28 October, 2011

Freedom of Speech

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.


  1. Ohhh this grates my nerves!!! The worst part is, typically the ones that say this have no experience prior to their children and the infertile many times has tons of experience!! Hmmffff the nerve.

  2. I usually abstain from giving my opinion, knowing ahead of time that people don't really value it. Sigh. I am so jaded.

  3. I'm in Pearl's position. I have no experience with kids (aside from a 3-month period of helping out in the local daycare), so I dare not say anything at all. I don't hang out with people with small kids due to my life's circumstances (I'm an Indo living in Finland and I only have a few IRL friends), so that limits my POV to "common sense" only.

    If my closest friends share their mommy problems with me via emails, I don't know what to say. I just simply tell them sorry to hear about that, wish them GOOD LUCK, and hope that God will give them all the wisdom and patience necessary.

  4. It might be weird, but I've never been told that. (KNOCKING REALLY HARD ON WOOD!!) In the past 6 months, however, 3 friends have called me to talk to me about what they think they should do regarding a situation involving their kids. Go figure.

  5. i think i am just coming into this phase of life.. most of my friends are just starting to have children. I haven't gotten the "you don't know what it is like, you are not a mom" yet. But I do get the "Oh just wait until you are a mom, then you'll understand" which makes me so annoyed.

    I too wish we could find a way to put the defensiveness to rest. I see it in others and in times at myself of the issue of having children or not and at the end of the day, we are all women and should accept each other with love and empathy.

  6. I find this attitude a bit patronising. Having children does not make you an expert either, else there would wouldn't be so many children in care.

  7. We all need help at times - whether we have children, have lost children or have never had the opportunity to be a mother. Most of the time we are too scared to ask for help. We don't like admitting we are out of our comfort zone.

    But what can you do? A simple, "Is there anything I can do to help?" goes a long way.

    An old lady once said that to me and my initial reaction was, "How could you help me?" For the next 5 years she came and visited me once a week, did my ironing, did my breakfast dishes, brought morning tea around and spent time with me. While she became the grandmother I needed - she found a daughter.

  8. I was told this long before I even planned to have children (and as you know, I have 3 now). I was told, "Well, everything is different once you have kids," in a tone that betrayed the speaker's jealousy of how I was living and also the need to put me in my place. And I have tried hard not to say such things. About anything. One of my biggest pet peeves is statements implying membership has its privileges: "Well, you don't know all the details about why they had to let go that employee" or "You haven't been here long enough to know all the history on that one" and so forth.

  9. Hear, hear. I have several childless/free friends who are teachers. They spend more time with more kids than most parents, & yet they get told that they aren't qualified to judge because they don't have kids!!

  10. You know, since experiencing infertility, I've learned that everyone has an opinion, but it doesn't mean you should voice it. I am infertile and have been for four years, and it feels good to talk about it and vent to someone. However, if that person is not infertile, I would like for them to just listen, not give their opinion or advice because they have no clue. I think I need to do the same for others that are experiencing something that I have not experienced. This applies to parenting. Just because a mother is complaining or doing something wrong, doesn't mean we should give our opinion or advice. It doesn't mean you are wrong, it just means that you should keep it to yourself. Now if someone asks for your advice, then give it but don't offer it when it's not wanted. Just listen.