Measuring Others’ Pain

This post has been stirring in my heart for a while. It seems that almost every conversation I have had for the last few weeks has just confirmed the need for me to write these words down, even if only to humble myself into accepting them. I myself am guilty of what I’m about to write about, as many of us are, and I apologize.

We all, at any point in our lives, have a friend or loved one who is hurting. Death. Sickness. Divorce. Infertility. Special needs. Mental illness. The loss of a job. The loss of a child. The loss of a parent. The loss of a home. The loss of an ability. The loss of a friendship. Addiction. Affairs. Abuse. Straight-up drama.  We can all call to the front of our minds someone we know who is going through something painful. I can name a friend for almost all of the above-mentioned situations, and it’s sobering. Pain is all around us, even when it doesn’t directly affect us. We cannot always protect those we care about from experiencing it and we cannot walk this earth without at some point feeling it ourselves. Pain is a part of life, and a very important part at that. And while pain is, at some point, unavoidable, that does not make it dismissible.

My oh my, how many times have we heard the plight of a friend and commented to ourselves, “If I were in that situation, I’d……”, almost with a sense of superiority, as though our opinion of their situation held more weight than the situation itself?

“I’d never stand for that.”

“I’d never stay if he did that.”

“It’s been six months already, how has she not moved on?”

“I’d have seen a doctor sooner.”

“I’d go to college.”

“I’d get a better-paying job.”

“I’d never do that.”

“I can’t believe she stayed.”

“I can’t believe she left.”

“I can’t believe she’s still talking about it.”

We go on and on, offering our opinions instead of our support, proud of ourselves for having it all together and never realizing how lucky we are to be able to view the pain from the outside. Or we apply our own experience.

“When that happened to me, I pulled myself up by the bootstraps.”

“I worked hard, so anyone else can, too.”

“It worked for me, there’s no reason she can’t do it.”

“I was smart enough to leave.”

“I struggle, too, but you don’t hear me crying about it.”

“I never let my kids do that.”

“I had to pay, they should, too.”

The fact is, pain is not quantitative. There is no way to measure what another person is going through, therefore there is no way to compare what they’re going through.

There is no expiration date for grief, no way to determine when an appropriate amount of time has passed before one must “get over it”. Whether a pregnancy was lost in the early weeks or in the delivery room does not hold any weight to the pain felt. There is no “at least” that will bring comfort to the persons who have said goodbye to someone they love – “at least you were only 6 weeks pregnant”, “at least you know you can get pregnant”, “at least you had all that time together”, “at least they went quickly”, “at least you had time to prepare yourself”, “at least you had a chance to say goodbye”, “at least you’re young”, “at least they were old”…. there is no “at least” that is bigger than the hole left behind.

Disappointment is not relative. A friend of mine delivered her first baby a few years ago and was deeply disappointed over the experience, as it had not gone as she’d planned and prepared for. In the middle of her tears she said, almost apologetically, “I know, at least I didn’t have to have a C-section like you, so I should be grateful…” NO. Disappointment is not relative. My disappointment being different from her disappointment does not make hers less, and does not make mine more. It’s okay to admit disappointment – it’s not the same as discontentment. And that old monster “At Least” has no place in disappointment. “At least” hints that the pain that is felt is too great, that the feelings experienced are not proportionate to the situation. But as grief cannot be quantified, there is no such thing as proportionate pain.

Mourning is not morning – it is not over at a specific time. A death, a divorce, whatever has ended has an effect, and your opinion of how long the process has taken does not speed it up. “Long enough” is not helpful, is not supportive. It does not push one towards healing, but rather towards isolation. If someone cannot share their pain with you because of how you attempt to measure or judge it, they will keep it to themselves and share the burden of their feelings alone.

