I’m realizing it’s quite easy to experience the brutality of four littles around — by which I mean, having four children has quite upset my lovely mental image of what being a successful wife and mother look like. My house is never clean, I’m exhausted at the end of the day and don’t seem to have the time or head space to give to my husband or for my own pursuits. I just want to sleep. But it’s also pushed me headlong into a study of empathy.
You see, I know all about sympathy and empathy intellectually. My PhD in literature is founded on the concept of Adam Smith’s explanation of sympathy in his Theory of Moral Sentiments of 1759. I can write (and I have) at least 10,000 words on the topic. But experience is a totally different teacher.
Every time my five-year-old melts down because I’ve said “no, please wait,” or my 2-year-old doesn’t nap and so fusses and whines for HOURS, I’m tempted to storm out and just leave because I just cannot take it any longer. I’ve remembered after reading Megan Tietz’s post on the Highly Sensitive Parent that both my husband and I are “highly sensitive” albeit in different ways and we have different triggers. Oy vey. Poor children of ours. I’m realizing that I have a whole slew of things that set me off — visual and auditory clutter being the biggest ones. But that being “set off” is not an excuse to run away, or to stonewall or to do any number of things that preserve myself over and above my job of taking care of the little ones entrusted to me.
Even though I grew up in California, in the height of beach chic and the informality of year-round Rainbow sandals, I come from a line of Southerners. And although the culture of the South feels foreign to this westerner, there is something there — something about wanting to be celebrated and fawned over — that rears its head deep within me. And darn it, I want my kids and my husband to celebrate me, O Great and Amazing Matriarch. But the beauty about my four children is that they whittle me down, down past the yearnings for significance and “me time” and past the desire to be the center of attention. Past the endless self-referential comments and past my idol of control, that I can and will control their behavior and attitudes. This whittling down hurts; it hurts like the bark being ripped from a tree to reveal its tender, green heart. I don’t want to be exposed. I am quite happy with my thick, bark-like covering, thankyouverymuch.
But this push into empathy, where every day I’m learning to bend down even to my children’s heads and talk to them, to resist my own urge to storm out or throw them into time out, to actually listen and ask questions, is a beautiful becoming. Where new life emerges out of twisted dead roots. Where embracing the pain and vulnerability of new bark means a whole new limb can grow. By choosing to practice empathy — bending my body towards theirs, quieting my own need to speak — especially when it doesn’t come naturally, I am choosing to make my daily and moment-by-moment choices into a new lineage. One that cuts off a narrative of privilege at the knees and replaces it with sacrifice. It’s one way in which I hope to “fall on the grenade” (as my pastor says) of generational and cultural sin. I’m finding of course that such resolves cannot begin and end with me; for pulling myself up by my boot straps to practice empathy has at its core me, a pat-myself-on-the-back brand of self esteem that is ultimately still consumed with self. Instead it means that I practice another discipline: spending time in reading and meditating on the Word made flesh who emptied himself and sacrificed himself for the joy set before him — for us, we are bringers of joy!