Past and Present: Conversations with Other Mothers
Changing diapers was part of my daily existence for ten years. I remember being puzzled at the reactions of people for whom it wasn’t. They spoke of diapers as this huge and distasteful chore. As far as I was concerned, diapers were easy. Keeping hold of my highly-active toddler in a public space while eight months pregnant, that was hard.
Today I am babysitting my sister’s kids and I changed a stinky diaper. I noted within myself exactly the sorts of reactions that used to puzzle me when I observed them in others. The influx of small children means that our toy cupboard vomited its contents across the family room in a way that hasn’t happened since the last time this set of children came to visit. I had to watch and respond to a toddler with my mommy radar turned all the way up to ten, in order make sure that he was safe and that he didn’t endanger any of the things which are important to our family. I used to just flow with these things and bend my life around them. Now it all feels like a big intrusion. I willingly agreed to the intrusion. I like my sister’s kids. I’m glad to watch them for the day. Yet at the end of it I will be quite glad to return to a quieter house.
I’m on the other side of the fence these days. I used to be the mother of young children who mostly stayed home because I didn’t want to impose my personal invading force on society at large. Now I’m the one who gets intruded upon, at home, in public spaces. Mostly I don’t mind or am even amused or enlivened by the presence of other people’s children. I watch with tolerance and sympathy when a toddler tantrums in a grocery store. And, yes, sometimes I observe with annoyance. I like my friends’ kids quite a lot. They are charming little people and I marvel at seeing the world through their eyes and watching them change from visit to visit. Yet in the world at large, it sometimes feels like I’ve become the enemy. I am the mother of older children who is perceived as judging the mother of young children. I am a font of boring stories about when my kids were little. Being around young children brings all those memories to the forefront of my mind, and in that moment I think I remember how hard it all was. I want to help, or make it easier, so I spill the stories in an effort to form some sort of camaraderie. I’m trying to say that we’re all in this together. That is not the result.
My self awareness of this is thanks to a good friend of mine, a mother of a young child, who cared enough about our friendship to address the issue with me. It is hard to be critiqued on this sort of thing. I’ve done a lot of thinking as a result. I’ve also done quite a bit of observation of myself and of others. I’ve come to the conclusion that my years of experience as a parent don’t make me any sort of expert, because my children are different from those of my friends. I raised them in a different decade, in a different social context, with a different house, and a different husband. There are so many differences as to make my solutions and stories irrelevant. Instead of trying to provide help or advice, it is my job to listen. When my friend’s current concern triggers a memory, I should stay with their experience, not intrude mine. At some point in the conversation my friend may outright ask for advice, that is the appropriate time to share something from my own parenting experiences.
Shortly after my friend’s critique I altered my conversational strategies with a different pair of friends who have young children. It was hard at first. All my instincts told me that the way to be friends with other mothers was to talk over our similar experiences. But their current lives match my past, not my present. A story fell out of my mouth out of habit and I watched the conversation dive into a lull as a result. I did better after that. I had a wonderful and emotionally connecting afternoon. It was the first time in a long time I did not spend large portions of the conversation feeling out of step and old. It seems obvious in hindsight, but I had to match their present experiences with my present experiences. The contrast in those experiences was what made the conversation fun for all of us. They were far more interested in hearing about my current dealings with teenagers than in my past struggles with potty training.
I’m very grateful to be making these realizations now, years before I have grandchildren. I shudder to think what unfortunate miscommunication loops I might have set up while trying to “help” my children parent their own kids. I was well on my way to becoming a person I never want to be, and I would have been driven toward it by an ever-more-intense desire to connect.
I still have thinking and learning to do. I have to fine tune when my accumulated experiences add to conversations and when they do not. After all, I started this blog post by delving into a memory. At one point I paused and considered whether I wanted to re-write it, because it seemed to demonstrate exactly the story-dropping behavior that I’m trying to extinguish. I eventually decided that this is my space and an appropriate venue for me to examine my experiences out loud. My experiences may be irrelevant to the world at large, but they are important to me. It is crucial that I see the difference and converse appropriately. It is also crucial that I don’t squelch all my stories in all contexts.
Balance is hard. I’m sure that I’m getting something else wrong as I try to correct this. All I can do is strive onward.
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