In nursing school, I learned a lot about communication. When dealing with patients, we learned how to be an encourager and give hope through various forms of therapeutic communication. Therapeutic communication was especially useful as I worked on an inpatient oncology unit. When faced with uncertainty, patients often looked to us with tough questions. I knew, from what I learned in nursing school, never to make an empty promise.
An empty promise is just as it sounds. These are promises that we do not know the outcome.
While the intention behind them may be well, an empty promise can be a set up for disappointment. It was when I became a parent, I noticed that empty promises were constant when given advice and encouragement.
When I had a missed miscarriage with my second pregnancy, I got a lot of well-intentioned encouragement that was far from encouraging. I heard, over and over, I would have more children. “You’ll get pregnant again soon.” I wanted to ask, “How do you know?” I did have no problem getting pregnant again, but I know plenty of friends who struggled and the constant assurance that they would have a baby soon gave a sense of false hope.
Shortly after my miscarriage, I got pregnant. As I progressed in my pregnancy, the reality set in that I would have two children under two. How would my daughter adjust as she would be 21 months old when her brother would arrive? Everyone told me going from one to two was a smooth transition, and my daughter would adore her baby brother. Through everyone’s words, my worries began to ease.
When I brought my son home from the hospital, nothing went as expected. My daughter struggled. She constantly screamed and, at one point, stopped calling me mommy and instead called my husband mommy. I had no idea how to balance two children. I felt like I was constantly drowning. I ended up spending half the summer at my parents, seven hours away, because I thought I needed 24-hour help. It didn’t help that not one person told me there was a chance I would struggle. If it was so easy for everyone else, there must be something wrong with me. Every experience that did not go as promised left me feeling discouraged and, at times, a failure.
Empty promises can break trust. In my experiences, I came to point I wasn’t sure who I should believe about what. I not only doubted myself but anyone who told me what to expect. Giving an empty promise is giving false hope. How could anyone promise I would get pregnant after my miscarriage? Though it did happen immediately after, this is not the case for everyone. To be told something will happen with no guarantee can lead to hopelessness.
What should we say?
When asked about my transition from one child to two, my first inclination is to say it was horrible. At the same time, I’m not going to lie. What I can do is share my personal experience and emphasize this was my experience, which does not speak for everyone. I do have friends who found the transition to be a breeze. So, while yes, it was difficult for me and others, it was easier for others. There is a way to speak our truth without terrifying them.
“Expect the unexpected” is a frequent phrase I use for all aspects of motherhood, whether it is about pregnancy, birth or raising children. As a mother of four, I had four very different pregnancies and deliveries. My children have unique personalities that play a significant role in how circumstances play out.
Do you have a definitive answer? If the answer is no, make no promises. Remind your friends if the outcome is not what they imagined or expected, it is not a reflection of the person they are. We all struggle, and our struggles will look different.
Just a simple tweak in how we give support can make a huge difference.