Today’s blog post serves as a bit of sequel to the post I published yesterday. I’d talked about allowing ourselves to acknowledge that feeling unhappy is usually a rational response to unhappy circumstances, and not a state that we should suppress.nIn addition to realising that it’s largely futile to feel bad about feeling bad, I’ve learned during the past ten years that it can sometimes feel like other people’s trouble can make it difficult to talk about our own difficulties.
For example, how can I complain about the behaviour of my neurotypical preschool-aged twins, when many parents cope with far greater challenges because their children may be on the autism spectrum? What right do I have to find it hard to juggle university and motherhood, when I’m doing it with the full support of a loving spouse, an au pair, and a wide network of amazing friends and family members? Other mothers have tackled tertiary education as sole parents, with very little help and support. And let’s be even more macro about it: do any of us, living in peaceful, stable, developed-world countries, have any right to complain about anything, given how awful life is for so many people in the world? The hackneyed phrase ‘first world problems’ is universally employed to dismiss the rights of most of us with electricity and internet access to complain about anything.
I’ve concluded that we all have the right to find our own lives difficult. Although it is always very important to maintain perspective – and being cognizant of the challenges that other people face helps us to do that, I think – we also shouldn’t discount our own problems, just because other people might have bigger problems. After all, if my life is utter mayhem, and yours is merely very busy, does knowing that my days are busier do anything to make your daily experience less busy? Of course not. The two things are entirely unrelated. We can both find our lives busy: we’re not competing in a Busy-ness Olympics, with only one medal available to the busiest person. I’ve had many, many friends who have told me that they’re finding life hard, but who have then hastily continued to say that, of course, it’s nothing compared to what I’m doing. But again, it’s all perspective. I can’t hack life as a stay-at-home mother. The challenges of that life are different to mine, but they’re not less than mine. I may have to stay up very late to write essays or complete assignments, but I also get to leave my house every day and have conversations with adults, and focus on things that don’t involve Paw Patrol or sandwich fillings.
We should grant ourselves the right to acknowledge our own dramas. Failing to do so can make people really unhappy. I know this first-hand: when my babies were tiny I felt terrible that I found new motherhood so grim, given that I’d spent four years trying to conceive. I had also been in a Facebook group of women who were all struggling to conceive, and in many cases had dealt with numerous heartbreaking miscarriages and failed IVF attempts. I am not typically inclined towards guilt, but I did feel really bad about not enjoying every moment of being a mother, because I knew exactly how lucky I was to be a mother at all. Misguided people who responded to my cries for help by telling me that I should enjoy the baby stage probably had no idea how awful it was to hear that, when I was already feeling dreadful about not revelling in the experience.
This stage passed when I realised that life with baby twins was really hard, and that recognising this didn’t mean that I wasn’t also aware of being lucky to have children. Both things were true. And I could find my life hard while still feeling empathy towards those who hadn’t yet started their families. I can even find life with children difficult, while remembering that some people have lost their children – a tragedy I can scarcely even contemplate. I am certain that experience would finish me, and I marvel every day at the grace and resilience of the parents I know whose children are no longer with them. Here’s the thing: my life could be immeasurably worse, but that recognition tends to happen in retrospect, after the tantrum has passed. It’s bloody difficult to call to mind that perspective when your four year old is shrieking at you and you’re snapping and shouting back, and they’re crying, and you’re feeling like the world’s worst parent.
We all have drama. We are all allowed to have drama. Yes, we should be mindful of the struggles of others, and do what we can to help those who have greater problems than ours (whether that involves cooking something delicious for a stressed friend, or setting up a regular donation to a refugee charity, or whatever else we can do to help people on both a micro- and macro-scale). Yes, we should never stop counting our blessings, when the daily storms of our own lives abate a bit and we have capacity to take stock. But we should not dismiss our own problems, simply because others have it even worse. We should reserve a tiny bit of the compassion we extend to others, and grant it to ourselves.