Lessons in Empathy
I went for a run today.*
I began slowly in the sunny, softly breezy Seattle weather of early fall, realizing I was alone for the first time in weeks. I felt relief and shame – relief because I was alone, shame because I was being selfish. I had been looking forward to this moment all week while my husband was at work, had even dreamt about it: 30 pure minutes on Saturday morning when I could step outside and know that there was someone in the house to make sure our newborn daughter stayed alive. As I plugged in my headphones and began the steep ascent up the hill, for the first time in eight weeks I felt normal. Nostalgia for my self before I was a mother. But now I am a mother. And it is unexpectedly uncomfortable territory.
I have never before questioned who I am as much as I have since 4:52 pm on August 7th. I was unprepared for the emotional and physiological toll the initial months of motherhood would bring. I had read about the “Baby Blues,” a moderate but temporary depression that descends on new mothers in the first few weeks of their babies’ lives – I just didn’t think I would need to deal with them. I have never questioned whether I’d be a good mom, but I am ashamed of the degree to which I have been depressed since her birth, and how often I resent my daughter.
It came on quickly when my husband went back to work and there was no other language-speaking person in the house: aching loneliness, boredom, and general feelings of laziness and worthlessness. According to every blog post, website, or book on the subject, I should have felt powerful and goddess-like in my ability to nurture a tiny helpless person and give her nutrients from my own body that would keep her healthy. But all I could think about was what I wasn’t doing: writing thank-you notes already two months late, washing and organizing the avalanche of new baby clothes we’d received since our daughter’s birth, updating my portfolio in preparation for an impending job search, and working off the 15 pounds I retained from my pregnancy. That checklist was a relic of who I had been just a few weeks prior – a 30-something architect, backpacker, writer, Type-A organizer, and size Medium. But now I was a mom, unable to do anything but soothe, swaddle, feed, and wear stretch pants. I felt trapped and lonely.
Six weeks later, we’ve left the cozy newborn sleepy stage behind and entered a period of infant insomnia and clinginess, sleep only happening in one of her parents’ arms hours after the process of bedtime begins. But along with this phase change comes little surprises: my daughter began giving us big smiles and cooing melodies at the sight of our faces, a monumental milestone in her world. Some days it is enough to reset my soul; others, it fills me only until her next round of whimpering begins. The tears that came so easily that first week home alone now come again, this time in deep bursts brought on by another failed attempt to lay her in her crib without waking her up, or frantic rooting after a marathon feeding session.
There are some moments of bliss: holding her quietly on the couch while I watch cooking shows, her sweet little body curled up on my chest, hand under cheek, so perfectly content to hear my heartbeat and dream. But the next day those same moments feel as if I will be permanently molded to the couch, my brain drained of intelligence from so much daytime television.
A few weeks before our daughter was born, my husband and I began reading Brain Rules for Babies, written by developmental molecular biologist and UW professor John Medina. One chapter in particular resonated with me, as it focused not on her brain, but on my husband’s and mine. The ultimate defense against spousal conflict in the first tiring months of a child’s life is her parents’ ability to empathize not with her, but with each other. Empathy, therefore, is the greatest asset to a happy household – something I felt we both had in abundance.
But now, two months in, I’m disheartened to realize the depth of my empathy pool is not so deep at all. Because an incredible amount of compassion is required to take care of a newborn without melting into a formless puddle, something I’ve done multiple times in the past three weeks. Showing compassion to your spouse is easy when he has the ability to give gratitude and love in return. But I have found myself unable to genuinely empathize with my little girl when she cries incessantly for food not 30 minutes after she just finished, as I race to make a one-handed meal for my grumbling stomach. To feel her frustration when she’s so tired she can’t fall asleep rather than focusing only on my own exhaustion. Instead, I get irritated. I grow tense, which she can undoubtedly feel. I become self-pitying and anxious thinking about the checklist of things I can’t seem to get done. And then I feel a strong loathing for myself that I fear I will never rid of.
I am horrified to discover that I am not am empathetic person – worse, I am a hypocrite, as empathy is one of the virtues I treasure and admire most in others. I pray that if I teach my child no other quality, it is empathy for others, but how can I give her something I myself do not practice in the way that I’d hoped?
Most posts like these are supposed to end on an uplifting note, but my heart is not there yet. Today, her 8-week birthday, is better – I feel lighter with the sun outside, walking shoes on my feet and a sleeping baby in the stroller. But I’m not happy with myself as a parent. I hope it gets better – I’ve been told that it will – but that moment feels far away and unattainable at 2:00 am. The parent I wanted to be – calm, focused, and kind – is not the one I turned out to be. And that is terrifying.
*And by today I mean on Saturday, as it has taken me five days to finish this post without a sleeping baby in my arms.