05/23/2014 03:18 pm ET Updated Jul 23, 2014

Empathy: The Missing Link Between Parents and Childfrees


I may think I'm doing a miserable job, but my version of the SuperMommy Show is fooling everyone. Even though I sleep about five to six hours a night, I don't look like a zombie. I can still teach and take physically demanding dance classes. The dancers of a Chicago dance troupe where I guest teach a company class were shocked to learn that I am a mommy of two young children. "But she demonstrates everything!" they marveled.

"See what good training and taking care of yourself can do?" answered their rehearsal director, a friend of mine.


To the outside world, I look like someone who's got her act together. I'm reasonably nice looking, competent and always armed with a sharp wit. In private, however, I sob over commercials, Disney movies and random acts of kindness from strangers. And on the flip side, I live one baby step away from launching into a profanity-laced tirade worthy of a gang fight.

But by far, my dirtiest secret is how I feel about my kids. Of course I want them around; I cherish them so much my breath catches. Sometimes we have a lot of fun together. But a lot of the time, they stress me out. I yell and lose my temper. I can't balance doing things for them -- like laundry and chauffeuring and meals -- versus doing things with them -- like reading books, playing and being their audience. And then there's the pressure of being a good parent in a nation where parenting should be a team sport, but instead, it feels like shopping on Black Friday.

I share these doubts and fears with other parents and those childless friends, who get it as much as they possibly can.

Unless a child-free person has been carefully vetted to be able to handle parental venting, I usually don't bother. But this child-free person asked me how I was, and instead of saying, "Fine," I got real.

"My kids are driving me crazy," I confessed.

"You made them, didn't you?" He grinned, "Right?"

I wanted to run my nails down his face. "I guess," I answered, clenching my jaw.

Made them?

Yes, I, with a little help from science and my husband, not necessarily in that order, "made" them. But the idea that I am -- that any parent is -- the sole, even primary, cause of why a child is the way s/he is -- spirited/docile, even-tempered/moody, an early reader/late reader -- is in many cases, just wrong.

But his other point was that having kids at all was not only my choice, but my fault. Apparently, he had had the foresight to realize kids weren't for him and his partner. In his mind, those who bring children into the world make their own overcrowded, peed-on beds and should lie in them without a word of complaint.

Let's get something straight: My complaining about my corner of motherhood is not an invitation to be patronized or blamed from my parenting choices. It does not signify a lack of love for my children, or that I am delusional about either the big picture or the minutiae of parenting.

It is simply an admission that I am having a hard time and that I need some support -- someone to listen to me. It's a request for reassurance that what I'm feeling is normal and will pass. I need that pat on the shoulder when I feel like my life's in shambles.

That's what everyone needs.

It's called empathy. It's called being sensitive to other people's feelings and needs. "They" start teaching us those things in preschool, but many of us never really quite get it.

I lived without children for over 35 years. I thought I was stressed and busy and tired as a childless adult, but now, that period of my life seems blissfully carefree. It's almost a joke how little I had to think, let alone worry, about.

But is it fair to invalidate what I felt back then? My problems were real, and I dealt with them with whatever maturity and perspective I had.

Which is exactly what I try to remember when I hear someone without kids complain about how exhausted/busy/strapped for cash they are. That's their reality. Parents aren't the only people in the world allowed to be emotionally, physically and financially tapped out.

When a friend without kids complains, I put judgement aside. I listen and offer whatever support I can.

And I deserve that same courtesy when I vent about my kids.

If you're not a parent, or if you're one of those parents who has all the answers, and I express frustration about my children, please just acknowledge my feelings. Even if you can't understand or don't agree. Even if you think I'm totally out of my mind. Keep your assumptions and evaluations to yourself, and I'll do the same for you.

Afterwards, we can go back to our respective camps and rant about each other's insensitivity/entitled-ness/delusions.

Or better yet, we can try to put ourselves in the other person's shoes, shrug our shoulders and go on with our lives.