A few years ago I wrote a guest post for The New York Times Motherlode blog that offered a different take on Mother's Day. Five years had passed since I let go of my dream of feeling life grow inside me. I no longer avoided baby showers or cried silent tears every time I got my period, but the trauma and loss of failed fertility treatments and the decade I had spent trying to create a family with my husband still had a way of finding me – usually when I least expected it.
I knew I wasn't alone. After writing the book Silent Sorority, hundreds of women wrote to tell me how the unrelenting focus on motherhood made them feel isolated, invisible, and marginalized. In service to my sisters, I wanted to give voice to this difficult experience.
My goal in writing the piece was not to diminish the hard work of motherhood but to shed some light on the strength needed to relive loss amid casual celebration. It inspired a lively online dialogue including some hostile comments from people who incorrectly thought I was asking for the holiday to be banned. What I was asking for, and still ask for, is a little understanding of how the marketing of all things mom can feel to someone coping with infertility.
Take a minute to put yourself in the shoes of a sister or friend coming from a fertility clinic visit after learning that a medical condition or, more confounding still, an unexplained biological mystery makes her odds of conceiving unlikely. Waiting at the house is a flyer in the mailbox from a favorite shoe store offering discounts to every sort of mother – sporty mom, fashionista mom, nature-loving mom.
And then there's the day itself when friendly, well-meaning clerical leadership of every faith begin services by asking all the mothers to stand and be recognized, and restaurateurs and cashiers indiscriminately wish all women, "Happy Mother's Day."
There are ways you can soften these blows, but it can be complicated because you also don't want a friend or family member to feel pitied or more alienated than she probably already feels.
I suggest broaching the subject delicately because some people prefer to keep their personal struggles private. Try a neutral acknowledgement such as: "What's up with the marketers? Mother's Day seems to get more out of control every year."
If your friend seems willing to talk about it more, gently ask how you can help or go even further by offering some of the following gestures:
Serve as a sounding board. Without offering false hope or platitudes, just listen and give her room to express any of the difficult emotions she's experiencing.
Point out (or even help her set up) an email filter to screen for unwanted words. Major email providers offer tools to screen what lands in the inbox.
Ask if she needs an ally for any card or gift shopping in the coming weeks and offer to take her to lunch. You might even volunteer to be the designated shopper for the mothers or grandmothers in her family and then simply meet later to settle up.
Be her ambassador by diplomatically arranging permission for her to opt out of any family gatherings that might prove too awkward or painful.
Share these helpful ideas generously compiled by others who have navigated this path.
You can also help educate others about the double-edged sword that accompanies these "holidays." For instance, did you know that Anna Jarvis, the woman known as the founder of the Mother's Day concept, spent her final years campaigning against its commercialism? The initiative had its roots in her mother Ann Reeves Jarvis's effort called Mother's Day Work Clubs, which started as a constructive effort to teach women proper childcare techniques and sanitation methods.
The history brings up one more suggestion: Offer to host a gathering in honor of Anna Jarvis and spearhead new ways to find appreciation for all the women in your life.