A couple of months ago I took myself to the dentist. Fitting in a tooth cleaning while the Covid infection rates remained low, I found myself in what felt like a surprisingly normal conversation.
In an innocent exchange of “work and business during Covid” stories, I shared a slice of how things were going in restaurant world. And the hygienist shared how thankful she was to get back to work in July. Staying at home with her toddler had not been good for her mental health.
I applied my sort of neutral “MMmmmm” to the situation (more on that later) as she floundered around for an elaboration, perhaps feeling dislodged by my general lack of response.
On principle, I don’t believe in dismissing people whenever possible as I know the harm being dismissed has done to me over the years. I also don’t believe in putting pressure on women to go all Celine Dion and say that spending 24/7 with their children is complete rose petals and glory. Even though I’ve given just about everything to be in their shoes and I doubt many would last a half hour in mine.
At the same time, I possess a side effect I suppose is normal for those of us who have lost all of our children, parenthood and grandparenthood – underwhelm towards every day parent “problems”. Plus, I remain committed to not participating in the collective tsunami of ovation that is so often expected by and for planet parent. I mean, among many other things they do already have an Advil commercial (**warning: commercial is VERY triggering) made in their honor………
So yeah, thread THAT needle!
And lest we forget, how I respond (or don’t) can have a significant impact (or not) on my level of comfort for the next half hour. Entertaining parenting woes while having my oral cavity prodded with dental instruments has happened to me on more than one occasion. Needless to say, it makes me quite ornery.
“You wanted to pick up some hours” I acknowledged gently and matter of factly.
“Yes” she replied, seeming relieved.
And then, in an all too rare twist of fate – take the cue here, people who get to be parents – she did the right thing by leaving the topic behind and moving on in the conversation.
I found myself reflecting back on this interaction for reasons very different than a few years ago. Most notably, that someone in my presence could lament being at home with their child WITHOUT me envisioning a rampage of destruction that included setting the entire world on fire.
That I didn’t practically collapse at the injustice of her reality getting space and voice in the human conversation while mine doesn’t – also worth a mention. While the space and voice the mother experience gets in the human conversation is not entirely without judgement and unreasonable scrutiny, it is space and voice that gets to exist.
Unlike Covid infection rates as of late, it seems my rage and indignation are at record lows. They have woven through the rest of me, excreting themselves these days as mere faint thought balloons. Thought balloons such as “A strain on your mental health??? Have I got a ‘strain on your mental health’ story for YOU!!”, and, “Try being at home all day WITHOUT your children….for the REST OF YOUR LIFE!!” I’m sure these were floating around somewhere, but, they were barely noticeable and far from the front of my mind.
Not to say that the place I’m in now is “better”. Yes, it entails more equanimity. And yes, I’ve balanced out quite a bit from the visceral “belly brain” molasses that grief and trauma plopped me into.
Overall though, I’ll always hold my rage and righteous indignation as sacred. It was a remnant of unrequited love for my children. It acknowledged the vast injustices I and so many have had to suffer and it represented the courage it took to acknowledge all that I lost. It absolutely had to be sat in and processed in order to for me to heal and keep going.
None of this means that it’s all “ok” – the absence of my children and the social injustices that come with it all. What it does mean is that I’ve somehow expanded myself – visions of an English torture chamber come to mind for some reason – to deal with reality as it is now.
But there’s something else that makes these daily interactions less high frequency. Beyond the dissipated rage and other faded big screen emotions, there has been a much needed acquisition of new boundaries.
Aaahhh, yes. Boundaries. The big “B” for some of us. So necessary when you’re in a world where you’re expected to not only converse, but often times empathize with and praise those who have what you saught ferociously and lost. And when you have a life altering loss for which there is no social protocol and still much accepted bigotry. Boundaries are necessary in a world that places no value whatsoever on experiences that have remodeled your very core.
The conversational boundaries I’ve been able to define for myself seem to fall into three categories. Having been at this long enough to have a track record, the first category is Self Knowledge:
I know I won’t enter a conversation about having children or someone’s children unless I feel ok to do so. I know if someone is insensitive to my social cues, I’ll let them know exactly what I’ve been through, and set more specific boundaries if need be. I know I will always do my best to take care of myself. I know that I am not responsible for other people’s deficiencies or narrow social expectations. Acknowledging and understanding what’s not mine has been a most useful boundary.
Whether others see it or not, I know that whatever I give in conversation to someone who gets to be a parent under normal, average circumstances is an act of generosity. I know I won’t, nor do I have to, give undue applause to someone’s parenting situation. And most importantly, I know that I will not waste any energy in conversation that I don’t have to. Childlessness is a life long marathon.
Having done my share of processing, I now have some room for “struggles” in the more mundane section of life’s spectrum. Placing such things helps me to navigate a conversation. I’m now in a place where I can say to myself “Ok, getting overwhelmed and out of sorts from spending 24/7 with your child IS a thing, but that’s like third grade whereas trying to conceive for four years, never getting to meet your children and figuring out the rest of life without them in a world that intensely focuses on parenthood is like a third PhD. I also make an effort when out in the world to recognize those situations where, relative to the experiences of the person I’m talking to, I’m the third grader.
