Friday, 28 August 2009

"If you're a mother, you'll understand"

When I was a little girl, I prayed and prayed for a little sister, and ended up with two. As my sisters got older, I spent more time with my small cousins, then friends began to have children and nieces and nephews came along.

And here's one of my guilty little childhood secrets - one of my favourite books as a little girl was 'Dr Spock's Baby and Childcare". I pored over it, loving to read all the advice about how to wean a baby, how to know when you should stop sterilising, what the baby should be doing at various developmental stages - and I knew the information would be useful to me when I had the first of my own six or seven children way off in the future when I was in my twenties.

Only, of course, the six or seven children never happened, and my fountain of book knowledge, combined with my observations of all the children I knew, were useful only to allow me to take some part in conversations with my Mummy-friends.

I've changed the nappies of dozens of babies. When I visited my friend with her newborn a couple of weeks ago, I showed her another way of winding the baby which demonstrated its effectiveness when the baby gave the biggest burp of her life so far. I've developed a patented method of helping a baby to get off to sleep (my brother once called me the Baby Whisperer).

I've looked after newborn twins (yes, night-time too!), taken a 16-month-old on a trip to Northern Ireland and a 3-year-old on a trip to Jersey (same child, different occasions), regularly had my three nieces overnight, starting when the youngest was just a few months old...

Some of my friends who are parents have never really been around babies and small children until they had their own. I'm painfully aware that I don't have the depth of experience that they have, but I do have the breadth - very often when they're tearing their hair out over an issue that has arisen with their child, I've seen it before and am able to help.

And yet people with children so often feel the need to point out that their experience is so much richer and more fulfilling than mine. The Stirrup Queen wrote yesterday about this article, and naturally I clicked on the link and ended up feeling like something you might wipe off your shoe after a walk through the exercise yard at the local kennels.

My mother would tell me I should be thicker-skinned - but the comment that "no, nieces and nephews aren't the same as having your own kids" really upsets me, as does the reminder that I've never experienced motherhood.

Then there are things like this - number 2 digs the knife in deeper. I don't think I've ever offered unwanted advice, and I would never criticise anyone directly for the way they look after their own child, but I do have experience which has been helpful to some of my friends in dealing with situations that have arisen with their children. I don't pretend to have all the answers, but I do have some - and my childlessness doesn't make my experience any less valid.

I've had my fair share of the "you can't understand, because you're not a mother" comments in real life. I've also been offended by the series of adverts which were run a few years ago for Calpol (UK equivalent of infant tylenol), which had the tagline "If you're a parent, you'll understand" - with the implication that if you're not a parent, you have NO idea.

Every childless person has his or her own story. Some are genuinely child-free by choice. Some claim to be child-free by choice because they don't want to have to explain their pain and worries to all and sundry who ask. Some are consumed for practically every waking moment with their longing to have a child and their worry that it will never happen. Some have come to terms with the fact that they will never have children, and some have not yet reached that stage and are living a rollercoaster of emotions as they face disappointment after disappointment and decision after difficult decision.

If I could teach the super-fertile anything, it would be that your friend, or sister, or colleague, who doesn't have children NEVER needs to hear about what she's missing, about how much richer her life would be if she had children, or about how she can never understand what you're going through because she's never been a mother.

Either she's happy with her child-free life and really doesn't care, or she longs to have a child and your words are causing her more pain.

So at best, you're wasting your breath.

And at worst, you're twisting the knife.


  1. I went across and read that blog post (with my injured eye and all!) and felt completely sick. How smug is that woman? And self righteous? Yuk yuk yuk. Your post is an excellent response, but I wouldn't bother sending it to her. I read the comments too, and she seems congenitally incapable of understanding just how offensive she has been XXXXXXXXXXXXXX

  2. This is an excellent post! I felt the same after reading Mel's post. The writer of the offensive post in question obviously doesn't get it...but, the bigger problem is she has no interest in understanding. It's her loss...

  3. I'm not sure. Yes, she was insensitive - and like all of us, having been called on it she was a little defensive. I don't think she'll make the same mistake again, though - but the reason I wrote this post is not to attack her personally or what she wrote (although what she wrote hurt me, I know that wasn't her intention), but because she's very very far from being the only one, and part of my life at the moment is negotiating the minefield of insensitivity.