While we are not meant to be sad, we are meant to feel sadness when it arises. One of the most powerful representations I’ve ever seen of its importance was, of all places, in a Pixar movie. If you haven’t seen Inside Out, go rent it tonight! The main character, Joy, obviously wants everything to be happy all the time, as do most of us. Social media, Pinterest, tv, Instagram… we’re surrounded by the most perfect and joyous of images and messages all day long, and we like it. We strive for it. But when something legitimately sad happens, Joy tries to push through, move on, gloss over it and pretend like it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. In the movie – and I promise you I paused immediately after this scene to wipe my tears and explain how impactful it was to my kids – Sadness sits down and talks about how sad it is. She lets the tears flow, admits that it is sad, and feels the pain of it all. Once this has happened – and ONLY after this has happened – are they able to move on in their journey. Sadness must be felt. We have to acknowledge how painful something is before we can begin to heal from it. To become stronger we must admit we were once weaker, and accept that neither is better than the other. Sadness, pain, grief, mourning, disappointment – they’re all very real emotions that will take place regardless of our opinion of the circumstances they showed up in.

Ah, the circumstances. This one is tough, because all too often the circumstances of one’s pain create an excuse for others to dismiss them. You never liked that friend’s husband so you’re not sad to see their marriage fail. You don’t do drugs so you have a hard time feeling compassion for those who lose everything to addiction. You would never let your kids behave so poorly so you feel justified when someone else’s teenager runs away. You know he cheated before so you have a hard time feeling sorry for your friend who stayed anyway when he does it again. You judged their spending habits or their low-paying jobs so you judge their bankruptcy or their pleas for help. You had success with a weight loss program so you are exasperated with your overweight friend. But our opinions, again, are not helpful. They didn’t protect anyone from getting hurt and they certainly won’t help anyone to heal. To put it plainly, it truly, 100%, completely, wholly DOES NOT MATTER what we think. We do not get to decide who is deserving of their pain. Not agreeing with another’s pain does not negate it. Just because you don’t agree with someone’s divorce does not mean you can drop off a casserole and hope it goes away. Your discomfort is not a factor any more than your opinion. People around us are hurting, and we are not called to sit in judgement of them. We don’t have to like what’s happening, only love the person its happening to.

That’s what it all comes down to, really – judgement. We think we know better, think we’d do better, feel we’ve done better. But the hurting ones around us are not asking for our expertise, they’re asking for our compassion. One of the most humbling experiences of my life has been to tell someone I love that I support their decisions because I support them, and then watch them make a decision I would not have made. So what am I to do now? Do I withdraw my support because I disagree, or do I swallow my pride and recognize that my opinion is literally worth nothing in such matters? Do I henceforth offer only conditional support to loved ones in the hopes that they’ll do what I want them to? Do I sit in bitter judgement and disbelief at their choices, or do I thank God that I am not in the same boat, having to make the same ones? Do I turn up my nose or lend them my ear?

Don’t misunderstand me, support is not the same as enabling. Enabling is offering your permission; support is offering your hand. Enabling is making something possible; support is making someone stronger. Support is propping up someone when they’re too weak to stand on their own. Support is listening to them, crying with them, praying for them. It’s offering your help, your ear, your time, your words when asked and your shoulder when needed. Only offering support when your opinions are followed is friendship on demand, it’s help for sale, it’s selfish. So when you find yourself beginning to judge someone else’s pain or reactions, as yourself, “How on EARTH is their pain about ME?”

It’s not.

So stop telling people to get over it already. Stop telling yourself you’d do any better. Stop trying to measure someone else’s pain and stop kidding yourself that you even can. Start listening without forming an opinion. Start acknowledging sadness when you’d rather stick your head in the sand. Start accepting that there is only so much you can control, and it’s even less than you think. Start being a friend instead of a jury. And for the love, stop telling people how to feel.


Part Two: I Am “That Mom” (and here’s why)

You had to know a part two was coming. I couldn’t very well call out my son for being “that kid” without admitting that I am “that mom”, right?

