Sisterly Reflections on Mother’s Day

May 13th is Mother’s Day. In my family, it is also our Mom’s birthday. Last week was a string of texts between my sisters and I discussion how we were going to celebrate my mom’s birthday this year. Realizing that my Mom’s birthday fell simultaneously on Mother’s Day, the question of how we were going to celebrate both events emerged. These conversations made me think about the awkwardness of navigating “celebrating your mom” while also being sensitive and respectful of those in your family without kids.

Maria with her four sisters on a family vacation to Wyoming.

Ever since I was diagnosed with infertility 7 years ago, this feeling of awkwardness has grown. It’s hard to show up at the combo “Mother’s Day and Mom’s Birthday” party and greet everyone with a smile and say “Happy Mother’s Day”. But I do. Mainly because this day isn’t about me — it’s about my mom. I do this also because I come from a big family – 4 sisters and 1 brother. For my sisters, Mother’s Day is still a big deal. It is something they enjoy celebrating with my mom. They also know, though, that Mother’s Day is a difficult day for me. Given that, this year for an ART of Infertility Mother’s Day blog post, I asked a two of my sisters to reflect on what Mother’s Day means to them now as they navigate how to celebrate my mom while also being sensitive to me and my infertility. – Maria

Reflections from Kate:

It’s Mother’s Day and even though I don’t have kids, I find myself thinking of what the day would look like if I did. Breakfast in bed, crisp white and blush roses on the kitchen table and little fingerprint cards lining the refrigerator. I imagine no cooking, no laundry and sleeping in until 7:30 am. I also think of my friends with kids and how they amaze me with their ability to juggle nursing schedules and daycare pickups while meeting deadlines at work and finishing PhDs. I think of my mom, a working mother of six kids, who tirelessly manages the needs of children ranging from thirteen to thirty one. I think of the individuals I know who froze their eggs due to the onset of cancer treatments. I think of the mothers who have lost children and the children who have lost their mothers. I think of my friends who suffered miscarriages and struggled to get pregnant.  And I think of my sister Maria, whose personal experience with infertility has transformed my impression of motherhood.

Maria, with her sisters and mom at Kate’s wedding.

Maria and I are fourteen months apart. If you do the math, that means that my mom was pregnant with me when Maria was just 5 months old. This made us inherently close as siblings, but distinctly unique in personalities. Nonetheless, I remember wanting to be just like Maria as a kid and begged my mom to let me go to preschool when Maria started kindergarten. I also remember Maria telling me what to do as a kid, and me being happily compliant. She enlisted me to paint the kitchen in red finger paint while my mom was violently ill with the flu, she convinced me to play the “ugly” Barbie when we played dolls, and she insisted that I “be her assistant” whenever we ran our imaginary McKay’s Bar and Cafe.

As much as I wanted to be just like my sister, I could never compete with Maria’s clear ambition and punctual nature. Maria always had timeliness in her deliverables and a goal driven mentality to her thoughts. In high school, she ran the neighborhood carpool and if you weren’t in the car at exactly at 3:15 pm, she would leave school without you.  At home, she completed all of her homework from 3:45 pm – 4:30 pm in order to make her closing shift at the local hardware store. In college, Maria was the only person I knew who worked from 9 am – 5 pm in the library so that she could cook, watch tv, and relax at night.

So when I found out that Maria and her husband Kevin had been trying to get pregnant for over a year without success, I was surprised. I imagined Maria applied the same punctuality and determination to getting pregnant as she had throughout other areas of her life. But as the years passed, the objective of becoming a mother and having a child was confronted with the diagnosis of infertility.

We as sisters rarely talk about Maria’s experience with infertility, but this Fall it came into focus while we were together in Philadelphia. Maria suggested that my sisters and mom come see the ART of Infertility exhibit she had curated and celebrate my 30th birthday. Over lunch and plates of dumplings and dim sum, my sister threw out a question none of us were ready to answer. Some may say, she has a gift of being direct.  “Do you think my infertility has influenced your decisions to have kids?” Silence.

I watched  one of my sisters choke on her pork bun as the other burnt her tongue on jasmine tea. Our eyes met in silent desperation as we waited for one of us to speak. This moment of hesitation was resolved by our own mother’s intervention. We didn’t talk much about this moment until after we returned home from the weekend. Motherhood is a personal decision and that question felt thrust upon us. Choosing when or even if we want to be mothers is not an open conversation in my family.

Growing up in an Irish-Catholic family of six, it has been an assumption and an actual vow made within the marriage ceremony to welcome children into your life. I know that for myself and my sisters we do eventually want to have children.  Maria’s loaded question called us to consider the influence of her infertility on our personal decisions. While it made all of us uncomfortable to discuss in public, I’ll do my best to honestly answer it now.

Maria’s  infertility has influenced my ability to understand the complexities in the very definition of “motherhood.” Before Maria was open about her struggle to get pregnant and the pain and stress it brought to her life and marriage, I had a very narrow framework on how I thought about motherhood. Growing up in a seemingly fertile family made it difficult to identify with the  hardships that so many women undergo to become pregnant. Yet, in witnessing  Maria’s journey  and hearing the stories of couples though the Art of Infertility, I have adjusted my assumptions around motherhood.  It has afforded me much needed sensitivity and compassion when having open conversations with friends who walk similar, difficult paths.