Borrowing from one of my favorite grief educators Megan Devine – “It’s all valid. It is NOT all equal.” “Hard” is not a fixed point in the sky but rather a variety of constellations, some more glaring than others.
Another area in which my perspective has shifted drastically is in my over all level of faith in people. Back in the early days of grief when I, like any other griever, needed constant witness, I shared my story a lot. As we all know, in our early years of grief we need witness like we need water, so anything else would have felt highly counter intuitive. I couldn’t imagine why my experiences should be so hard to empathize with and maybe even learn a bit about. I mean, isn’t that what you’re supposed to do in the presence of someone else’s in pain? Oh Virginia!!
From this scenario I learned there is a much larger cross section of people than I’d have thought who would much rather stay in their incomplete and uninformed world view than venture out on your behalf just because it’s the right thing to do as a human. Having an appropriate level of faith in the emotional generosity of people – in other words, much less than I used to – has been an important and useful boundary for me.
And last but not least, you’ve got your Basic Conversation Tools:
- I’ve become quite artful (not to mention unapologetic) at redirecting the conversation.
- Go universal – I’ve been capping parent related Covid talk lately with “We ALL have so much to figure out, whatever our situations” or “Yep, we’re all just taking it day by day”.
- There’s the option (when tolerable) of gently and briefly acknowledging someone’s situation without fussing.
**While the above three should, ideally, stimulate more interesting and reciprocal conversation, they typically instead create dead air space for some reason.
- Interrupt and ignore – Now this can feel not right because it’s normally not what most of us do. But more often than not when people are talking about their children, they are already not talking with you, they are talking at you. Ain’t no reason two can’t play that game….
- And, last but not least, a necessity for every involuntarily childless person around the world – The Disinterested “MMmmmmm”. The Disinterested MMmmmmmm is used when one is not able, for whatever reason, to delve into their involuntarily childless status (right away or at all) but also either cannot or won’t fake the expected exorbitant response. The Disinterested Mmmmmm is delivered with pursed lips, a slightly tilted head, and an averted gaze that reads one part cringey, one part distant.
Ironically, the less raw I am, the more feasible this all is to do. As far as cultivating these ways of being in the early years when emotions from our losses are still shattering the needle, I honestly don’t have an answer. For me anyway, I think I could only feel out and then curate these boundaries once my monsoons of emotion devolved into intermittent gentle rains. Which, as you my dear readers know, is a process that has pretty much taken me (and so many of us) years. And years and years. And all for social acrobatics that wouldn’t be necessary if the involuntarily childless were a visible and valued demographic.
I wasn’t always so tending of my boundaries though.
From a young age, I was taught that it was rude not to ask about other people’s children. Also, like many of us I was raised by parents who put all of the focus on being kind to others but very little focus on how to defend and care for myself out in the world.
In addition, I was the first born, and a female at that, in a family with dynamics that forced me in my very early life to attune to the needs of those decades my senior.
From this sprouted a fuzzy sense of boundaries with me and my fellow humans. And somewhere out of all this morphed the precarious belief that lack of connection with others was my fault. If someone didn’t understand me it was because I had failed to express myself well (yeah, like that ever happens) and make them understand. In short, I was on a protracted path of taking responsibility for the dysfunction and deficiencies of others.
And so – SPOILER ALERT – this did not go down well out of the gates and on the track of involuntary childlessness. Since then, the level of un-learning and re-learning has been staggering.
It was upon reading “An Invitation to Self-Care” by Tracey Cleantis that I was able to consciously make the connection between boundaries and self-care. And that I needed a major tune-up in this department.
I have recently returned to a few situations that were triggering for me during my early phases of grief and recovery. While my re-initiation into these situations was also quite rattling, I honed in on boundaries. What do I need? What am I willing to do? What am I not willing to do? Can I acknowledge what’s hard but necessary? Being polite but not connecting is very difficult for me, for example, but I know it’s that willingness to connect with anyone that often gets me into trouble.
In my current awareness there’s more equanimity between where I’ve been, where I am and where I might be going. I often no longer simmer, seethe and feel the desire to pounce when hit with parented conversation.
However, it’s important to note that where rage ceases to exist, such frequent scenarios also mostly entail the absence of connection. After all, I’ve been robbed of the option to respond with “I know I…” or “Oh, I remember when…” or “Well with my kid(s)”. And if that weren’t already enough, the extreme nature of my infertility/childless experiences has even robbed me of the awe towards parenthood that is expected of us, people without children, in the human conversation.
Yes, I’ve found and will continue to find other ways to connect, be it with nature, my body, my inner self, my creativity, and with other infertile/childless women. AND with those exceptional folks I’m always on the lookout for who get it and do as much work to meet my reality as I do theirs. But ultimately it’s naive to think there’s anything that fully compensates for such cratering social losses.
I understand that this missed connection with my peers is not true deep connection. I suspect though that humans can benefit greatly from external surfacey connection too. Which leaves me often wondering, what ARE the long term affects of not being able to connect casually much of the time with the majority of adults unless you’re faking it (which I happen to totally suck at)?
I used to be more prone to come at people with my childlessness, verbal guns a-blazin’. While there is always a time and place for this, I’ve since learned that what you DON’T say is a powerful way to hold your ground in conversation. Looks like I have officially renounced social expectation auto pilot.