She tells us the story of the creation of Aisling Milis, how it helped her deal with the grief and how it has blossomed into a full time business.
Tell us a little about your business Aisling Milis and what you create.
Aisling Milis is Gaelic for ‘Sweet Dreams’. I create handmade, one of a kind quilts, cushions and blankets, to perfectly match my customers’ children’s bedrooms and nurseries. While my main love is quilting, I recently introduced a new line of name cushions that has been massively popular. As names are becoming more and more unusual, people are excited to find something that can be personalised with their child’s (or grandchild’s!) name and made to order in the colours that they want.
You started this business under grieving circumstances. Please share your story …
In June of 2009, I found out that I was pregnant with our third child. My husband and our two boys, Declan and Connor, were very excited. After a completely normal pregnancy without the slightest concern, my waters broke at exactly 36 weeks, but my body didn’t go into labour – a form of PPROM (Pre-Term Premature Rupture Of Membranes) that I had already experienced with my boys.
Hospital protocol is to not induce delivery until 37 weeks, but to instead keep the pregnant mother on modified bedrest and administer antibiotics to prevent infection. I was settled into a room and prepared to wait it out for the week to meet our new baby. The first night in hospital was restless, with the other babies crying, the midwives moving about and coming in to take my obs every six hours to monitor infection, and my baby was far more active than it usually would be.
Finally around 4am everything settled; the baby stopped somersaulting, and I knew I could grab a few hours before the next obs check at six. The night shift midwife came in at 6am with a cheery good morning, set my antibiotics down and got to taking my temp and blood pressure while we chatted about me getting a day pass to get out to celebrate my eldest’s birthday.
When she placed the doppler on my stomach and didn’t pick something up straight away, I wasn’t concerned in the slightest; I’d felt baby moving so much during the night, I figured it’d just found a new spot to lay in. I joked that the baby was just like its Dad and liked to lay in; I was glad one of us got some sleep through all the noise of the ward. She pressed it into my stomach over and over again, having me roll from side to side. She explained it was probably just an issue with the batteries, and went out to change them.
The midwife returned with fresh batteries and another five minutes of prodding. She assured me that the baby was fine, she could hear a heartbeat, but she wanted to get a clearer one to reassure me. The midwife explained that it was probably just her being tired and not being able to find the right spot, so she called in a second midwife and CTG machine.
The second midwife explained that she was just going to give the doctor a call so she could do an ultrasound and make sure all was okay, then asked if there was anyone who could look after the boys at short notice; I wasn’t sure why she needed to know. She told me to call Dan, my husband, and tell him to come in straight away. It wasn’t until that moment that it clicked that something was wrong.
The doctor arrived, and I apologised for waking her up so early, still expecting someone to tell me that the machines were all broken. She placed the ultrasound wand on my stomach, and we saw the same blurry black and white images that I’d become familiar with over three pregnancies, but still. Completely still. There was no flicker in my baby’s chest; its heart had stopped beating. The doctor, midwives and nurse all had tears in their eyes, and all I could think about was how I was going to tell the boys.
The rest of the day was a blur, more ultrasounds to confirm death and check for any issues that might affect the birth; my in-laws visited and cried, family phoned as word slowly spread but didn’t know what to say to us – everyone was just in shock. Towards midday, I was induced. The atmosphere in the delivery room was thick – this was a day that we were meant to be celebrating, except everyone knew that the labour wouldn’t end with a pink, squirmy baby. There really was no happy ending.
At 3.15pm on 19 February 2010, after a smooth labour, I delivered our little girl, Robyn Jade, into the world, weighing exactly 3 kg and perfectly formed in every way. She just looked like a sleeping baby. I asked the staff around me again and again to make sure that she was dead, because I just couldn’t comprehend it.
We gave permission for Robyn’s body to be autopsied to find the cause for death. Through the autopsy, we discovered that she had a very aggressive infection in her lungs – too strong for the antibiotics to fight.
The main way that grief affected me was through sleep, or lack of. I was haunted by memories, thoughts of how things could have been so different; every time I closed my eyes, my mind went into overdrive with ‘what ifs’. Insomnia and I became good friends, so once the house was quiet, I would go into the garage where I kept my sewing machine and get completely involved creating new things.
I had a hunger for projects that would last all night, so I wouldn’t have a moment where my mind would be allowed to wander – so I started quilting. Over the weeks I built up an impressive stack of quilts; I would take photos of them and put them online as I finished each one, until one day I received an email from a lady in the US asking if she could buy one for her daughter’s nursery.
One sale became two, and slowly it built up until people were emailing me from around the world asking me to make custom bedding for their nurseries.
Over the last two years (and with a few months off for maternity leave!) Aisling has bloomed into a fabulous little business, which is definitely keeping me busy! I love talking about Robyn and Aisling Milis has been a great way to give me a platform to raise awareness of stillbirth.
Tell us how sewing helped you?
Sewing became my therapy. I was delighted to make beautiful things for other babies, especially all of the girly sewing I missed out on as soon as I lost Robyn. It felt great to turn my grief into something positive.
When I originally started Aisling Milis, it was to escape from the quiet of the night, but now, with the two big boys and Robyn’s little brother, Ronan, it’s my way to escape the noise of the household and think about my little girl – who should be two by now …
Where can people find your products?
I do local markets: Mums and Bubs at St Peter’s on the first Saturday of the month, the Foreshore Markets on the second Saturday of the month and the new handmade focused Matinee Markets starting on the first Sunday of June at The Adventist School. I’m also online at www.aislingmilis.com and of course, Facebook – www.facebook.com/aislingmilis
Tell us about the donations and work you do with your chosen charities …
It wasn’t until it happened to me that I realised the prevalence of stillbirths. Six babies are stillborn ever day in Australia alone – a number that hasn’t changed since the ‘60s. Worse still, is that most of these deaths are unexplained. The Stillbirth Foundation focuses on raising awareness and funding research for stillbirth.
I have a cushion as part of my Name Cushions range that is made in the same colour combination that I had chosen for Robyn’s nursery; $5 from each of these cushions is donated to Mums Like Me, a charity focused on supporting parents who have lost a child through stillbirth or neonatal loss.
I treasure the few photos that we have of Robyn, but wish they were better quality. Heartfelt is a charity of volunteer professional photographers who donate their time and efforts into photographing stillborns, babies in the NICU and terminally ill children. I regularly donate items to auction for funds towards their running and admin costs.