On Empathy, with All of Us

If you have ever struggled with infertility, you will know that Mother’s Day can be one of the most dreaded and painful days on the calendar. There are weeks of build up to it, with advertisements and morning show presenters all hammering home that motherhood is the hardest but best and most important job you could ever have. Then there is the day itself with the endless saccharine Facebook posts replete with #blessed hashtags, the need of every waiter and shop assistant to ask how you are celebrating even when you clearly do not have children in the vicinity, and the rituals that seem designed to widen the gulf between parents and non-parents. I am not currently a church goer, but during my Catholic upbringing I witnessed many a rose ceremony, where mothers in the congregation are celebrated by receiving flowers. Imagine if you were trying to come to terms with a failed IVF (that you possibly paid tens of thousands of dollars for) and then you had to sit through a sermon flowerless while the pastor speaks about how children are the greatest of God’s gifts. Most infertile women do everything in their power to avoid these situations, which usually means going into hiding until the end of May. Some choose to focus on their own mother, or on everyone in their life with mothering qualities, which are admirable approaches, but I suspect that amid this genuine thankfulness for the nurturers in their lives there will still be a steely undercurrent of sadness present.

For the past several years, my experience of Mother’s Day has been similar to that outlined above, meaning I spent weeks making sarcastic comments about the commercial aspects of the day, I duly phoned my own mother, I stayed off social media and tried to do whatever I could to distract myself. This year, of course, my perspective is different.

A post popped up on my Facebook feed a day or so ago, which basically said that what women want for Mother’s Day is not jewellry but to go to brunch – with their girlfriends – and drink bottomless mimosas and then come home and binge watch TV in their stretchy pants without having to worry about the kids. Before I could think about it I literally LOLed and hit ‘like’. Then it hit me – holy shit, I can empathise with parenting stuff.

To backtrack a bit – I believe that one of the few good things about infertility is that it teaches you empathy. For many of us, failed attempts at reproduction are the first time the old adage that ‘you can succeed at anything you put your mind to’ has been proven false. Expensive medical treatments fail. Yoga retreats, acupuncture and herbal remedies fail. You can make your body a temple and not consume anything delicious or fun and still not get pregnant whilst the woman in front of you at the supermarket checkout who chain smokes and thinks green apple vodka is a fruit has four beautiful children. It’s a big whopping lesson that life isn’t fair.

Once you realise that sometimes trying hard isn’t enough and there are exterior forces outside of your control that can squash your dreams, you start to look at other people’s situations differently. The little boy who dreamt of being a doctor but got pressured by his brother into gang life and ended up in prison? The ‘illegal immigrant’ who is willing to break the law to escape poverty and violence? The woman who can’t hold down a job due to untreated mental health issues? Yes, people make negative choices but you start to look a bit deeper for what’s happening under the surface that could have influenced those choices. You realise the truth behind the quote ‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.’

However, I have to admit that when I was in the deepest darkest depths of infertility there was one major blind spot in my empathy – parenting struggles. Don’t get me wrong, if you experienced illness or job loss, I would try to be there and abide with you for those challenges, regardless of whether you had kids. But if you rocked up at the office bleary eyed, complaining that your 2 year old was still not sleeping through the night, I would secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) roll my eyes and think, #fertileproblems girlfriend, you should just be grateful you have kids. Pretty harsh, but that’s where I was at.

I’ll be honest, some parenting complaints will always and forever drive me up the wall. Anyone who complains about the sex of their perfectly healthy baby had better look elsewhere for commiserations, end of story. But now that I have had the first taste of the parenting life, I realise that when your desperately wanted child has refused sleep for five hours straight, in the middle of the night, you do, in the heat of the moment, get frustrated; you do cry; and you do think fondly about the times when the only reason you were up at 3 am was when you were out partying. And you feel a little – or a lot –sheepish about how little empathy you previously had with so much of the population.

I feel that those of us who battled to have children, and ultimately succeeded in doing so, have a weight of constant gratitude on our shoulders. We are afraid to ever admit that parenting can be hard because we know how many women would give their left arm to experience the hard. Don’t get me wrong, feeling and expressing gratitude is a wonderful thing and whenever I do get down, the appreciation for how fortunate I am helps to pull me back up. But I also feel that ‘always be 100% grateful’ adds more pressure on a woman during a vulnerable, tumultuous time when she is surrounded by so many other ‘musts’ – lose the baby weight, breastfeed, train your baby to sleep through the night by 3 months, be sexy for your partner, make sure your baby has age appropriate stimulation, take time for yourself (but not too much and only once everyone else in the house is fed and contented), babywear while climbing Mount Everest, etc. etc.

I think as human beings we need to be able to vent about whatever our experiences are, including that of parenthood, and we shouldn’t feel guilty for doing so. It’s a way to connect with others. However, we do need to be cognisant of our audience. My rule of thumb on this would be if you are around a woman who you know doesn’t have children, no matter what age she is, don’t complain to her about your children, unless you know her very well and she has actually told you she doesn’t mind. If she is childfree, she probably won’t give you the response you want anyway, and if she is childless not by choice or in the midst of fertility treatment she might sneak off to the ladies’ room and bawl her eyes out, or think you are a huge insensitive bitch, or both. And if you do have a friend or family member who you know is experiencing, or has experienced infertility (and did not go on to parent), please be a little extra sensitive in general around Mother’s Day (and the first day of school and Christmas, which are also potential minefields).

If you are an infertile trying to conceive, or someone who has moved on to life without baby, do whatever you need to do to protect yourself. If this means going into a parent-free blackout zone, on Mother’s Day or any other day, by all means do so. If you’re a friend of mine and need to take a step back from me because I have a young child, I get it, and I’ll be waiting for when we’re both in the right space to resume our friendship. When the rawness starts to fade and the healing begins however, please don’t discount all women with children from your circle because you believe their grass is always greener. We’re all humans, with all the beauty and mess, the loss and love, the tears and laughter that are part of this journey called life.

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