Thursday, 14 November 2013

"If you don't have kids, you don't understand"

A comment on my previous post referred to the “if you don’t have kids, you don’t understand” comments we are often subject to.  There’s a video doing the rounds on FB – a British comedian doing a skit about the difficulties of raising children, and how people without children don’t know.  “They think they know what they’re talking about,” he says, “but they have NO IDEA.”  Yes, he shouts these words to emphasise the stupidity and ignorance of people without children. 

I've heard variations of this over and over again.  And today, I’m standing up to say that yes, we do know, and we do understand.  No, we may never have experienced parenthood in the way you have.  But we know what you’re going through.  How could we not?  We are constantly bombarded with the messages about how hard being a parent is, and with the accompanying messages “if you’re a parent you are superior/deserve a medal/etc.”  I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard a parent say “no-one tells you how hard it is.” …  Yes, they do.  (I want to shout).  Everyone tells you how hard it is.  I know, how come you didn’t know?  Or perhaps you just didn’t want to know?

For example, we are constantly bombarded with the “you don’t know tired until you have a baby/two babies/etc” message.  We understand that you may have weeks, months or even years of severe sleep deprivation.  It was one of the things I was very worried about (loving and needing sleep as I do) when I was on my quest to have children.  I’ve had to wake enough at 3 am for work purposes to know that a) I don’t – to put it mildly - like it one bit, and b) I would find it hard to cope with on a regular basis.  I’ve had to work with no sleep or just an hour or two of sleep, so I know that I would find it incredibly difficult.  I shudder to imagine how difficult it would be to do that day after day, week after week.  I understand.  I sympathise.  I just haven’t experienced it.

Just as we know that a toddler can be beyond demanding, that teenagers can be downright unpleasant, how worrying pre-teens can be, and that an ill child must be distressing.  We know that.  We've all experienced babysitting or visiting with you and your children, and/or hearing your stories about your children.  We've seen you struggle, often juggling some or all of the above situations at the same time, and we know that there must also be a multitude of times when you've struggled that you haven’t shared with us or asked for support.  We know this.  We haven’t experienced it.  But we can imagine the extent of it.   We spend a few hours in your company with your children, and we imagine those few hours extend into days, weeks, months and years – with better hours/days and with worse. 

You see, just because we don’t have children doesn't mean we are stupid, naive, unobservant or unsympathetic.  We know it is hard.  We know it changes your priorities, your focus, the way you think.  Many of us wanted this.  Yet you constantly say “people who don’t have children don’t understand.”  Why?

I think there are two answers to this.

First, I suspect that parents are saying this to a different group.  When they mean “childless” or “people without kids” they tend to refer to “people who don’t have kids yet.”  The comedy video for example is talking to people who might be thinking about having children.  And many people (not all) focus on the positives of parenthood, not the difficulties, when they’re making the decision to have children.  It is only natural.

I do have to say though that when we are trying to conceive, especially when we are having difficulties, or have suffered loss, we often manage to convince ourselves that everything will be rosy, our lives will be perfect when we get pregnant/baby arrives.  It’s what drives us to continue trying.  Someone recently talked about having her children and then “getting on with the rest of her life.”  As if if her life hadn’t begun yet, even as she went through infertility and growth and job changes.  As if all troubles would melt away once her child arrived.  Whilst most of us know intellectually that having children isn’t the antidote to our woes, in the midst of the trying-to-conceive frenzy, especially in the midst of infertility, it is easy to forget this.  I can’t tell you the number of times I have heard (read) women say that they will never be happy unless they are pregnant or have their baby.  And perhaps it is in response to this rose-coloured glasses view of parenthood that many parents – who themselves feel as if they are deep in the trenches of parenthood - feel the need to say “you don’t understand.” 

