Fertility privilege: it’s time to be more considerate when we speak about parenthood
Recently I was working with a fellow coach when I started to notice that she was using the expression ‘us mums’ quite a lot; as well as statements like “now that the kids are on holidays”, and “when the children are at camp”.
At first, I’ll admit, I only found it mildly irritating; but then as time went on, I was unable to hear anything else she was saying. I became so fixated on how she was so readily labelling ‘us all’ as mothers, without knowing the first thing about us, our situations or our personal experiences.
Now I know some of you reading this might think that I’m being super sensitive and that she wasn’t in fact saying anything wrong, and I agree, she absolutely wasn’t. But what she was doing, was making unsubstantiated assumptions on behalf of her audience; and ones that completely overlooked that she could not know how many listening were childless and perhaps how many did not want to be reminded of that fact.
In a world where we have all finally learned to be much more aware of how we speak to others around issues of gender, religion and sexuality, is it not time now that we consider issues relating to parenthood also?
Clearly, I can’t write this piece without declaring my own hand and my own personal position. I don’t have children and I made peace with this fact some time ago. When my fiancé died, and I was 38, I mourned not only him, but the likelihood that my having my own family died with him. It did.
I’ve been fortunate since to have entered into a new relationship and when we did marry, I was in my late 40’s and so the infamous clock had run out. It’s how it was supposed to be, I believe that. It doesn’t mean I’m happy about it, I’m not, but nor does it mean I spend time agonising over what could have been. It just wasn’t meant for us and we both have accepted that.
And let’s not forget the significant portion of those in today’s world, who for a myriad of personal reasons, decide that parenthood is not for them. They make that choice and live happily with it and deserve to have the space to do so.
But for many people, their story is very different and the examples of this include incredible pain felt over miscarriages, failed IVF treatments and many other heart-breaking fertility stories. Not to forget those who live with the unimaginable loss of having had their child taken from them to illnesses or tragic accidents. I cannot fathom the pain that this must induce in a parent.
It is all of these parents that I am thinking of when I hear others make lazy assumptions that those of a certain age must be parents. How insulting it is for those who aren’t, regardless of their predicament, history or situation. It is isolating and inconsiderate at best.
If you read this and think I’m just being snarly then, respectfully, you are totally missing the point. I adore being around my friends’ children. I celebrate their parenthood status and empathise when they need an ear to bend. I fully empathise with all those parents struggling with and fighting against the challenges of growing childcare costs. I envy the bond between my friends and their children, that sense of family, their legacy and I envy that they have someone who is obliged to look after them when they’re old!
But it’s also possible that I can do, and feel, all of this and still think that making assumptions about someone’s maternal status is at best lazy and at worst unkind.
Acclaimed writer and podcaster Elizabeth Day, addressed this entire subject on a recent episode of her ‘Best Friend Therapy’ podcast; and she articulated it far better than I ever could, citing her own personal fertility journey, something she has been very public about. It even led her to ask the question as to why anyone would think it’s acceptable to post a baby scan photo on a public forum like Instagram?
This really got me thinking. I’ve seen these scans on my own feed and if I knew the person involved personally, I’d be really pleased for them, even if I’d rather hear it from them privately. But you have to wonder do people not consider how this might land with someone who miscarried or is struggling to conceive when they are forced to look at such a highly sensitive image? And yes, clearly, they can choose to unfollow or mute; but usually after the event!
So, am I asking that all parents hide the fact that they have children on social media? Most definitely not. Am I requesting that you don’t mention the challenges you are living with as a parent? Good lord, no.
But we need to support each other from all sides of this parenting story. What I am recommending (and you can choose to ignore it) is that you simply try your best to be sensitive about what you’re saying and to whom. Consider your audience, what you know about them, what they might feel, what they might crave and just be a little more sensitive to them. Observe the language you use and make it a safe space for everyone, regardless of their status.
You won’t get it right every time, none of us do, but you will consciously be avoiding adding to their pain. For every parent celebrating their family, there is one out there lamenting the lack of theirs. Just do what the kids tell you to do, these days; be kind.
Niamh Ennis is Ireland’s leading Transformation Coach, Author and Coach for the IMAGE Business Club. She’s known for her practical solutions to life’s challenges and her ability to tell you not what you want to hear but always what you need. She best represents Strategy meets Spirituality and has just launched THE CHANGE ACCELERATOR her Self-Study Online Programme for those looking to make real Changes. Find her on Instagram @1niamhennis or niamhennis.com.
Illustration by storyset.
This article was originally published in August 2022.