By Liz Becker
The tired, elated couple in a hospital bed, cradling a tiny newborn wrapped in a pink or blue muslin swaddle.
The round-cheeked siblings, dressed in matching khakis and button downs, posing together on a golden-hued beach.
The woman artfully arranging her hands around an enormous pregnant belly, as big and round as a watermelon.
All of them, and all of the many glimpses of happy lives we see on social media. The big moments, the births, job announcements, and new houses, and the little things, pretty pictures of avocado toast or macarons, kitchen remodels or high earnings from a sales job.
Blessings are ubiquitous these days. On Instagram alone, there are over 90.4 million posts linked to the hashtag #blessed and hundreds of thousands more with the same basic idea, blessed mama, blessed mommy, blessed boy mom, or the even more direct, blessed by God.
Mothers, in particular, often toss around the word “blessed” like it’s confetti, let it fall on every mundane image or blog post, pretend that it’s weightless and benign, a pretty glitter, something sparkly and ethereal. We have appropriated the word, taken it on as a mantra, a way of life, a descriptor used frequently and sometimes aggressively.
By all accounts, my life has been “blessed.” I have two healthy children, a wonderful husband, a big, comfortable house and a fancy car. I feel enormous gratitude for these things, and I understand the desire to express that gratitude, to attribute it to a higher power or karmic reward system. I get why so many people type out #blessed and press post without a second thought. It’s not mean-spirited. On the surface, it’s such a nice, sweet-sounding word.
However, it’s also a word that carries an enormous weight, an implication of divine intervention, of a higher power who grants wishes like a genie, chooses who gets a promotion, who gets pregnant, who has healthy children, who gets to go on that luxury yoga retreat in Bali. When someone says “blessed,” are they not suggesting that their life is willed, that their smiling children or exotic honeymoon or lazy Sunday morning are gifted?
It’s understandable why people, and mothers, in particular, want to describe their lives as blessed. Anyone who has felt the first, tiny fluttery, butterfly movements of a child inside of them, or felt the impossible weight of a screaming newborn on their chest, knows that we run out of words to describe these moments, that our language lapses and we struggle for a word that feels large enough. Often, the word we use instead is “blessed.” The problem is what this word suggests in the context of suffering.
I am lucky. I have not known true suffering, but I have witnessed it. I worked as an inpatient pediatric RN for four years, and in those four years, I came to know suffering well. I saw it in all of the children we could not save, the kids with cancer or lung diseases or congenital conditions that finally broke their beautiful bodies. I saw it in the eyes of parents as they watched their gorgeous children fade and finally pass. I saw suffering up close, the lives upended, the sudden traumas, the way happiness could implode in moments for no reason other than chance.
These were good people. They worked hard. They were fair and honest and kind. Their children were like all children, funny and sweet and impetuous. They did nothing wrong. And still, they suffered.
I have friends who have miscarried or struggled with infertility, women who attend baby shower after baby shower, who smile and play the silly diaper games and support their round-bellied friends, even as inside a part of them must bend like a tree caught in a storm.
When we say we are blessed, when we refer to our marriages or pregnancies or children in this way, we say, whether intentionally or not, that we have been arbitrarily chosen for joy, and that all of the suffering in the world has been chosen as well. Every hashtag, every smiling angel emoji, is another tiny arrow aimed at the person who does not have these things, the couple who just failed a third round of IVF, the woman going through her fifth miscarriage, the single man or woman who has struggled through yet another breakup, the parents who have buried a child.
It’s not wrong or bad to believe in the presence of the divine, to credit the joys in life to a higher power. When I look at my children, in the quiet hours of the morning, their eyes still blurry from sleep, when they are warm and soft and sweet, I understand why the word “blessed” comes to mind for so many. It feels underserved, to have such love.
It’s easy to use the word “blessed.” It sounds good. It fits in with the carefully curated, make-believe persona cultivated by so many mothers, the images we want others to see, the pretty parts that are easy to share with the world. But the truth, of course, is much more complicated, full of shades of dark and light, moments of pain and sadness. Our lives are many things, lucky and hard and strange and messy. We suffer. We hurt. When it comes to all the words we can use to describe the reality of mothering, it feels both wholly inadequate—and patently wrong—to fall back on #blessed.
Liz Becker is a writer, nurse, and mother of two from Richmond, Virginia. She happily lives in the space between lucky and blessed, and she tries every day to understand and appreciate the difference. More of Liz’s thoughts and philosophical debates over Instagram hashtags can be found on her blog, lifeinacoffeespoon.com.
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