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Carol Smaldino

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The Missing Ingredient in "Getting" Women Who Are Mothers

Posted: 04/13/2012 10:22 pm

It's called empathy. And without it some votes will be won, and some women will be seduced by one leader or another saying, for the most part that he "gets" what the plight and glory and heroism are in let's say, motherhood. Empathy, when not a hollow cry, is much more deep; it is the capacity to walk in the shoes of another, and as such the experience of empathy can be a transforming one.

The free online dictionary defines it as: "Identification with and understanding of another's situation, feelings, and motives." To possess empathy would, first of all, not to limit the description of motherhood, as one example, as a set of heroic acts responsible for the most profound work of any culture. There are some mothers who feel they are drowning from fatigue, lack of support, judgment and easy criticism coming from all angles. And of course there is poverty, as well as confusion if and when there are honest attempts to really approach choices in an uncertain time.

Those without the absolute loyalty and supports of organized religion may be searching more intensely for creative and practical ways to imbue values by modeling them instead of preaching them. And while top Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen had to eat her words about Governor Romney's wife not having "worked a day in her life" the backlash has been ironic in terms of the halo being put on Mrs. Romney now, for having raised five boys.

This issue of any politician -- or even clinician -- claiming he/she "knows just how you feel" is a manipulative tactic that we might just be ready to question. I am hoping so at least. Having written about parenting and worked with parents, I know that for each one who is glowing with satisfaction even while working hard, there are many others in various states of doubt, ambivalence, and a close to the surface resentment for feeling so responsible not only for the day to day messes but whatever messes life brings to a family at large.

To make Mrs. Romney into a hero who is all about women's choices (the word used over and again) as spoken by her son Josh who made his mother sound all but magical, notably avoided the word to which "choice" is most commonly attributed, pertaining to birth control and abortion.

However, above and beyond the sexual/social freedoms of women to be or not to be mothers, there is the price we pay for glorifying any position which takes blood, sweat and tears, and still leaves most parents too isolated with too few supports for their parenting. Competition abounds, parents feel bullied by the latest guru and when any potential problem arises there is often a panic on the part of a parent who feels just as humiliated, often enough, as his or her child in a crisis.

Besides, it may seem noble to talk about Mrs. Romney performing her own choice; she is fortunate for her temperament, her means and the temperaments of her sons. There is no good to be done by comparing over and over again when so many women are torn between lives, with too little time to think and rest and relax.

There are too many different kinds of women in our world for us to be talking simplistically about who "gets" women's issues at large. Of course it's a good thing for someone to have a grasp of economic realities but without considering the social stresses we will not have gotten very far.

And in terms of educational opportunities and success, we are still very far behind in the world. We have lots of work to do if we want to help parents be at their ease to bond with their children and teach values through empathy itself and mutuality.

Mutuality within deep relationships means potentially being transformed by contact with another person. When I have worked with sick or needy--very needy people who may be hearing voices or be feeling irrevocably tied to abusive relationships, at the start I too can see them as the odd people out. But aside from the pause that comes when we see how common these conditions are, the real pause comes when I work with a person in the midst of the messes. It is that that I get to identify with a sense of desperation, of having no choices -- even if objectively speaking -- choices may seem to others to abound.

I would like to challenge any candidate, any pundit who preaches that the poor should do it themselves, anyone who thinks he/she knows what it's like to function within the realm of motherhood, to live the live for five days with someone out of our usual range of vision.

I'm not trying to say all women have it bad, of course not. In my own lifetime the ability to shift and change and excel professionally and legally has been enormous. This isn't, however, only about women. It's more about our tendency to pile people into a category and leave them there, or worse use them to manipulate a sense that there is real concern when there isn't.

I'm saying that without empathy, concern will remain shallow. And that we deserve better. We deserve a political beginning where empathy isn't for the weak and frail but for all of us -- for whom life is as complicated as it must be if we think, try, consider and care.

 

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