In someone else’s shoes – the art of empathy and acknowledging different ways of life

The other day a friend of mine and I exchanged a conversation around books and what we read. They introduced me to a fabulous sounding read which I swiftly added to my Amazon basket and then jokingly mentioned to said friend that my to-be-read pile was growing higher and bigger by the day. What a shame I didn’t have more time to read. The friend’s response was blunt: Why do you not have time to read?

My initial reaction was to confront them, socially distant-slap them with all the books on my to-be-read pile and then rub their face into the other piles in my life: piles of ironing, piles of unwashed clothes, piles of washing up, piles of toys, piles of jobs upon jobs in the house that need doing but haven’t been done because, you know, life and kids … .

Then I remembered a moment around 6 years ago, when I was still childless and a little less bogged down with lots of responsibilities and duties. I messaged my really good friend, asking if she could sew a new pillow case for me as one of mine had ripped. She is fabulous with all sorts of crafty stuff and a whizz with things like that. She also had given birth to a little baby 5 months prior and seemed quite frazzled lately. Her message was apologetic but clear: “I would love to but I can’t. I honestly don’t have time to even brush my teeth, let alone my hair. I just can’t do it.” I was taken aback and a little disappointed but I accepted it and asked if I could help her. No, it was ok, but she just couldn’t do anything apart from concentrate on her baby. I remember it well. The rejection and the disappointment. What was the matter with her? Why was she being so dramatic? It was only a baby!

Fast forward one year and I was holding a screaming baby in my arms. No, not my friend’s, it was my own. Contrary to all my previous thoughts and fears, I was able to give birth to a little girl within a matter of a few hours. Of course, that was where the simple life ended. My baby screamed and cried, she never slept anywhere apart from in someone’s arms and, if you are, like me, living in a country far away from your family, you and the baby are just that: alone. No one to help, no one to have the little mite for a couple of hours to give you a break, no one to take her for a walk in the pram whilst you have a shower in peace or clean the house which resembles a jumble sale scene invaded by a pack of locusts. I thought of my friend and knew: She was on to something. And I felt deeply ashamed for grumbling about her gently telling me that she was unable to sew a fucking pillow case for me! I had known nothing. I had been ignorant and totally oblivious because I had no scooby doo of how difficult it was to have a little human being around you all the time. No, really, ALL THE TIME!

Skip ahead a few more years and I have not one, but two of those little things we call the future of our species. Heaven knows what possessed me but here we are. They are the best thing I ever created, they are my life and I would die for them in an instant but bloody hell they are hard work! Throw in isolation, working from home and home schooling, plus a post grad degree (again, self-imposed, I get it!) and you have a cocktail for disaster, something that is a debacle waiting to happen. When I say my kids are my life, then I don’t just mean they are my No.1 priority and will always, ALWAYS come first, yes, even before me. I also infer that they take over my life. Sorry kids, but you do. From the moment I wake up, to the point in time when I tuck them into bed and sing them a German lullaby, they are a hurricane twirling through a rollercoaster ride. I can’t do anything, and I mean this, I can’t do ANYTHING without being interrupted. Brushing my teeth and having a wee: “Maaaaaaaaaammaaaaaa! Can you read a story?!” Making breakfast and talking to the dog: “Mama, he’s done a poo, and can you please get my dressing up box down for me?” Sitting down to check my emails at 8.30am in the morning: “Mama, I want some chocolate. Mama, I want to go out. Mama, I want to read a book. Mama, I need a wee. Mama, Casper just bit me. Mama, I love you. Mama, I need a drink. Mama, where is Papa? I WANT PAPA! Mama, what are you doing? Mama, there is a spider. Mama, kill the spider. Mama, I need some loo roll. Mama, I want to go on the computer to do some Mandarin. Mama, she hit me. Mama, he hit me. Mama, I want to watch a film. Mama, I want to play play d’oh. Mama, I need a poo. …” I assume (oh no, you should never assume…) you get the gist? This is my day. Constant questions, demands, requests. If I fall onto the sofa at 8pm and still have it in me to talk to my partner then that is a miracle, but most of the time I work or send emails or write or catch up on correspondence.

You see, parents don’t have a lot of time for themselves, unless they have or hire help. No one expects any sympathy or pity from anyone, because most of us made the choice to have kids on purpose. However, it is not ok to assume that we are just being awkward and lazy and disorganized and have no timing at all. We have a ridiculous amount on our plate and any gasps of outrageousness are highly unhelpful. The reasons I can’t read 15 books in a week is because I am organising and sorting the lives of 2 additional people to me. I am not jealous or resentful or wish my single and free days back, because no one forced me to become a mother. But the same as I completely sympathise that you don’t want to hear about me moaning about yet another sleepless night and total wipe-out because of the craziness of parenthood, as well as high-fiving you because it doesn’t take you 3 hours and 5 different bags to leave the house, I also would like a teeny tiny bit of thought from you, to recognise that things are, at the moment, a tad different for me. And I say that with more love and compassion than you could imagine. We’re all different, as are our lives. This is mine, and you don’t have to “get it”. But a little bit of empathy and understanding goes a long way.

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