The Mommy-and-Me class is like the airport of people-watching for parents. I happen to know most of the families that are here today pretty well, and I alternately engage with the moms and remain on the periphery, observing. The kids here are all under two, still in the wild animal stage of life, forces of nature. One precocious little girl repeatedly takes the toys of the children around her, a behavior that is pretty common among this age group. Some of the kids passively let go, some squawk, and her mother occasionally intervenes apologetically. As her daughter snags yet another toy from a friend’s hand, the woman grabs a spare and hands it quickly to the little boy to placate him. To an outsider, this gesture would appear to be adequate.
But I know that this little boy spent months of his life in the hospital with a critical respiratory illness. He was a NICU baby with a host of lingering complications, and he is now medically fragile. Everywhere they go, his mom brings their own toys with them, so that her little boy can still participate and have what all the other kids have, without exposing him unnecessarily to community toys and germs. The fact that she is even at this class is a huge act of bravery. She is self-conscious and apologetic about bringing her own supplies; she doesn’t want to look like that mom.
So as the little girl’s mom hands her son a used ball, I see her mouth pinch into a tight line. She doesn’t want to make a scene or appear ungrateful. And I can tell how hard it is for her not to take her son’s ball out of the little girl’s hand and say, “Actually, this is a special ball just for Owen. I need to take it back.”
I feel my face burn with anger. How dare this other mom just assume it’s OK for the kids to trade toys? She has no idea what a big deal it is! Of course she doesn’t.
A few minutes later, her daughter is in her lap, pawing at her zipped jacket and whining. She attempts to distract her child with a sippy cup, which inspires a fresh wave of writhing and screeching. As a mother who nursed a child for sixteen months, I can see exactly what’s happening: her toddler is going through the “I want to nurse every few minutes around the clock and I don’t care where we are!” phase, and she’s struggling. Her face crumples a little and she sighs heavily. Parenting a nursing toddler is exausting and emotionally taxing. She’s spent.
This time I am flooded with compassion for her. She’s having a hard time, too. Should she be expected to consider the personal circumstances of the other mom, the one trying to protect her son’s immune system?
The point is: There are always two sides. Neither mom was wrong. Justice is not always clearly defined, is it? When I wrote about trying to teach my music therapy intern to have compassion for the moms who attend our classes, I wrote,
The point is, when we begin our classes each morning, we have no idea what the parents have been through that day, that week, or even that year. Maybe they are grumpy, disheveled, and show up in sweats, or maybe they are dolled up, looking perfect, because it’s the only time all week they get to do so and it matters so much to them that they feel a bit like their old selves. Maybe they are loving their new motherhood gig. Maybe they hate it. We have no idea. But before we judge them—before any mom or non-mom or teacher or clerk judges a mother—we would do right to dig deep and find our empathy. This is certainly not exclusive to moms; wouldn’t we all be better off if we applied the same principle to the irritable DMV worker or slow waitress?
As humans, we all fall into the hypocrisy trap. One morning I was driving to work and let loose a string of expletives when an ill-prepared driver tried to cut in front of me in a construction zone. Clearly, the moron wasn’t paying attention and attempted to merge too late. What an idiot! Of course, the next day as I drove into the construction zone, I yelled in frustration when the cars in front of me wouldn’t let me in. Because that day, I was the idiot who wasn’t paying attention and missed my opportunity to merge in a timely fashion. We will always have the opportunity to be on the other side of things, a cosmic guarantee that is both humbling and maddening.
Because who lives in a constant state of heightened empathy? How many of us are instantly able to put ourselves in another’s shoes when we are experiencing anger, frustration, or feeling misunderstood? It’s nearly impossible. And yet I firmly believe that the ability to turn empathy on quickly is the key to, at the risk of sounding dramatic, almost everything.
A few weeks ago I had a meltdown about something so stupid I can no longer recall the details. I was stretched to my breaking point, and I had an actual temper tantrum. It was in the height of the #SoGladTheyToldMe frenzy, and I had simply burned out. The house was a mess. I was constantly forgetting things. And yet as I cried and raged my husband said, “Why don’t you go take a break and have some Stephanie time?” (Oh, I remember! I had deleted fifteen rows of an important spreadsheet.) He told me how sorry he was that I had to redo my work and he didn’t for one second make me feel like a baby for getting upset over it. His reaction, loaded with empathy, completely defused me.
He could have been absolutely sick to death of the messy house, a distracted wife, and now a litany of complaints on top of it. But he didn’t consider his own feelings. He considered mine. That is empathy in action. It’s powerful. And the beautiful thing is, after having received that gift, I felt more and more compelled to offer it back to him whenever I could. It’s circular. And it matters very little who was “in the right” and who was “in the wrong.” It’s not about whether protecting the toys of a medically fragile child is a larger burden than a difficult, nursing toddler and the accompanying sleep deprivation. When we are able to be truly empathetic, that ranking system, that sense of justice, ceases to matter.
The difficulty with this is that sometimes it feels like it is black and white. Sometimes we believe that we really are right and that injustice is happening. But how powerful would it be if even in those moments we could allow just an ounce of empathy through, to imagine what was on the other side? I’m not religious, people, but that’s sounding sort of Jesus-y.
Compassion for Our Kids, Compassion for Ourselves
As a parent, my empathy is tested often through interactions with my kids. I feel waves of irritation and even disgust at their whiny, entitled behavior and ridiculous complaints. I can muster up very little compassion for my three-year-old who is on a crying bender because she did not want to watch one episode of Rescue Bots, she wanted to watch a lot of shows. Or for my third grader who is pouting because she was not given the opportunity to ingest an entire box of Girl Scout cookies, or perhaps is feeling jealous that her friend has the Lego Friends Total Cosmos! Set while she only has the pathetic jungle.
What a couple of whiners.
And then I remember how disappointed I was when my plans were changed at the last minute. When a sick kid interfered with my plans for yoga class or uninterrupted work time. When I was jealous that I couldn’t afford to go on a shopping spree for new clothes. I often feel disgusted with myself for being disappointed, or overly emotional, or feeling envious or greedy. So it’s no wonder that I can’t tolerate those feelings in my children—because they represent the ugliest parts of myself. Most parents will attest to the fact that we are frequently triggered by the child who is just like us.
Which raises another question: Is empathy difficult because it’s hard to feel compassion for someone who is on the “other side” of where we are, or is it because we recognize things on that “other side” that hit too close to home? Is it more difficult to have true compassion for another person, or is it harder to have compassion for ourselves? Chew on that for a second.
I meant it when I said that I believe that empathy is the key to true connection and personal peace. But maybe it starts with finding compassion for ourselves in addition to finding compassion for others.
**I am so honored to be joining forces with the #1000 Speak Movement, a group of 1000 bloggers who all committed to writing posts about compassion today. Compassion—particularly for moms who may be struggling— is one of my biggest passions. It’s really why I wrote I’m Glad They Warned Me and why the #SoGladTheyToldMe movement took off—mothers want to empathize and support one another. I think #1000 Speak is amazing. Here’s a little background:
On February 20th, 2015, over 1000 of us will raise our voices and our writing, and flood the internet (and our real worlds) with GOOD and COMPASSION.
It started with an understanding that even though we might get older, we still all need the metaphorical village around us, and the compassion of others in our lives. Then the sudden thought happened – what if 1000 of us wrote about compassion all at once? From there, the movement has taken on its own life; has burgeoned and grown and spread a whole lot of love and connection and ‘villageyness’.
Every voice matters – together we’re stronger – let’s BE the Village.
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