I didn’t set out to be That Mom. None of us do. I know I’ve started numerous emails with, “I promise I’m not trying to be That Mom,” “Not to be That Mom, but…”, or just the blatant, “I’m not That Mom.” But it happened. I am That Mom. In the same way that we women often apologize more often than we need to, we seem to be terrified of being seen as or referred to as That Mom. As if we’ll send the PTO running for the hills away from us, the dragon lady who breathes fire and eats teachers. As if being That Mom were synonymous with being a Bad Mom.

I am not one for confrontation. I’m not good at it, it makes me uncomfortable. I’m great at responding and reacting, but to confront an issue I must first dwell on it for a while, talk myself out of it a few times, ask friends to tell me any other way to get around it, allow myself to get flushed, hear my heartbeat, and probably cry from frustration. Once these steps have been achieved, I can now timidly approach confrontation. Why? Well, to be honest, most of the time it’s because I’m afraid of how I’ll be perceived. I want to be liked, and that’s as hard to admit as confrontation is to initiate. I like smiling and getting along with people. I want things to go well, and I don’t want to be associated with negative things or thoughts. But that’s just not life. Things happen and things have to be dealt with, and when you have That Kid, things happen and have to be dealt with more often.

I’m not blaming my That Mom status on my kid. I didn’t become That Mom because of him, I became That Mom for him. Because he needs an advocate. Because he is a square peg and the round hole isn’t always a good fit. Because there are cracks in every system no matter how wonderful it is. Not because I enjoy arguing, not because I’m angry inside, not because I think he’s an infallible snowflake, not because I’m picking on anyone, not because I have it out for someone, not because I’m impossible to please, and definitely not because I’m a b word. Because the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Because I can either sit back and allow the cracks to swallow him, or I can speak up on his behalf. I am That Mom because he needs me to be. I am That Mom because I am HIS mom.

My kids’ teachers are saints, before this is taken as a rant against anyone. They have wings and just about walk on water as far as I’m concerned. But they’re overworked, underpaid, and have their hands tied in an increasing number of ways. More often than not the situations where I speak up are situations where they cannot. I even had one angelic teacher thank me for using my voice and speaking up. Where school is concerned, there are a growing number of cracks for children to fall through. Class size, test prep, 22 different IEP’s, integration, transition time, finding ways to get PE time in during Spanish… schools are being choked more and more by legislation and requirements, and the teachers who volunteered to help shape our young people are often left with only the power to check boxes. Sometimes a need isn’t met, and I don’t blame the teacher, but that doesn’t mean our kids don’t deserve what they showed up for. So when it comes to school, I will take what he needs and leave the whispers behind. I will speak up for him and ensure that he is fought for, taught to, and included, no matter how it makes me look. Because I guarantee you that the stares and judgements and derogatory names will not matter or even cross my mind when I see him graduate. If the administration is breathing a sigh of relief to see him gone, so be it. We can speak up on political affairs, the management of our favorite sports teams, and pop culture, but not on behalf of our kids? That’s a big fat NOPE from me. No one else can be my kids’ mom – that privilege and work belongs to me alone. And if I don’t work harder on their behalf than I do at being liked I will have failed. Miserably.

It’s not like it’s a source of pride. I don’t use “haters” as fuel or anything so dramatic. I’m not immune to the eye rolls and sighs and tension. I’m saddened each time I know I’ve blown a chance at a friendship by speaking up. I’m not out on a mission to get anyone fired, and I hate to think of anyone getting into trouble because of me. But I can’t let my timidity overrule my children’s needs. I can’t not stand up for what’s right just because I want everyone to like me. Ultimately it doesn’t matter if I make friends, it matters that they get what they need.

