I have become a bit of a letter writer in my advancing years. When something touches a nerve, I march up to my computer and pound out a missive. Most of which I send.
When I read a local advice columnist's piss-poor advice to an infertile woman struggling with Mother's Day blues the other day, I knew a letter was coming.
And this morning, this is what I sent:
I absolutely understand that the advice you give comes from a place of goodness and a desire to help - an admirable thing in today’s “it’s all about me” sort of world.
But I found myself wincing when I read the advice you gave to the childless woman who struggles with her sorrow on Mother’s Day (May 31/10). You were right to point out that her friends and family care, and that they show it by continuing to invite her to events and making her part of their lives. And you were correct in suggesting that she continue to seek counseling to deal with the lifelong after-effects of a battle with infertility.
But oh Ellie, to suggest that she become a foster parent or volunteer with children as a means of “filling the void”? Really?!
I lost five babies during my long, bloody battle to become a mother, one 20 hours after he was born due to a birth injury. Now at 40, I am in the process of dealing with the reality that I will always be a childless mother – an invisible mother, if you will. With that knowledge and experience under my belt, I can tell you with absolute certainty that your “filling the void” suggestion is akin to telling a woman dying of dehydration that while she can’t have a drink, she should take solace in the knowledge that she can clean your pool. That, in fact, cleaning a pool is good for her and will help her “move past” her unquenchable thirst.
Other people’s children will never fill the void left by the five I lost. This is something I think it’s impossible for you to understand, having successfully brought children of your own into the world. And so I would urge you to be very careful when doling out advice about something you can’t possibly fully understand. Volunteering with children may not make this woman “thrive”, as you suggest. It might only exacerbate the feelings of loss and the trauma associated with it. Spending time with children is always challenging for an infertile person living in a fertile world. There is always a little pain (or sometimes a lot of pain) mixed in with the joy of being with children. It hasn’t helped me “thrive”. It has merely helped me learn coping mechanisms to protect my still tender heart.
We foster a child through World Vision and I am glad that we’re able to do so, but I rarely think about it. I do, however, think about my son every single day.
Better advice would have been to tell her that the seasonal Mother’s Day blues are a pretty normal event for an infertile woman who has the cumulative trauma of multiple losses making it worse – not to mention a failed marriage, poor thing. Telling her to be kind to herself – to treat herself well and not beat herself up over the feelings of loss that very naturally arise during the annual celebration of motherhood – would have been far more helpful than telling her to suck it up and go help someone else.
Avoiding all situations where children will be present is impractical and unhealthy. I agree. I happen to think a little immersion therapy every now and then is a good, healthy thing. But knowing it’s okay to feel some degree of sadness in those situations – and knowing it’s okay to politely say your good-byes when you’ve had enough – is also very important. It would have been nice if you’d told her that.
She asked how she can make people understand how much she wishes she was a mother. You might have told her to start writing a journal or a blog documenting her feelings, and to connect with other like-minded blogging women. There is strength in numbers. You also might have told her to look for childless-not-by-choice support groups online or in her community so she’d know she’s not alone. You might have told her to actually sit down and talk to the people closest to her and tell them what’s going on in her head so that they will, finally, understand how much she is hurting and how important it is to her that they know where she’s coming from. This is the only way they’ll truly know how to help and what to say – or, more importantly, what not to say.
Being understood by those around you is critical when you’re facing this kind of challenge. Believe me. Being told to find something to “fill the void” is thoughtless at best, cruel at worst.
As I said, I know you meant well, but you were way, way off the mark on this one. And I just needed you to know.