Those of us who are on the other side, however, know that having children isn’t all rosy, in the same way we know that not having children isn’t a terrible thing.  In coming to terms with our own situations, we are forced to take off those rose-coloured glasses, to see our own lives objectively and to embrace what is positive.  And in doing that, we become (I believe) much more attuned to the difficulties of parenthood too.  Looking at the positives of our lives helps us heal and blossom.  And in doing this we realise we might be lucky not to have to deal with the many difficulties of parenthood.  In time, we are able to become more empathetic to those who have children.  Until that moment when they say “you don’t understand” and push us away, just when we’re prepared to offer support.

Because the second reason I think parents want to say “you don’t understand” to us, the childless, is more complicated.  There is a well-known human trait that makes people feel good when they make others feel small (studies for example show that people enjoy rewards more when others don’t have it).  It builds some people up, makes them feel superior, makes them doubt themselves less, and perhaps convinces them that they made the right decision, even in the midst of despair (and perhaps doubt) at the problems and exhaustion and worry.  (I’m not saying that being a parent is full of despair.  I am saying that parents frequently and freely admit that there are moments, hours, days, or more of despair alongside the love and pride and joy and all the other emotions of parenthood.

Rather than bristling at the condescension, or perhaps I should say more accurately, after I have stopped bristling at the condescension, I prefer to see this another way.  I see it as a plea for empathy, a plea to find comfort from others who have been through this and can say “yes, we know,” a plea to find others helping them feel less alone in finding this difficult.  This explains why the comedy video is so popular.  I can understand that and I feel sympathy for it.

But why, in searching for that empathy, is it necessary to be so condescending?  A condescension and discrimination that is incredibly common, endorsed and legitimised by society in general.  But do parents really want to scorn and push away those who could be their biggest supports, who could give them some adult only time, who could be beneficial influences in their children’s lives?  I don’t know.  I'm sure they don’t know either.  I suspect they’re just too tired, too focused on getting through the day, to realise what they’re doing.

32 comments:

  1. " There is a well-known human trait that makes people feel good when they make others feel small" This explains it all :) Thanks to this post, it made my day.

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  2. I missed my nearly weekly "Mali" posts while you were gallivanting around Europe! I loved reading this; all kinds of thoughts I sometimes have, but expressed so perfectly. Today, I was having a chat after my class with the professor that comes in when my class is over. He is a young guy, doctoral student, who just became a dad. His girlfriend just returned from maternity leave, and when he made it to class today, he was yawning. I said, you look so tired. He said he takes care of the baby when his partner is at her 9-5 job, and of course, he is busy trying to finish his PhD, while also teaching. So, his girlfriend comes home and he goes to work sometimes until 5:00 am. I told him, I feel for you. And meant it from the bottom of my heart. He is such a sweet guy. His girlfriend is also very sweet. I ask about the baby and she says she is really happy. I think she might have it easier, in that her job is the kind that she leaves when she walks out of the office, whereas his work is around the clock. I'm working on getting my dissertation published and teaching, ridiculously low paying jobs for the experience. I wonder how I would manage if I had a small child, especially since I really probably wouldn't have much help.

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  3. Yes. If I got 1 euro each time that heard this sentence (or variation of it), I would be filthy rich!

    PS: I also missed my weekly Mali post!

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  4. BRILLIANTTTTT post, Mali. Just brilliant! It's very true what you said about their plea for empathy, for "tribal group hugs/bonding". I remember someone once told me about a particular parenting experience and she said (not in a condescending way) "maybe you don't understand this but...". But she did go on to continue her story - although probably wondering how much I could actually understand her feelings at that time of the incident. I haven't had anyone say this type of sentiment to me in a condescending way, but if someone ever does later on, I'll remember this post of yours and your wisdom. :-)

    I suspect that, though, if one doesn't believe that the other party is able (or have the ability) to understand/empathize fully, then most of the time, one opts not to share and one would wait for a better opportunity to do so (for example when one finds someone else in a similar situation, because then it's easier to say, "Me, too" and that'd definitely make the teller feel MUCH better in an instant). I remember how Brene Brown says that hearing "me, too" is one of the most powerful things one can experience. :-)

