As I sat up last night, rocking Baby G in a fruitless effort to get her to go back to sleep between 3 and 5 am, I’ll admit it – I felt cranky and exhausted. (Hot tip: giving baby her first bananas ever – i.e. first taste of sugar – at dinner is a mistake: it made her go, for lack of a better word, bananas.)
And I only felt worse when Z, my 8-year-old, came into the room saying, “The baby woke me up and now I can’t sleep.” I felt terrible telling him that Baby G had laid claim to my tired body first for rocking-back-to-sleep purposes. I sat in the plush brown rocker, baby alternately squirming and whining in my arms, and thought, “You know something? I am so unbelievably lucky.”
Incongruous? Not really. The circumstances of my life have been infused with luck, particularly when we look at the marriage-and-parenting angle. I met the wrong man, had two children with him, got divorced, finally met the right man, married him and had a baby with him. It was all a whole lot of heartache that created a whole lot of blessings.
And it is the absence of those blessings that is mourned by Melanie Notkin, a thoughtful and lovely woman who wrote a poignant piece, “My Secret Grief. Over 35, Single and Childless” in the Huffington Post this week. Melanie dubs the situation of not having met one’s match and therefore not having children as “circumstantial infertility.” In the piece, she describes her feelings about not having had children at this point in her life as a kind of grief, in most relevant part here:
Grief over not being able to have children is acceptable for couples going through biological infertility. Grief over childlessness for a single woman in her thirties and forties is not as accepted. Instead, it’s assumed we just don’t understand that our fertility has a limited lifespan and we are simply being reckless with chance. We’re labeled “career women” as if we graduated college, burned our bras and got jobs to exhibit some sort of feminist muscle. Or, it’s assumed we’re not ‘trying hard enough,’ or we’re ‘being too picky.’ The latest trend is to assume we don’t really want children because we haven’t frozen our eggs, adopted or had a biological baby as a single woman.
This type of grief, grief that is not accepted or that is silent, is referred to as disenfranchised grief. It’s the grief you don’t feel allowed to mourn, because your loss isn’t clear or understood. You didn’t lose a sibling or a spouse or a parent. But losses that others don’t recognize can be as powerful as the kind that is socially acceptable.
It’s clear in speaking with her, as I did this morning, that Melanie is a sweet person who truly wants children (she’s written a whole book, Savvy Auntie, on how to be the best person you can be to the children who are in your life). It’s also clear that she wants children within the context of a happy, married relationship, and that her grief is in part out of a fear of not finding that love.
“It’s no longer politically correct to want to wait for love and conceive a child with that man,” Notkin told me, telling me that numerous people have told her, “go adopt!” “have a baby yourself!” Would it be seen as palatable, she counters, to tell a couple having trouble having a baby, “Well, just keep on trying! You’re not trying hard enough!” The idea is out there that a single woman who wants to wait to have children until she meets the right man is “asking too much.”
“Every month there is blood, there is death,” she said, alluding to menstruation. “We grieve. But I grieve alone. And that’s the difference. Our grief can be just as deep.”
The problem of single women who grieve the potential loss of the chance of becoming mothers has deep roots in the Jewish community as well, she told me, where many educated men marry outside the faith, leaving fewer Jewish men for the Jewish women who want to raise Jewish families. And in Judaism, where so much of life revolves around family-centric holiday celebrations, those who are single can easily feel left out.
I wanted to talk to Melanie because I wanted to bring her intimate honesty to our Kveller table. We all have friends like her – smart, pretty, fantastic women who for one reason or another are not married, and who would make wonderful parents. And we need to learn how to reach across the table and, perhaps rather than complaining about our sleepless nights with our infants, instead, take their hands in ours.
As Melanie herself says, “It’s called Kveller, not Kvetcher! I’m not whining about the situation, but I think I can give [Kveller’s readers] an opportunity to be more sympathetic, and frankly empathetic, to these women. It’s an opportunity to give moms a better understanding of what their best friends and neighbors are going through.”
“If we look at single women who we know love children and have expressed wanting children – if we are sensitive to them in the same way we are sensitive to a married woman suffering from infertility, there’s probably a good answer there,” she told me.