The leftward and other blatherings of Span (now with Snaps!)

Monday, May 14, 2007

Invisible Mothers

Yesterday was Mothers' Day here in Aotearoa New Zealand*, and you could hardly have missed the commercial onslaught of the last month even if you lacked any sense but smell.

I've been thinking recently about many of the assumptions that we make about who is, and who isn't, a mother. In the last two years I've had several friends lose pregnancies, and I've become aware of other miscarriages and still births that happened in times past, which I never knew about until recently.

Each one breaks my heart, especially because often they have been a physical trauma and an emotional grief that has been experienced in secret, hidden away and invisible. Those women, and no doubt many of the partners too, may feel as if they did have a child but then suddenly they didn't, and no one knows that for a little while there they were thinking of themselves as a Mum or a Dad.

When thinking about two of my friends in particular, I've become quite hyper-sensitive to how hard occasions like Mothers' Day must be for them - for those who have lost children, yet are publicly seen as "Not Mums" because there's no Exhibit A in the form of a baby, toddler, teen or adult child. Similar emotional turmoil must ensue for those who couldn't conceive, but wanted to, or are currently secretly trying.

That hurt must surely be exacerbated when people assume that you never wanted to be a mother or a father - that you didn't want to have a child; you put your career first; you were too selfish to consider bringing a dear ickle baby into the world in case it stained your white carpets, etc etc. Many seem to see an absence of offspring in another's life and make the astounding mental leap that that person is somehow deeply emotionally flawed because obviously only someone without a heart would not have kids. Quite apart from the fact that choosing not to have children is a perfectly sane and rational decision to make, some people will no doubt be making a virtue out of a necessity.

I've written about this before - about the inappropriateness of pressuring others to
, or not to, and about the senseless harm in judging others for their infertility. It's all a world of needless pain that we inflict on others - often on people we love dearly, but we blunder in none the less, and we hurt them even more because of the level of intimacy we have shared in the past. Once you've read a friend's harrowing recount of their miscarriage, posted on an internet bulletin board because their partner was away and no one else knew about the pregnancy, it's a mistake you won't make again.

I imagine for many women yesterday was pretty hard when they said "Happy Mothers' Day" to someone else but no one said it back to them. Please keep that in mind next time you encounter someone without children** and find yourself tending towards judgement. You can't tell who the invisible parents are just by looking, so let's just assume everyone is one and then no one gets hurt.

* And I think also in the USA, judging by some of the posts on the American feminist blogs I follow.
** Or indeed someone with one child. It never ceases to amaze me how some folks think other people's fertility decisions and outcomes are their business.

(Pic Via)


Psycho Milt said...

When we had a daughter born dead, I was amazed at the number of women at work who told me they'd also lost children. So much repressed pain in one workplace! I wouldn't be amazed now though, given that it took 5 pregnancies to get us 2 live children.

The ones who've given birth to dead babies are mothers. My dead daughter had a name and a death certificate, and as far as I'm concerned we had 3 children. It all comes down to good will, really - it's pretty easy to trample all over some pretty raw nerves when you ask people about kids without knowing if they have any or not, and why would you want to do that?

Cathi said...

I don't get upset about Mother's Day, although I know a lot of women struggling with primary infertility who do, and also some with secondary infertility take it hard. But for me it's a holiday I don't celebrate, like Hannukah or Chinese New Year. Other people celebrate it, not me.

The assumptions I hate are the ones where you like cats because this is a displaced maternal instinct, or you give money to charity because of a displaced maternal instinct, or you garden because of a displaced maternal instinct. Am I supersensitive?

I am of course, as every day I wail to the universe, out loud, about my infertility. But where my supersensitivity really shows is in the supermarket. I don't like loitering in the babystuff aisle in case someone points at me and says "Look, she wants to be a mother but can't! hahahahahahaahaha"

I do actually know that won't happen, but nevertheless trying to buy cotton buds or Wet Ones can be very difficult.

Legal Eagle said...

This is a very thoughtful post. I hate comments like Senator Heffernan's comment that Julia Gillard was "barren by choice" (recently over here in Australia).

How does he know? How dare he make that assumption? HOW INSENSITIVE!

A friend of mine has fertility problems. If she wants to have children, she will probably have to undergo IVF. Much to her surprise, a few years ago, she fell pregnant naturally...and then miscarried at about 10 weeks. She was, to put it lightly, devastated. Her husband was overseas at the time, which made it even harder. Five years on, I'm still not sure if she's recovered fully.

I hate it when people ask her in a smarmy voice, "So when are we going to hear the patter of tiny feet?" Or assume that she hasn't had children because she's selfish. I want to hit them.

Legal Eagle said...

In fact, I thought that this was such a frigging awesome post that I have linked to it on my own blog.

Deborah said...

I remember the years when I wailed about our infertility. Oddly enough, Mother's Day wasn't an issue, but Christmas was, and especially, Advent (the four weeks before Christmas, for those of you who didn't go to convent schools). What finally (after lots and lots of other issues) drove me out of the Catholic Church was the year when I finally plucked up the courage to ask the person who was writing the prayers to add a prayer for the infertile, who desperately wanted childen but couldn't have them. What we got was a specious prayer about people being givne the strength to bear the burdens that god had given them. By that stage I didn't believe in god anyway, and I had only continued going to church because it was a good tradition, but at that stage, I thought, "F*ck the Cahtolic church. We can name all sorts of hurts and pray for people but we must never, ever mention infertility." I haven't been back since.

Sometime, the pain of those desperate years still comes back to bite me. My arms ached, because they were empty. Odd things caught me - one day I saw a woman with newborn twins, and I wept, because she had two babies and I had none. I didn't wish anything but the best for that mother and her babies, but oh, how I wanted to have a baby too.

The days my daughters were born were the best days of my life.

We were very open about our infertility, but it was still a very lonely time, because it does seem that nobody understands. And it is utterly wretched when you think that people are making nasty judgements about you because you don't have children.

Span said...

Thanks for your comments folks, and for sharing.