There are days, sometimes weeks, when I find it real easy to convince myself that everyone knows what they’re doing – everyone but me.
I watch other mothers pick their kids up from school and wonder how they so seamlessly exit the premises, how they situate their bundled kid into the little seat on the back of their family bicycle, deftly strapping helmets on, cautiously but without fear pedaling off into the night, no doubt to swiftly make a perfectly seasoned dinner that gets mostly eaten.
I watch a dad food shopping with two little creatures, one in his arms and the other whimsically retrieving loaves of bread and pears, and it is a wonder that not only has he managed to wrangle two children at the grocery store, but he has a super solid cart, filled with the kinds of things that make me want to ask him what he’s cooking for dinner every night of the week and how exactly he does that.
I listen to my dear friend answer my obsessive questions about how late her son sleeps in the morning and precisely how she accomplished such a feat and then, later, I see that she has been out, at night, past 10 p.m., and she appears to be ENJOYING HERSELF.
Where does this come from? Does my creepy skill of knitting together a narrative in seconds about any confident-seeming parent and how much more they know than I, how much they must have to teach me, mean I pay too much attention to everyone else?
But then, this past week, I heard two people who are very good at what they do speak on television about empathy. They spoke not about themselves, but about other people and the necessity of empathy for and in other people.
That’s when I realized what an idiot I was, and also, what a non-idiot, too. Where was my empathy? As I was assessing these SUPER PARENTS, whether strangers or friends, where was my ability to see the inherent complexity in them and in myself? I had been attaching to all of them the kind of brittle simplicity that exists in no actual human. I was making them brilliant while making myself an epic failure.
But I am not a failure, and people who ably ride bikes with several children on them are not perfect. I mean, they’re pretty amazing, but they’re not perfect! I’m sure they feel afraid sometimes of riding their bike in traffic, and I would guess they’d choose the bike lane over a schlep up and down grueling sets of subway stairs with a beastly stroller, multiple bags, and an armload of little ones.
Though I do not bike with my child, I do bus with my child. And it’s interesting! It’s sometimes adorable and sometimes overwhelming and stupid. But it’s my thing, and I forgot, until our outgoing president and an actress (who it is impossible for me not to love in everything) reminded me, to have empathy for myself and, you know, not diminish what I do – what anyone does.
Everything starts inside us, as parents, and the more time I spend peering over at the other parents who I’ve convinced myself must get it in all the ways I don’t, the less time I’m spending with my kid. Of course, it’s great to be inspired by and cheer on other parents, but that’s not what this is and I know it.
It is not hard to get absorbed in artifice, in part because of the speed at which our society moves and requires us to absorb the world around us. But you can’t get away with this kind of worldview when you’re parenting – not if you’re trying to do a decent job at it. I know that, too.
So I’m repeating to myself what Barack Obama and Meryl Streep spoke about this week.
“If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation,” President Obama said, “each one of us must try to heed the advice of one of the great characters in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said, ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’”
We empathize all the time with our children. We try to understand what they’re feeling, what they’re trying to say. I know the same can be done with other people, other parents, with our selves.
“And we have to remind each other of the privilege and the responsibility of the act of empathy,” said Streep, to the actors in the room, yes, but to all of us, too – the everyday storytellers trying to find a safe and loving place to raise our families in this sometimes upside-down world.