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  5. Would you believe one of my best friends from high school just posted this video on Facebook?? (Mother of two grownup kids in their 20s, daughter just got married this year.) It was kind of like a slap in the face to see. :p

    I daresay there are things about being a childless person that parents "just don't understand" either, but since they are in the majority, we get it rubbed in our faces more often. :p

    Loved reading your trip blog, but I just say I've missed your No Kidding themed posts too. ;) Great analysis of a common painful situation we often find ourselves in!

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    1. Yes, I would believe it. Sigh. An old AFS friend posted the video on FB, with the comment "hilarious to parents, and mildly amusing to the childless." I refrained from commenting. Then a different generation Malaysian (relation to one of my SILs) also posted it on FB, with the comment "it's so true!" So I wrote this!

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  6. I work with families.. a huge part of my job is having tea with parents, listening, and then sharing my evaluation of where their child is on certain developmental scales and what we can consider as paths forward. As you can imagine this can be a touch emotional and challenging at times...and the number of times I have been told that I don't know what I am talking about because I don't have kids... I know it comes with the territory, and I know it is a really common reaction, but there have been days where it has left me shredding and hurt beyond belief. No amount of experience and training and hours spent with said age group matter in these moments. They are hurting because their life is tough in that moment and then suddenly I am hurting too because I can't conceive.

    so once again ... thanks for a really well thought out post. A good reminder that whenever we feel like others don't understand, being condescending isn't really going to improve matters.

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    1. I was in a similar position in another job, another life, another country (!) fortunately well before any of the loss/IVF bollocks had shown up, I would tell people that yes I didn't have kids but this did allow me to practice much more objectively and use my professional skills (which is what I was there for in the first place) I think I had a better way of putting it back then too.

      Probably a whole multitude of parents wanting to ram my head back up my arse, but it was good to have an instant response (and with hindsight, can only imagine the shittiness of how this would have been if I had been dealing with the last 4-5 years)

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  7. Maybe it's because I have a brother who is 10 yrs younger than me, but I was never under the impression that raising children was easy peasy. In fact, I was often the one to reassure my friends when they felt overwhelmed by their new babies, and to offer free babysitting.
    So maybe I'll never know what it's like to wake at 3am to my own baby, and it's completely different to waking at 3am to my little bro. But they'll never know what it's like to cry in your husband's arms at 3am because your 3rd ivf failed and you can't afford another. I envy their ignorance.

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  8. My sister, who had her own battles with fertility, and has watched mine for the past decade, posted this video. And it infuriated me. Because, whether they mean to or not, they ARE degrading the life experiences of the childless when they make statements like that. They may very well be seeking sympathy, but in my book they're never gonna get it with that approach. ��

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  9. Very well put. I now have a child, but I still occasionally flash back to moments when people said that to me when I was trying to conceive. The worst one that I remember occurred when a friend lost her newborn to SIDS, and another friend who had a baby said "You wouldn't understand. When you have a child that's the worst thing you can possibly imagine." As if my experience of NOT having a child when I desperately wanted one didn't offer some insight into pain. Sigh. I still love that friend, though. People aren't perfect, alas.

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  10. [Anon of November 16 again]
    I have two candidates for "worst ever comment about childless people":
    - That Pinterest one that says "if you've never held your baby in your arms and counted tiny fingers etc., you don't know what real love is."
    - A woman who suggested that priests who abused children did so because "they don't have families of their own and therefore they can't empathize".
    Apparently, childless people are sociopaths. Do these people ever think before they speak/post?

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    1. Wonder what species all those people belong to which have killed or abused their own biological children?

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  11. I have come to the realization that I don't know what it's like to be a parent. I am an aunt to 10 nieces and nephews and I know I can always leave or return them when I'm exhausted or they become difficult. At the same time, people with children don't know what's it's like to be infertile or the heartbreak of knowing you will never have children. So next time a parent says to me I don't know, I will agree and say to them but you don't know what it's like for me either.

