I have an impossible wish this Mother's Day. I wish the holiday could somehow honor a group of women to which I once belonged, and for whom the day is particularly difficult. I wish Mother's Day could celebrate everyone who wants to be a mother and cannot, for whatever reason -- from the lack of the right partner, to infertility in all its forms. I wish that a day focused on motherly love could honor the love these women feel, not for a child they can see and touch, but for an unseen child so tangible to them that every day is a struggle.
But how do we celebrate a group that is so often hidden, out of necessity and preference? Women who speak publicly about these issues while they are going through them are few and far between, and deserve admiration and applause; their honesty provides comfort and inspiration to their peers. Many more, like me, keep quiet until we have passed over some sort of threshold into acceptance, resignation or motherhood itself. We keep quiet to shield ourselves from the pressure of others' expectations and to avoid unnecessary problems in the workplace. We keep quiet because it can be a tremendous solace to be around people who don't know we're injecting ourselves with fertility drugs in the office bathroom or spending hours in a doctor's waiting room each week staring at his trophy wall of chubby baby photos. Silence helps us get through it, but it also means that any number of careless comments rub salt in the wound every day.
That's why I suggest that we celebrate this holiday's unsung heroes with a little quiet of our own. Let's eliminate the following five comments from our repertoire and give the gift of silence this Mother's Day. (Quick disclaimer: My comments are based on, and limited by, my specific experience with infertility. However, these issues are faced by people with and without partners, men and women, of a wide range of ages -- precisely why I'd argue these are things that should not be said to anyone.)
1. "When are you having kids?" Suggested answer: How much do you weigh? This question is generally well-intentioned, but it is much too personal for most contexts, and unnecessary to boot. If your dearest friends want you to know their thoughts on this issue, they will tell you. If you must inquire, make damned sure it's during a private heart-to-heart, the kind that usually involves a couple glasses of wine. It is not a question for dinner parties, boisterous family gatherings or business meetings -- all locations where I, like most women, was repeatedly forced to navigate this question in front of a large group.
2. "You can't wait forever, you know!" A self-explanatory knife in the gut.
3. "That baby looks good on you!" People think it is hilarious and highly original to say this to childless women holding a friend's baby. Yes, she knows. It is just about killing her. She thinks the baby looks so good on her that she is considering running out into the street with it and never coming back. This joke is even more often directed at men, who may very well be going through their own heartbreaking ordeal. Unless you know for sure the joke won't hit a very painful nerve, it's not worth it.
4. "I didn't grow up until I had kids." A charming thing to say to apparently infantilize single people of the world, or couples without children, by choice or circumstance. It may be true for many, but it should be saved for talks with other parents. It is not true for me. I grew up much more during the years when I couldn't have kids than I have since my wish was granted. In my book, not getting the thing you most want, month after month and year after year, and still getting up and going to work and smiling pleasantly when people make comments like these, is the very definition of growing up. Parenting is hard, but it is also an immense pleasure and a task most of us chose. It's not an act of saintly devotion (except during the teenage years). Let's get rid of this ridiculous notion that parents are wiser and better people than non-parents.
5. "A marriage without children is like a garden without flowers." This was actually said to me, along with many other versions, including the idea that women aren't really women until they have kids. A good marriage, with no children or 20, is an incredible thing. A good marriage between two people who desperately want children, and are failing to have them, is a miracle. You learn a lot about a person changing diapers at 3 a.m., but even more in the grueling first weeks after a miscarriage, or through the grind of monthly disappointment. To be a part of a marriage like that during our years of struggle was much more than good preparation for our eventual parenthood. It was a privilege that, to my surprise, I came to treasure.
I can never know the pain endured by the women and men whose path to parenthood is much longer than my own, or never-ending. All I know is that on Mother's Day, their strength and determination deserve a place in our thoughts -- and if we can make their life a little easier through a little common sense and restraint, then that's a gift worth giving.