Enough with All the Happy Talk

Toxic Positivity. Have you heard that term? It’s when people insist you look on the sunny side of things. “Your time will come.” “Don’t worry. You’ll get to have your baby.” “You just need to think positive.” “Look on the bright side.” “At least you have __________.”

So often people who say these things are trying to be helpful, but they are having the opposite effect. They are denying your right to feel however you need to feel. If you appear to be to be sad, angry or hopeless, it makes other people uncomfortable, so they try to put a happy spin on it. You had a miscarriage? You can try again. Your husband doesn’t want kids? He’ll change his mind. You can’t seem to get pregnant? You just need to relax. They make it sound like your negative attitude is to blame for your problems. If you just put on a happy face, everything will work out.

Yeah, sure.

Makes you want to scream, right?

That’s toxic positivity, which was the subject at Katy Seppi’s Chasing Creation podcast earlier this week. Her guests were life coaches Sadie T of Curiously Sadie [@curiously_sadie] and Carrie Hauskens, whose recent blog post on the subject inspired the podcast. I encourage you to read that post.  You’ll be shouting “Yeah!” “I know!” and “Bullshit!” along with her.

“I think it’s exhausting trying to stay positive all the time,” Hauskens said. She tends to be very honest about her infertility journey, which includes a miscarriage and a stillborn daughter. It makes people squirm. Her husband is also straightforward. He notes that the positive commenters have been thinking about this for a few minutes while they’ve been trying to have children for seven years.

“I don’t have to be optimistic,” Hauskens stressed.  

Sadie added that toxic positivity discounts what a person is feeling and what they have gone through. They’re kind of saying “It’s fine. Get over it.”

But grief doesn’t just disappear. It keeps coming back, and we need to talk about it. It’s not healthy to keep it in just to make our uncomfortable friends more comfortable.

The women agreed that in some cases you may need to spend less time with the people who keep spewing platitudes and look for others who understand what you’re going through, other childless people, for example.

So what should people say? It’s fine to just admit you don’t know what to say, Hauskens said. You can say, “I’m here for you” or “What can I do to help?” Just don’t try to correct the person’s feelings.

Just being there is enough, Seppi added.

Bottom line: Don’t tell me how I’m supposed to feel about not having children (or anything else). Let me feel my feelings and find my own way through them.

Does this ring any bells for you? It sure does for me. Have you experienced “toxic positivity?” How do you react? Please share in the comments.

More reading on the subject:

“Toxic Positivity is Real” by Simone M. Scully, Healthline.com, July 22, 2020.

“Toxic Positivity: Don’t Always Look on the Bright Side” by Konstantin Lukin, PhD., Psychology Today, Aug. 1, 2019

The other kind of workplace harassment

I just completed a long, irritating online class on sexual harassment in the workplace. Our local Catholic leaders require all workers and volunteers to take these courses every year. “John has a photo of his wife in lingerie on his desk. Is this harassment? What type of harassment is it?” I click “visual,” and they tell me what a genius I am. “Steve tells Sally she needs to loosen up and insists on giving her a back rub, even though she says she doesn’t want it. Is this harassment?” Yes. Right! Again, I’m a genius.

I’m at church only a few hours a week, mostly playing music and leading the choir. Our staff consists of four women and a priest whom we rarely see outside of Mass. I work mostly with kids and old people. I have experienced plenty of sexual harassment in past lives, but not here. Oh wait, there is that one parishioner who touches me all the time . . .

Preventing sexual harassment is important. God knows the Catholic Church needs to clean up its act. We have all heard too much about priests molesting little boys. And I suspect most women in all types of work have been harassed in some way by unwanted touches, comments, or suggestions that they need to cooperate if they want raises, promotions or simply to stay employed. It’s awful. I applaud the “me too” movement, but in my case they are literally preaching to the choir.

One section of the course sparked thoughts that we can apply here at Childless by Marriage. A group of men were seen as harassing a male co-worker when they started making comments about his manliness and his fertility. There’s a related kind of harassment for those of us without children.

For example:

  • Someone makes casual jokes about slow sperm, spoiled eggs, or menopause.
  • A group of women in the break room share stories about their children. When you come in, they either stop talking or ignore you.
  • A mom tells you, “You wouldn’t understand. You don’t have children.”
  • A co-worker casually asks, “When are you gonna get knocked up? You’re not getting any younger.”
  • Someone has to work overtime, and you’re elected because you don’t have to rush home to your kids (although you might have something just as important to get home for)
  • You and another man are up for a promotion, but the boss stresses that they prefer a “family man.”
  • Co-workers throw a surprise baby shower at the office. Not only do you have to attend, but you’re expected to buy a gift.

I’m sure you can come up with more examples.

Unlike sexual harassment, none of this is illegal. In most cases, people don’t realize they may be causing you pain—or that not having children doesn’t mean you don’t have something equally important going on outside of work.

Have you experienced these things or other instances of mommy-daddy harassment? Tell us about it in the comments.