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  12. Good point- I hadn't thought this way.. good pointview, Mali.

    There's a post on my page that caused a sister-in-law to speak up in defense of motherhood, "What is best for the mother, is best for the child" and that she'd be the most important person in his life. I had to remind myself to keep my mouth shut, since I was *this* close to point out, it wasn't her alone, but the father (my brother) who helped create that child too, and he's also in the picture. I know, going off topic- for some odd reason, reading this article made me remember the slight by the sister-in-law.

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  13. Mali, this is brilliant! I completely agree with your assessment of the plea for comradory from parents who utter these words. Usually it's during moments where they've expressed frustration with their lot or are clearly second-guessing their situation. After all, feeling superior makes it all better, right?

    The truth is, though, that if most people actually carefully assessed the realities of parenthood (and the fact that it doesn't lead to a more fulfilled life) I believe the population of our species would greatly plummet. Hence phrases like this exist. It most certainly doesn't make it right and frankly I think we're long overdue with addressing it. So thank you for this thoughtful post. I now know my response to people when they say this is "I'm so sorry you feel that way."

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  14. I have seen this clip (from the most unlikely of sources too!) and resisted the temptation to make a similar comment. Didn't find it funny either.

    I was talking to someone a week or so ago about sleep (the age-old favourite topic eh?), not really complaining (I didn't think so anyway, just saying how it was) and they were saying "yeah no-one ever tells you just how hard it is in those first 3 months, its absolutely terrible, etc" blah blah. I was like "really? didn't they? thats ALL you hear"
    what planet?

    Yes its "hard" at times, but so is loss, and so is failed cycles, and so is not knowing, and so is coming to acceptance (I guess, although I reckon I was definitely on the way) and there's way less (if any) joy-moments with these.
    Of course I didn't say that last bit though

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  15. I am a sixth grade teacher. Five years ago, I had a class that was very difficult, particularly four boys who were all good friends. Two of their mothers volunteered regularly. I would talk to them and knew all the moms were talking to each other. Toward the end of the school year when I had to separate all the boys to the four corners of the room, the two moms who didn't volunteer came in to complain. The one mom said to me, "If you were a mom, you would know how to handle these boys." So my 18 years of teaching sixth grade, my training, all the other things I had tried prior to this didn't matter, just the fact that I was not a mom. In my 22 years of teaching, that is the only time that was said to me, but it was the most offensive thing that has been said to me by a parent.

    Thanks for putting it in perspective.

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    1. My thoughts on this woman (and I was also a teacher): "If you knew how to be a better mother, I would not find your son to be such a problem."

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  16. I'm so behind in blog reading!

    Thank you for this post. Nothing can ever help the pain caused by these things being said, but it does help to handle it by putting it into perspective.

    There is a pic going around FB that says "Be kind. Everyone you meet is facing some battle/challenge." Or something to that effect. A couple of comments here have underlined that. We might not have experienced the difficulty of which the parent is speaking, but they also have not experienced the life-long hurt of being childless. (Some of the most rude folks on this issue are those who are former "trying to conceive" people. I'll never understand why.)

    I think the "Be kind. . . " pic would be appropriate to post for someone who pulls the "You don't understand" crap. It would indicate our trying to be kind to them, and for the astute, they would realize we are asking for kindness, too.

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  17. Great post and definitely a sore subject for me for many years. I hated people telling me (I can think of a specific situation at work off hand) to enjoy my sleeping in, being able to do what I want and so on that you can do without kids and how I'll never get "my life" back once I have kids. Most often, these were the people who never had problems getting pregnant and of course those with kids. Ugh!
    Just because I'm not XXX, doesn't mean I can't empathize and sympathize and try to understand. We may never know exactly what another person goes through, but we can have an idea and as I said, try to understand. It's all how you say something and Mali, you said it wonderfully!

