A Note to my Readers: Over the past few years, I have published three novels, but this is my first time posting a personal essay. I was inspired to do so after a dear friend, Rosanna Leo, gave me the honor of reading her forthcoming novel, Covet, a breathtaking romance whose heroine struggles with infertility. I use the word “childless” in this essay because it fits the topic, recognizing that this is distinct from the term “childfree,” often used to describe those who choose not to have children. PLEASE NOTE: This essay may be difficult for those who are dealing with loss, infertility, and other related situations. Thank you for reading. ~Anise
With Mother’s Day approaching, like many of you, I have been thinking about the best ways to express my love and gratitude to my own (utterly amazing!) mother, as well as to the other wonderful mothers and mother figures in my life. I relish picking out just the right card, making plans to meet, and finding the perfect gift.
In the midst of these preparations, though, something else also happened this week. I had my first routine gynecology appointment since my hysterectomy. The doctor confirmed that I have fully recovered from the surgery; I don’t even have to see him again for two more years. It was good news, of course. But it was also a fresh reminder that my infertility, foreshadowed by my first emergency room visit for abdominal pain nearly three decades ago, is now permanent.
Although many people struggle with infertility, every individual’s journey is different. In my case, I am not someone who always wanted to be a mother. For a long time, other desires pulled at me much more intensely. I had three main wishes: to pursue meaningful work, to discover creative outlets, and—most importantly—to find true love. But some time after my true love and I met and married, a new desire welled up inside of me: to have children with him. However, due to medical conditions, I was unable to become pregnant. And for multiple other reasons, adoption was not an option for us. Even though parenthood has not been our destiny, I am reminded on a daily basis how incredibly lucky I am that my original three wishes were granted.
Most days, I don’t think about being childless. My life is rich, challenging, and fulfilling, and many other things occupy my mind and heart. But some days, especially around Mother’s Day (and doctors’ visits), I do think about it. As much as I would love to say that I am completely at peace with my lot, that would imply that my feelings are unchanging—calm and flat, like the surface of a pond with no breeze or other disturbances creating ripples. That is not the case, and I can’t say that it ever will be. What I can say is that with the passage of time, the ripples have become smaller and less frequent.
Still, every so often, a stone may be tossed into the pond. And for those whose parenthood is suspended in a state of longing, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day can be difficult, even devastating. For example, those who are enduring fertility treatments and their partners, their emotions stretched to the breaking point. Those who are waiting for the call that their adoption has been approved—waiting and praying. All of those who love these would-be parents and want nothing more than to see their dreams fulfilled. Ripples of so many emotions. Sometimes, ripples of grief.
And so, for some, it can be a difficult time and a sensitive subject. If you are wondering how best to support these childless loved ones around Mother’s Day, I humbly offer a few suggestions to consider, based on my experience.
1) Let them be where they are. If they are down, don’t push them to cheer up. If they are happy, don’t question it—and especially, don’t ask if they’ve had good news on the parenthood front. If they do, they’ll share it when they’re ready.
2) If they want to be alone or don’t want to join the celebrations, don’t try to convince them to change their minds. Trust that they are doing what they need to do, to take care of their emotional health.
3) Follow their lead in any conversation about their struggles to become parents. It may be the last thing they want to talk about, but if they bring it up, be willing to listen without jumping in with suggestions or reassurances.
4) There is no bad time to let people know that you love them, and that you’re there for them. If you want to say these things but worry about shining light on a painful topic, you can always express yourself in a general way without referencing their specific struggles.
5) Keep in mind that none of us ever really know what is going on inside of another person. Emotional pain can make us act out of character sometimes. Be willing to overlook the small things, to forgive and forget.
One final thought: If you want to provide support somehow, but you’re feeling helpless and don’t know what to do, remember: just being with someone as a non-judgmental, loving presence is always a precious gift.
I hope these thoughts have been helpful, and I wish all of you courage, comfort when needed, and above all, a life full of joy and love, whatever shape it may take.