I must warn you now, this is going to be a bit of a rant. It's something that has been brewing for a while, as a result of various smug comments and snide criticisms of single people that I've seen elsewhere on the blogosphere, but it was brought to a head tonight.
I've written before that what I have always wanted most in the world is to be a wife and mother, and that it's one of the great sadnesses of my life that it hasn't happened yet, and quite possibly never will (the children bit, at any rate). However, I have never wanted to let myself be defined by that sadness, and I know I have received many blessings and had many experiences that I couldn't have had if I had been given the life that I imagined and hoped for as I was growing up.
But I come from a large family and have a wide circle of friends, and at the last count I had 11 nephews and nieces, 6 godchildren, and scores of other babies and small children in my life. At various times, I have been the main carer for one baby and lived in the same house as three others for extended periods, largely in order to be able to help out with the babies (as an aunt or surrogate aunt, not as a nanny or au pair).
I would say I almost certainly have more experience of looking after babies and small children than the majority of new parents when their first child is born, and this experience includes caring for three newborns.
The parents of my acquaintance roughly divide into two groups - those who treat me with great generosity and are delighted that I'm willing to help with nappy-changing, feeding, entertaining, bathing, putting children to bed, keeping them quiet in church, etc, and those who think that because I'm not a mother myself, I know nothing and can't be trusted to hold their precious baby the right way up.
The latter are the ones who say, "You can't possibly understand, because you're not a mother" and have no appreciation of how much that hurts someone who would do anything to be a mother but hasn't been blessed with children. Some clearly believe that the very fact of having children is an achievement of theirs rather than a gift from God, and that I am a failure because I haven't managed to do it.
Having interacted regularly with children from a number of different families, and helped to look after a number of different children, I know that sometimes there's nothing you can do to make a child behave. I totally understand and respect that, and would never criticise a parent simply because they're having trouble keeping a baby or toddler quiet in Mass.
I also know (for instance) that it is possible to teach a child to behave in church without bringing a fresh packet of biscuits to church with you every single week, making an incredible amount of noise ripping that packet open every single week, and letting the child munch its way through the entire packet during the course of Mass every single week. In fact, I happen to think that's not a very good way to teach a child to respect the Blessed Sacrament. Nor is it a particularly good diet for the child. I'm sure many parents would agree with me on that - I know that the parents of all 11 of my nephews and nieces would.
And if anyone thinks I don't have the right to say that because I'm not a parent myself and haven't experienced the problems of teaching children to behave, perhaps they should try living my life for a while before criticising me. They might see that life as a single person has its own difficulties, and isn't always a barrel of laughs.
Not everyone who is childless is childless through choice. And not everyone who is single is single through choice. It can be incredibly lonely having only yourself to think about, because it also means there's nobody else who thinks of you first, nobody who shares the burden when you're having problems, nobody you can depend on and nobody who notices and sympathises if you arrive home late after a dreadful journey or if you wake up feeling like death warmed up.
I'd like one of my commenters in particular to remember that.