Some years ago I wrote an angry post about the way parents seem to assume that they are the only ones who have compassion towards children. The use of the “as a parent” or “as a mother” precursor to an explanation of why someone feels compassion or empathy for a child or parent in a particular situation.
Lisa’s post over on Life Without Baby prompted me to look at my original post again. I realise I still feel pretty much the same. Yes, I still take offence at the assumption I don’t share empathy or compassion. But I think I have one or two things to say about it again.
I don’t accept that people don’t intend to cause offence in all cases. The “as a mother” comment deliberately excludes me. And if they’re saying it to me, then there is offence, and it is possible the person is intending to cause offence. People like to feel superior. Parents - perhaps when they feel they're drowning in guilt, debt, anxiety, doubt, love, stress, sleep exhaustion, you name it - seem to like to feel. But in order to feel superior, they need someone to be inferior.* And if they’re saying that to me, then they are intending me to feel that way, to feel inferior, to feel less. Perhaps not deliberately, but somewhere in their consciousness they must understand what they are doing. I suspect I felt this way in 2010 when I wrote the original post. I think I was just scared to say this.
And that’s a difference. I am not prepared to feel put down any more and just let it slide. It doesn't serve me well. And to be honest, I don’t think it serves anyone very well to just let it slide (depending on circumstances of course).
By letting it slide, it allows parents to keep making non-parents feel less. By letting it slide, we let them do it, and perhaps reinforce those negative, shameful feelings in ourselves.
By letting it slide, we stop parents from seeing that in fact we are compassionate. By pointing out that we too feel the same way (without the fear of these things happening to our own children), I hope they can see that we can play positive roles in their children’s lives, and that perhaps we understand more about their own lives and feelings than they have previously given us credit. It helps everyone feel more included and understood, less alone, less riveted by shame.
And maybe it helps them fear less, recognising that there are good people out there looking out for their kids. Because I think there is a lot of fear out there in parent-land.
All of this can only be good for the children too.
So I'm making a promise to you, and to myself. I'm not going to let it slide any more. I will, in the future, gently point out that non-parents are capable of loving a child and feeling compassion and empathy too.
Update: An article in our local newspaper reported on a teenager and a man who rescued a young girl from a river in flood. "We did what we hope any person would do," they both said. Amazing how just replacing one word - parent with person - makes a situation so much more inclusive, and gives me the feeling that society in general is a much better place.
* I wrote about that last year, with - I hope - some degree of compassion and empathy.