On “You Don’t Understand” and Other Things We Say to Childless Women


Mother’s Day was this past weekend… in case you didn’t notice. I did happen to notice because it meant I got to escape for a few hours to do some writing in a cafe with a mom friend also on the run from her toddler. It was glorious. In true me fashion, however, I’m posting some motherhood-related musings about 3 days late.

But much like feeding my child — better late than never?

I’ve been thinking about a recent Twitter conversation that I, for better or worse, stuck my foot into.

A childless woman tweeted that she was tired of being told by parents that her opinions regarding child-rearing didn’t matter. The comments surged with support from other non-moms, though there were still a predictable number of parents chiming in with the old standby, “I didn’t understand before I had kids. Now I do.” This statement was precisely what the original poster was complaining about — the simple fact that being told you know nothing, that you’re not in this special club of understanding, is demoralizing and hurtful.

I responded with an attempt at support. I’ve been knocked on my ass by motherhood, by every growth and regression, by bittersweet love, by depression, by the soft viciousness of other mothers, and I would never try to tell a woman she is missing out on great knowledge or vital membership by being childless. I admire women who speak up to say, “My life is good without kids.” I believe them. Some days, when I’m scraping poop off the walls or when I’m feeling particularly isolated and unmoored, I want to be them. So I offered encouragement instead of the typical slandering we often apply to each other as women on different sides of the child aisle.

But I also thought to myself… well, you don’t understand.

No one wants to hear those words. Ever. About anything. Because what do we mean when we say that? We mean you haven’t experienced my pain. We mean your own pain and suffering are of less importance.

As mothers, we specifically mean you don’t know what it’s like to have a red-faced infant screaming hour after hour, night after night, when you haven’t slept more than three hours at a time since you were still pregnant (or, let’s face it — probably since before you were pregnant). You don’t know what it’s like to feel your resentment toward the man sleeping in the next room flare up so savagely you wonder why you married him in the first place, to barely notice as one of your tears drips onto that sweet monster baby’s chapped forehead, to choke a little as your chest floods with guilt because why can’t you just ENJOY THIS SPECIAL TIME? The hopelessness of those moments before the sun rises again. The confinement, the fear of leaving the house, the fear of what will happen if you don’t.

You don’t what it’s like to feel powerless while your toddler melts down in public, to know everyone in that restaurant hates you and could surely do your job better than you. You don’t know what it’s like to hand your child a phone or a tablet, just to have ten minutes of peace, and be judged just as harshly for that as for doing nothing at all.

You don’t know what it’s like to wonder if your sense of self is so far in the rearview that there’s no possibility of ever getting back to it, if that’s just part of the bargain you didn’t know you were agreeing to.

You don’t know what it’s like to have to wonder every day if you made the right choices, taught the right lessons, provided the right role models, offered the right foods. If you had kids too early. If you had them too late. If you should have focused on your career. If you should have stayed at home to watch them grow.

There is so much childless women don’t understand of moms.

There is so much moms don’t understand of childless women.

Did they choose it because they knew themselves? They knew, like a reverberation of a bowstring through their bodies, that they wanted a life without the weight of children? Or are they living with a different weight — that of infertility? Are they trying and failing in a cycle of hope and grief so upending they can focus on nothing else on a daily basis? Is there more they want to do first? Are they just not ready, and why does everyone push so much so fast?

The original poster said, “Our opinions matter.” And she’s right. They should matter to her partner, to her close friends and family. Regardless of your status as a parent or non-parent, life provides a bog of opinions you have no choice but to wade through. Some are harmless while others feel like feces flung right into your eyes and mouth, even when they began simply as a casual skittering of fingers on a keyboard. I believe that, most often, people aren’t intending to hurt us, even when we feel most wounded. They simply want their opinions heard, want them to matter.

Our job is to pick and choose which pieces of advice ring most true to us, and let the other pieces float past us. Perhaps we KonMari them, thank them, and let them go. Our job is not to go to war over them, to belittle and hit back in the way we felt we were hit.

From reading several of the original poster’s tweets, I gathered that she was working on a memoir about growing up in a family of cocaine addicts. As far as I know, no one in my immediate family was sneaking hard drugs when I was a child. We had a completely normal level of dysfunction at home. So I will never totally comprehend this woman’s trauma and pain, though I will try to by reading her story someday.

Everyone is suffering, a little or a lot. As humans, we try to empathize. Sometimes we can’t, not fully. But our lack of understanding doesn’t earn them our disdain. We can only offer our respect. Respect may mean silence when we want to shout, civil debate when we just want to drop an eye-roll gif. Or it may mean a firm but gentle reminder that we ask for respect in return.

There’s too much sadness, bitterness, ugliness in this world that we can’t control. We have opportunities every day to create more, to remind each other of further divisions — the different types of moms, the different types of women. But we also have opportunities to pass over them, smooth them out, and say, “This is hard, for everyone, in different ways.” To say, “You matter as much as I do.”

Even if you just don’t understand.