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  18. thank you for writing this. what a huge relief it is to read it. just---THANK YOU.

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  19. When parents say you don't get it or you don't understand it doesn't mean they are trying to belittle you or say they understand what your loss or your heartache is like. And yes before I was a mom I had so many people telling me : get your sleep now, oh just wait, you're going to be exhausted etc. I heard it all the time, it was obnoxious because I thought I knew what tired was. I've experienced late nights/early evenings, lack of sleep etc before kids. But honestly nothing anyone could tell me beforehand could prepare me for how truly exhausting motherhood is. Mentally emotionally and physically. And now that I am a mom I still have childless friends (childless by choice) who love to tell me how to raise my kid or make comments about how they know so much about child rearing. Well it's offensive to me. I'm sorry but just because u have nieces or nephews or teach grade school doesn't give u the same experience as being a parent. Yes you can observe and listen and ask questions and spend babysitting hours etc but its not the same. I've been on both sides. Not all parents who say that are martyrs or think they deserve a medal like u seem to think they do. Not all parents are condescending or think we are so muh better because we have kids. It's freaking hard and there is so much judgement places on parenting. It's insane. It's everywhere, the blogs, the books, the tv shows, magazines, play dates. It's overwhelming

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    1. I am not implying that we have the same experience. But I am saying that we understand. We can understand without having the experience. We can understand it is exhausting without experiencing it. We can understand there is judgement, because we also are on the other end of judgement. But we're not claiming we have the same experience. I never suggested that. So I think actually you've proved my point. But I suspect you'll never read this.

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  20. As far as the video goes, he's a comedian! The video isn't meant to make non parents feel stupid or point out ignorance. It's comic relief for parents. And as a parent I find it funny I can relate on some level with my own kids.

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    1. It's comic relief at the expense of others. Nice. If he'd turned it around to simply saying "I had no idea!" I might have found it funnier.

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  21. What you all seem to forget is that all of us parents... We've been childless before.... And we really didn't "get it" until we had children.

    I can't wait for all of your "parent bashing" people to have children and finally understand the ignorance of some of the comments here...

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    1. Wow! Just wow.......
      You obviously didn't really read this or the comments. This isn't "parent bashing", this is just people expressing their feelings about not being 'understood' by society and in some cases being treated like second class citizens because we haven't been able to contribute to the "continuation of the species".

      Really shows your lack of understanding of what Mali was trying to express when you say "can't wait for all of you.......people to have children and finally understand" we do understand - we just haven't experienced it first hand. Also, your lack of empathy in this statement, as in many cases I would imagine that for a lot of us (I know that in my case it is) that it is not a life choice.....we can't. Plain, simple, fact.

      I really hope you are just trolling and that you don't truly mean this, or that you were just having an off day.

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    2. Well said, Nick. The original comment was just someone else (or perhaps the same Anonymous) proving my point for me. The "we've been childless before" comment is staggering in its ignorance!

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  22. Everyone has a story....I have a daughter who cannot have children. It breaks my heart because it is breaking her heart. When our loved ones hurt regardless of our relation we hurt. Empathy is as important as forgiving. I enjoyed your post Mali, very well written.

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    1. Thank you. I'm sorry your daughter can't have children, and hope she has support as she comes to terms with this.

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  23. I'm a childless man, I work with women who are in their 60's and 70's whose children are grown, who say things like, "You don't understand, you never had children." They are not currently raising children. I think it's just a way to feel superior, because when it's said to me, I feel very annoyed. It could be because I expressed an opinion about something in the news, that kind of thing. I'm sure there are things like this I could pull on them, such as, "You don't understand, you've never lived anywhere but in this town, " or whatever, but I would never think to try to be superior in that way. I find the whole thing rude. I mean, hello, you've never been a man, and I have. You can pull this about anything.

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