I can’t say that Maria’s infertility has directly influenced my decision to become a mom, but it has shaped how I think about embracing motherhood in the future. Seeing Maria apply her dedication and purpose to build a supportive community for couples struggling with infertility is inspiring. Watching her walk at MSU as a PhD candidate made the kindergarten Kate want to be in school too. Witnessing the reaction of couples at her curated art exhibit in Philadelphia made me proud of how she has channeled her creativity and inspired others to come forth with their stories.

Maria with her sister Julia, Kate, and her mom.

In light of the struggles to become a mom, Maria has continued to “mother” us as we embark upon new chapters in our lives. She’s been the support as we have moved to new cities, taken new jobs and opportunities, welcomed new brother-in-laws and said goodbye to family members who have passed. She has reminded us that motherhood is not an entitlement, but a true gift worthy of celebration. I now have a broader sensitivity to the struggles of those with infertility, those who have suffered loss as a mother, and new mothers in need of postpartum care.

Maria’s experience has also reminded me that there is no set timeline to motherhood. As my thirtieth birthday approached this year, I could almost feel my biological time clock start ticking. While my sister’s struggle with infertility presents looming questions of my own ability to have kids, I recognize that there are other ways I can be motherly within my life.

By honoring my mom, my aunts and grandmother, I celebrate the gift of life that they continue to nourish. In visiting new moms, I can help tend to postpartum needs. In listening to a friend after her most recent miscarriage or encouraging a mom-to-be with an unexpected pregnancy, I can lend my comfort and support.

As I begin embrace the idea of becoming a mom, I know that I will need Maria’s recognition and support. I also acknowledge that our dialogue around motherhood will shift if I do become pregnant. That’s why it was so hard to give Maria a concrete answer when she asked us about the influence of her infertility this Fall. Her inability to become pregnant has not adjusted my desire to become a mom, but it has required me to deconstruct my concept of motherhood and embrace a framework that is much more inclusive, honest and forthcoming about the challenges of fertility. Maria has forced me to conceive of motherhood on new terms and in a new spectrum. And if I’m lucky to celebrate Mother’s Day with my own kids, I can only hope that Maria will be there to help mother me through all the pains and celebrations that come along with it.

Reflections from Martha:

Mother’s Day is here again. Although I am not a parent myself, this holiday is one of great significance to my family members and me. Not only is it a time to appreciate those women who are closest to us, but also a time to be reflective and humble in the midst of those who face infertility.

Maria’s mom and Martha viewing an ART of Infertility exhibit.

I can recall spending Mother’s Day as a girl surrounded by friends and family. This day usually aligns with my mother’s birthday, so we would frequently host many individuals that day and celebrate Mom, aunties, grandmothers, etc.

When Maria got married, people frequently asked her “…so when are you going to have a baby?” As a newlywed, she would shrug and smile, assuring them it would be soon. As months turned to years, that optimism faded and Maria changed her tune. The smile and assurance switched to an uncomfortable laugh and the answer, “I don’t know.” Soon, we learned that she and Kevin were struggling with infertility.

As an outsider to their relationship, I do not understand all that they have gone through. I’ll admit that to this day, I still do not fully understand. I have never walked a mile in their shoes. I don’t know the words spoken behind closed doors. I don’t know the feelings of loss for something you’ve never held. I don’t know their sadness. I don’t know their pain. But, I do know it is valid. Their pain is real.

One of the greatest things I struggle with as being a sister to someone who has been diagnosed as infertile is learning how to comfort her. It is challenging to gauge if I am being supportive in an effective manner. Every Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, I envision myself in Maria and Kevin’s shoes. I wonder what it must feel like to experience an inescapable sense of stimuli centered around fertility. Whether you’re walking through the grocery store or scrolling through your phone, those days are filled with moments of joyful expression from mothers and fathers everywhere. There’s no place to hide: no way to retreat. As her sister, all I can do is reach out. I send a text or give a call, expressing my love for them and sharing with them that I’m thinking of them that day.

Infertility can cause people to close their doors to the outside world and shut themselves off from loved ones who don’t understand the pain, but we need to understand. As a family member, I’m requesting two things: patience and education. Give me what I need to know to be there for you. There’s no manual that comes with this position. At times, I live in fear of putting my foot in my mouth.

I cannot relate to feeling branded “infertile” on Mother’s Day. It must be gut wrenching to look around you and feel teased, taunted, and angered by what others have that you continue to lack. To see something you’ve wanted for so long and something you treasure so deeply and yet, it’s the one thing that you cannot control. That frustration and sense of exclusion on that day must feel awful.

In light of my sister’s infertility, I still choose to celebrate Mother’s Day by taking a moment to honor the women I love. I see it as a holiday that offers a platform for thanking the all the women (not just biological mothers) who have given themselves to me unconditionally. After all, that’s what motherhood is: an act of undying, devotional love. It is a day to be inspired by those who have come before me and appreciate those who walk alongside me.

I’m proud that Maria continues to transform her mourning into an outlet of creativity that inspires others. My hope is that on Mother’s Day we all take a second recognize the strength of the women in our lives and stand in solidarity throughout the journey, not only as mothers, but also as sisters, granddaughters, and friends.