Often, the most hurtful words someone can say to a childless (not by choice) woman is “you’re not a mother. You don’t understand.”
These words are said to hurt, to put any non-parent in their place. And they do. We feel sad, diminished, lesser than. But I suspect the reason they are said is as a defence, from a place of hurt. They’re said in response to a suggestion or comment meant to help. Mothers feel defensive, guilty, under attack. (So do we of course but that’s the irony, isn’t it?) So comments or suggestions from someone outside their club are felt as a further attack, rather than the helpful, understanding suggestions other mums might give, even if they are given with exactly the same intent.
And yet, those most hurtful words are true. I’m not a mother. And whilst I can intellectually and emotionally try to put myself in that place, I have never experienced it in the way that they mean. (Because, as we all know, losing a pregnancy and/or grieving your child-that-never-was doesn’t seem to count).
But I’ve been wondering. Does the fact that I’m not a mother mean I’m not qualified to have an opinion? I personally don’t think it does. And I’m tired myself of feeling defensive and worthless. I know I’m not. Now, I know I can’t say “I’ve been through this” and provide comfort in that way. But I’m also not tied up with the wave of emotions that influence a mother’s decisions. And we all know too that emotions don’t make us logical, balanced, fair, or even compassionate. They make us defensive, protective, blinkered.
I’ve been around enough friends and family with children to have observed different parenting styles, and I’ve been around long enough to have observed the results of those parenting styles. I’m close enough with some children to know how their parents make them feel. So I can see what hasn’t worked. I can, quite frankly, see the mistakes that are being made, that have been made. (I’m not without compassion – I understand why these mistakes are being made. But mistakes they are, nonetheless.) Perhaps the fact that I “don’t understand” is exactly my advantage.
It makes me sad. Because I know I can’t (usually) say anything without it being taken the wrong way. And I don't want to hurt. I know I can only be there for the children, hear them, let them know they’re heard, and provide love, support, gentle encouragement, and when they’re old enough, a calm and reasoned alternative view for them to consider.
If you’re a mother, know that we understand far more than you think. And maybe our less emotional, less defensive/guilt-ridden points of view might be useful sometimes. If only you were open to it.