Mother’s Day is hard for a lot of people. For birth mothers, for mothers who’ve lost children, for children who’ve lost mothers, for those who long to be mothers, for people who love any of the above. And you know what? The world seems to have figured this out.
Maybe I just have particularly kind and sensitive friends, but my news feed yesterday was filled with words of encouragement for those who struggle with Mother’s Day, with affirmations of spiritual motherhood, with acknowledgments of women who aren’t mothers in the traditional sense. It was beautiful. Women seeing other people’s pain through their joy and other people’s joy through their pain. And while Mother’s Day can be tough for an unmarried woman in her 30s, my heart was full with all the kindness I saw.
But today isn’t Mother’s Day. Or tomorrow. Or the next 362 days. For the next year, we go back to our own lives, where sometimes it’s hard to see any cross that isn’t similar to our own. So we complain about our overly-attentive mothers to people with absent and abusive mothers. Or we gush about the beauty of breastfeeding without noticing the tears in the eyes of a woman struggling to conceive.
I’m not saying don’t be real, don’t share your joy or your suffering. I’m saying remember that your way of being a woman is not the only way, your cross is not the only cross.
Let me come to you from a place of being single and childless. I am very blessed in that I understand kids and I’ve been a foster mother and I live in people’s homes surrounded by their children all the time, so in many circles I get a pass. I’m allowed to participate in the mom conversations that most childless women are excluded from. I manage, as a friend recently said, to “walk in every world,” so people talk to me about mastitis and let me discipline their kids and listen to my marriage advice. To the many, many married women who love me and let me share in your lives, thank you. I can’t imagine the mess I’d be if you didn’t look so thoroughly past the label and let me walk this with you.
I’ve been told they’d never ask me to speak at a mom’s conference because I’m not a mom. Never mind that I’m a Christian and a woman and a spiritual mother and deeply involved in the lives of countless mothers and free of charge, I don’t count.
I’ve been told all people are selfish until they have children.
I’ve been told you can’t know love until you’ve had a child of your own.
I’ve given talks to women’s groups–more times than I can count–where there was not a single unmarried woman in the audience. Not one.
I’ve been told I can’t come to a particular women’s group–even once–because I’m not married. I’ve been told I can come to another just this once, “even though you’re not a mom.”
I’ve gotten blog comments (on a party about neither marriage nor children) saying, “I’m so sick of this author. She’s not married and doesn’t have any kids, so who is she to be telling anyone how to live?” Lady, if you don’t want to get advice from unmarried and childless people, you should probably pick a new Church because 95% of the priests and 95% of the Saints in the Catholic church have been childless and unmarried.
When people have found out I’m single, they’ve rushed to reassure me that they were single once, too, when they were 22, and they were so unhappy until God finally gave them their perfect husband, so don’t worry–he’s out there!!!!!
I’ve listened to platitude after platitude telling me it’ll be okay and God’s got a plan and you’re praying that I’ll get my happily ever after and I’m sorry did I tell you that I’m wasting away desperately longing for a man to fill my empty life? Did you think you needed to tell the missionary that God’s got a plan?
I’ve been told, by people who are evidently sure that they’re letting me in on a secret, that I shouldn’t pin my hopes on marriage because “marriage is hard, too”–which is good to know, because I definitely don’t know anyone who’s married, so I thought it was a 50-year romantic comedy.
None of it’s terrible. I know people who’ve heard much worse. I’m sure I’ve heard much worse, honestly. But the sum total of it all is that when you are an unmarried Catholic woman in your thirties, you feel very much as though you don’t count.
When you’re a single mother, you feel the same. When you’re a married woman in college, when you’re infertile, when you have so many kids you can’t volunteer at preschool, when your husband isn’t Catholic, when you’re an early empty-nester, when your kid has special needs, when you’re a working mom, when your kids are in public school, when you’re widowed young, when you’re raising grandkids. I expect that every one of us feels, at one time or another, that we don’t count because we don’t match the model of Catholic womanhood that our friend group (or the internet) presents us with.1
We often don’t say anything because it sounds like bitterness, to find pain in another’s joy. So we build walls of resentment between ourselves and the very well-meaning women who love us. We feel guilty for our selfishness and berate ourselves for not being happy for them.
I’ve spent more than a decade looking with great gladness on the beautiful lives of my beautiful friends thinking in the words of L.M. Montgomery (about an unmarried Anne Shirley visiting Diana and her sweet baby): “it is sometimes a little lonely to be surrounded everywhere by a happiness that is not your own.” I rejoice in the good things in your life. I grieve over your deep suffering. I want to share in what I understand and in what I don’t. I don’t want to compete over who’s more tired or who’s bearing more fruit. I envy you, but I try not to. I sometimes gloat internally, but I try even harder not to do that.
All I’m saying is this: it’s hard. Being a mom is hard. Being childless is hard. Being in an abusive relationship is hard. Being trapped in a small town is hard. Being completely unrooted is hard. Having a job is hard. Being unemployed is hard. It’s just hard. All of it.
One day a year, many of us have learned to consider what might be hard for other people, how different lives involve different crosses and how we can respect that. I’m just wondering if we can be more mindful of the way people are different from us.
- If your girlfriend has a pack of kids ask if you can bring ice cream after bedtime or get a sitter so the two of you can grab coffee.
- If you’ve got a close friend struggling with infertility, ask her if she wants to come along for ultrasounds or would rather have you talk as little as possible about pregnancy stuff around her.
- If your friend is divorced, consider that your moms’ group shouldn’t read a book about marriage.
- If your friend is single, either find someone great2 to set her up with or shut your mouth about how “fun” it must be to be single or about how she should really try Catholic Match.
- Ask advice of a friend who “shouldn’t” have any–parenting advice of the childless, dating advice of the long-married, career advice of the stay-at-home mom. She may not have much input, but actually she may. You don’t need to have experienced something firsthand to have wisdom on the matter and often being well on the outside of a situation can give you some perspective.
- Cultivate friendships with women in different phases of life. It’s unnatural that nearly all of our friends are living just as we’re living–it was never that way in the village. The more varied your relationships (widows, young moms, moms of teens, consecrated women, young professionals) the harder it is to be insensitive to struggles that are not your own.
- When your friend shares her deep pain with you, DO NOT respond with, “Yeah, well, at least you don’t [have the cross I have that you would love to have/have the cross I have that’s so much worse than yours and so your pain doesn’t count].” Do not use your cross as a bludgeon against those who carry a different one.
- Don’t try to fix it.
- Don’t feel you have to give advice or say anything other than, “Oh, friend. I’m so sorry. That’s really hard.”
- Listen and love.
I don’t want to feed into a culture that delights in getting offended.3 But when we surround ourselves with people who are just like us, it becomes very easy to alienate and to begin to mold the Gospel in our own image. You don’t need to censor everything you ever do for the sake of some woman who might be hurt by your joy. Just consider that in your happiness, there may be someone lonely. Do what you can to build bridges, not walls.
(Before you comment, will you please just ask yourself if it’s a platitude? Nobody needs to hear, “God’s got a plan” or “You’re still young.” Thanks.)
- Forget the fact that female Saints run the gamut from scholar to harlot and working mom to homeschooler to single mom. We ignore the Saints and see only the alienation the Devil wants us to see.
- Not just the only guy who’s left.
- I’m generally rather hard to offend unless you’re actually attacking me personally. But I write on the einternet, so that’s a lot.