If you are a childless woman of a certain age, it is inevitable that you have experienced some degree of “motherhood shaming,” and if you haven’t you probably will. It doesn’t matter how understanding, well-intentioned and open-minded the people surrounding you are, there will come a time someone will probably unintentionally diminish your womanhood and human experience with a slight remark acknowledging the fact that you don’t have children. I am discussing this today not to point fingers or try to devalue the indescribable bond between a parent and child, but simply to offer the viewpoint from someone on the other side and encourage the idea that we are all simply human and living our own reality. The fact that someone’s differs from your own doesn’t make their experience any less valid.
As a 33-year-old single woman, I’ve been hit with the common remarks geared toward childless people more than I ever care to count.
“You can’t understand, you’re not a parent.”
“You’ll never truly know what love is like until you have a baby.”
“It’s selfish to just think about yourself for the rest of your life.”
The list goes on. These phrases were never said to me in a derogatory way. In fact, they were spoken by people I love and care about a great deal, in passing, and they surely don’t even recognize what they said as being degrading. But take a closer look and you can see how these words leave quite the sting on someone. Essentially you’re saying that since I will never have a child, I am missing an entire link in the human experience and thus will never be a complete person.
To look at things solely from an evolutionary standpoint, I am a failure. As just another animal on this planet, my sole purpose is to procreate to further the species, eat, poop and die. But since no one has ever shamed me with “your lack of reproduction is a total disappointment to homo sapiens,” I’m going to assume we’re all running with the idea that there is a little more to this thing called life and it involves feeling, emotion, etc.
It is true that I have not known the wonder of growing another being inside my body. I think it is an absolutely amazing and almost unbelievable process. I am in awe of each of my beautiful friends who have carried and birthed a child because I myself can’t do it. From the beautiful details like feeling the baby moving in your tummy to the less savory aspects like crapping on the hospital bed, it blows my mind that a person is physically capable of such a miracle and I bow down to you all.
But just because I haven’t felt that, how does that make me less capable of understanding the emotion of love? Allow me to make an analogy to put things into perspective. I am an only child who is very close to my parents. That’s a little rare, since most everyone I know has at least 1 sibling. In my life, I am going to experience that relationship very differently than them. Growing up, I never had to share my parents’ affection and when the time comes for me to, god forbid, lose them, I am going to face that process alone. Does that mean that the grief I will feel during that time will be more than the grief of my friends with siblings simply because of a life circumstance? How unfair would it be to look at a friend and say “You can’t understand the loss I’m feeling. The bond between parents and an only child is so much different than with multiple children.”
On the emotional spectrum, love is the most intense and varied. There are different kinds of love and one is not more or less powerful than the other. I fell in love with someone with my heart, body and soul and would have given my life for this person, the same as my parents, but it was a different degree of love. It didn’t make that person more important than my mother. When they exited my life, I grieved with the intensity I imagine I will grieve over the loss of one of my parents. I couldn’t get out of bed. My body physically ached. I couldn’t eat or sleep. That is the experience of loss and it can hurt just as badly whether it’s over a dog, a lover or a best friend.
To assume that another person can’t fully process an emotion the way you can simply because you have a child is degrading. It is just another type of love, albeit a very deep and passionate love. It is not selfish for a person to make the choice not to have children, as I have been told in the past. To me what is selfish is bringing a child into the world and HOPING your feelings change once it is here. Considering that in my entire life I’ve never pictured myself as a mother, that’s a pretty big gamble I’m not willing to take because it is unfair to a baby. You hear that a lot – “Oh I was just like you, never liked kids, didn’t even know I wanted them up until I had mine. But something just changes the first time you see them.” That’s all well and good and maybe it’s true. Maybe if I had gotten pregnant as an adult or hadn’t miscarried when I was 15, my feelings and hopes and dreams for my future would have been vastly different. But in that regard I may never know.
I know my situation. I’ll be 34 in December and my clock is ticking… loudly. Within a year or two I might have to make a decision on freezing my eggs or I could lose the option to ever be a mother and that is a bit frightening. But how can you grieve something you’ve never experienced? It’s simply grieving the imaginations version of “what might have been.”
We are all facing life without a clue what we’re doing. Parents, not parents, we’re all winging it. We base our own versions of right and wrong off our own experiences and knowledge and what works for me probably won’t work for you. It doesn’t mean anyone is more enlightened than anyone else. Despite what we’ve all been told, we’re not so unique and special. So think before you speak. Single people too! I’ve never been up all night with a screaming and teething baby so it’s very possible I’ve been dismissive to the level of exhaustion new parents feel. Take the opportunity to really listen to your loved ones and be supportive no matter what path they’re taking. There is wisdom to be gained from each and every person you meet.