Last year an issue arose where my son did not get what he needed, that middle kid of mine. It was a big deal, by anyone’s standards, and rippled out to affect others. So I showed up and did my work as That Mom. In this particular instance there really may have been steam coming from my nostrils, but I didn’t eat any teachers and I wasn’t on the news, so we’ll call it a win. I knew the exact moment I was trading in “I love that mom!” for “Oh, she’s That Mom, ” but I could either back down and try to make a friend at my son’s expense or hold someone accountable. He needed what he was promised. A few months after, a friend of mine saw me at the store and asked me about it. I was quite surprised, as I hadn’t advertised it or vented publicly. Somehow, though, as will happen, some person shared some version of it, and the gossip mill got to work grinding out sensational tales of Jennifer the Whip-Wielding Crusader Mom. That’s not really word-for-word, but it was quite a story. To be honest, I was first surprised that anyone even knew who I was to share the story. That meant that I could no longer go incognito at pickup and show up makeup-free in my sweats, hoping my messy hair was going unnoticed. Dang. If people know who I am enough to share stories about me, they’re going to see me when I show up. Now I have to wear pants with a zipper. Ugh. My next reaction was one of embarrassment. What must these people think of me? I bet they’re hoping they don’t get a class with any of my kids! Do the kids’ teachers know the true version of what happened, or are they going to cower when I walk in to Meet the Teacher? What do people think?! Eh, it doesn’t matter. If they think I’m a crusader, awesome. Maybe it will empower them to speak up on behalf of their kid. Maybe they’ll approach me with suggestions and energy about how to fight for change in the system. Or maybe they’ll just be scared of me and let me sit in peace in my sweats in the pickup line. Either way, their opinion didn’t matter. They definitely formed thoughts, judgements, and gossipy tales, but it didn’t affect what my son needed or what he got. They’re going to talk. I can’t control what they’ll say about me. But I can control how my son will remember me fighting for him.

Which leads me to the main, ultimate, single most important reason I am That Mom.

Last week that same middle kid (it’s always him) took a fall at school. It was a total accident, but he hit his face HARD on the floor – chipped tooth, lots of blood, and we later found out a broken nose. He was glassy-eyed, irritable, and very tired, so I took him to the emergency room just to be safe. When the doctor came in, she spent less than 3 minutes with him – checking his tooth, checking his tongue, feeling his broken nose and telling him he could go home. I know I’m not a doctor, but it seemed a bit rushed and incomplete, knowing we were there for a possible concussion.

This is where it gets good.

My son was as surprised as I was. Maybe surprised isn’t the right word – he was angry. “That’s IT?” he asked, completely incredulous. “You’re not going to check me or anything?” The doctor, bless her, didn’t know this boy or the IQ he walked in with. She assured him he was fine, which only ruffled him more. “I’m not fine, that’s why I’m in here.” She asked if maybe she had used some words that he didn’t understand, which seemed to add fuel to his fire. “I understood everything you said perfectly, which is why I’m upset.” We were a printout away from being discharged, and here he was, speaking up in a room full of adults, advocating for himself. Sure we can work on his delivery, but the bravery it took was still incredible. I had tears in my eyes, not from embarrassment – from pride. This little boy wasn’t trying to put anyone in their place, he wasn’t trying to be disrespectful, he wasn’t trying to prove anything, he was only trying to get the care he needed. And he knew what to do in a situation where he felt he wasn’t being heard – he spoke up. Speaking up eventually led to him getting a CT scan, which it turned out he needed. If he hadn’t advocated for himself, I don’t know what would have happened. He has seen me fight for him and now knows that he can fight back, too. He knows that if something isn’t right, you can say something. Then say something else. And keep saying something until someone listens and it gets made right.

He’s only 8, so I don’t think my job is quite done yet. I’m not trying to protect my kids, I’m trying to equip them, and sometimes it takes losing a popularity contest to do that.

I know I’m not alone, know there are a lot of others out there doing the best they can for their kids at the expense of their image. High-five, Momma. Parenting is hard, and parenting to cater to everyone else’s opinions is impossible, so let’s stop apologizing for advocating and get our kids what they need. It doesn’t matter what they call us – That Mom, Tiger Mom, Mama Bear, Helicopter Mom, Room Mom, Team Mom… it only matters that we are a good mom.