Society needs to stop scaring its mothers.
Being a mother is already an inherently frightening experience (Is my baby eating enough? Will I ruin her by being too lenient? Will there be a shooting at my child’s school?), so we don’t need anyone making us more afraid.
Most well-intentioned people, I want to believe, don’t mean to say things that will scare us; nevertheless, their words can inspire fear but also doubt, worry, and panic. Sometimes, scaring mothers masquerades as humor. While at work one day, I had the misfortune of engaging in a conversation with one of my male colleagues in the breakroom. My swollen belly was all the prompt he needed to tell me that I wouldn’t be sleeping for the next two years.
Not only is this comment such a cliché, it wasn’t funny.
I cannot fathom saying the same thing to an expectant mother, deep in her third
trimester, knowing that she was most likely feeling overwhelmed by the mental, physical, and emotional changes that she had already endured and unprepared for all of those to come.
I responded to my colleague with a neutral, “Oh, yeah?”, but it would have been just as appropriate for me to rage at him for being so thoughtless or cry at the thought of losing all that sleep. And what would my colleague have done then? Based on his tone-deaf comment, said in such an offhand manner–it was as if he just discarded his words at me because he had no use for them–I doubt that he had the emotional sensitivity to comfort a vulnerable first-time mother-to-be.
I appreciate the attempt to make a pregnant woman laugh, but execution is just as important as intention. What about telling a funny anecdote about something that your child said or did instead? I have less than two years of parenting experience to my name, but I’ve already accumulated a trove of hilarious stories about my son that have made me laugh until I cried. Take this picture, for example, which had my husband, in-laws, and friends cracking up as we came up with our own memes to match his face.
If I had to guess what my son was thinking here, I'd say something along the lines of "Yo, stop scaring my mom with your unsolicited comments. She doesn't need that negativity in her life!" Yeah, something like that.
If you feel the urge to talk to an expectant parent about sleep deprivation, postpartum mental illness, the cutthroat competition for a spot in daycare, or any other stress-inducing topic, please speak carefully–or not at all. Just cue up a funny picture or video instead.
Scaring mothers also lurks behind attempts at creating community among parents. A noble goal to be sure, but it is so easily foiled by a few careless words: “Just wait until.”
Less experienced mother: “Little Billy just started to say “no” to everything. It’s so frustrating!”
More experienced mother: “Just wait until he starts screaming at the top of his lungs when you’re out in public!”
The topic of conversation may vary, but the pattern is the same.
Am I too sensitive? Perhaps. But I still don’t understand the utility of the “just wait until” comment. Rather than getting a new strategy for dealing with my child or, even better, a healthy dose of empathy, I’ve been gut-punched by a glimpse into my future, which is undeniably more difficult than my present situation. Imagine responding in the same way to your child’s complaint.
Child: “Mom, I hate this puzzle! I can’t fit the pieces into their spots!”
Mother: “Just wait until you’re an adult and can’t pay your bills!”
Inappropriate, am I right? I can think of so many more emotionally sensitive responses to my frustrated child, or to a mother at her wit’s end: “Ugh, that’s so hard” or “Would you like some help?” or “This phase is tough, but it really does get better.”
Mothers don’t need to have their future presaged to them. We know that difficult times await us and don’t need any reminder, especially when we are powerless to prevent them. All we can do is just wait until and hope that we have the resourcefulness, patience, and support system to help us get through to the other side.
If there’s an upside to these fear-inducing, unsolicited comments, it’s that they have made motherhood feel much easier compared to how difficult some parents made it out to be. I imagined that I would be drowning–and I was in the first six weeks due to postpartum anxiety–but after that, it was smooth sailing. I’m not naive; I know there will be challenges ahead, but they don’t require a premiere. I’ll take a joke, a hug, or your silence instead—because my ears are already ringing with the sound of my son saying, “No!”