In our next two blog posts, Chloe and I will shift more personal. Beyond empathy for our users and clients, how does empathy show up in our homes and within our concept of self?
I often think about the work I did as a volunteer coordinator. Our volunteers supported people through big hairy times in their life: addiction, illness, and grief. What I found fascinating was how often my phone would ring, and I’d hear: “Do you have any one-day volunteer work? A flower garden to plant? A meal that needs cooking?” While I would try to find somewhere to channel that energy, it was revealing about the boundaries of empathy in our world. “Drive by” empathy is an entirely different task than to walk alongside someone in the nitty-gritty of life.
This brings me to parenting - where there is no one-day work, no sporadic empathy, where I listen to my child in a one-hour interview and then go about my day.
No, just the monotonous, grinding, step-after-step, redo-after-redo, day-after-day, sleepless nights work. Dogged love, for sure. Is it the same empathy?
When my son was born, empathy towards him was fairly easy. His needs and his helplessness were so clear. We had brought him into the world, and it was my responsibility to try to understand him and respond. Those early years can be extremely hard for parents, but for my wife and me, they were mostly smooth sailing. We practiced learning to watch and observe him, gave him space to explore, and provided the foundational support to navigate the world.
Everything changed when we adopted a brother, and my boys were between ages two and five. As they began to resemble little adults, and as the number of interventions required to keep them from hurting each other grew— my empathy was often nowhere to be found. What had once been, “I see what you’re trying to communicate; how can I help?” quickly turned into:
How many times have I told you… [that no one likes to be spit at in their face]
Why are you doing this to me? [refusing to eat my wonderful dinner that was the only food you’d eat last week]
What don’t you understand about… [why we don’t pee on the carpet]
I found that I often simply didn’t like these people. These are soul-killing moments for parents, where we are so confused and also so ashamed that we can’t bring a grounded point of view to these young kids.
In the good moments and through some really helpful mentors, I’m starting to remember a few things. The first thought can’t be said enough: parents’ tanks are often so empty, and the fount of empathy just isn’t going to be there until we are filled. When I hear this, I usually want to scream because of the amount of work it is to find, prepare and pay for childcare — and what a drop in the bucket “breaks” can be. But it’s vital. So let’s start there. My own health is likely the greatest factor in how I interpret my children.
Taking it a step further, our specialists and educators remind us that our growing children just simply cannot be the “mini adults” we want them to be. I’m expecting too much. Neurologically, they do not have the wiring for self-control that I desire from them. Emotionally, many of their actions are simply the best communication they can come up with, for “I need you to see me.” Even more, my children are trying to develop autonomy, to find their own place in the world.
This knowledge is powerful, and as I am able to really internalize it, I can see my children differently. In the trying moments with my four-year-old, I find empathy by thinking of him as if he is two, needing Dad to respond to him in a more elemental way, building the repeat cycle of “express need→need met” of a baby. For my five-year-old, I grow the most frustrated during his tantrums, where he moves from the gentlest boy to kicking, clawing, and demanding. For a long time, I would moralize and try to teach him during all of this: “This isn’t kind to daddy. I know you don’t want to hurt me. Let’s talk through this together.” Finally, an educator helped me to understand that he simply could not hear me during those moments. I’ve flipped from trying to fix the behavior to trying to understand what he’s communicating, which is often about how out of control life feels for him. There’s that empathy creeping back in.
Along with those educators, Chloe is a regular commiserater and listener to me, experiencing many of these same motions of parenting:
As a teammate and a person, it is so helpful to have people I interact with on a daily basis to chat with on parenting challenges and share some of the shame I feel when I don’t get it right. It’s often just helpful to know it’s not only me going through these challenges! I wonder if having empathy for each other as parents, or if that’s not empathy, just those discussions, helps us to top up our empathy tanks a bit? At the very least, they help me feel seen and less alone in my struggles as a parent.
In my reflections, echoing what Brian mentioned above, it is the deep connection between myself and my child that can make finding empathy more difficult. As a type A person, it is also about a lack of control. I can’t control this little human, and in my heart, I know I don’t want to. But at the same time, I want her to eat her dinner and put her socks on so we can leave the house or wear weather-appropriate clothing. I am both responsible for her health and well-being and at her mercy when she demands to wear shorts and then complains it’s cold out. It can feel hard to have empathy when I feel like I’m trying to do my best to help, but my effort is summarily dismissed.
And I think that is why empathy in my work is often easier to come by. For me, the connection to the work isn’t at such a deeply personal level, and I often have more control over the situation. This also prompts me to wonder, do we have different empathy tanks that we draw from?
So, empathy in parenting… much more challenging, but I also think chock full of potential learnings. I’ll suggest two:
The first clue is that empathy is about letting go of the need to change the situation.
All these parenting moments are moments where my desire to control tries to overwhelm my children’s need to communicate something—two incredibly strong forces. What eases the pressure is when I can slow down and observe rather than fix it. Ironically, this is what I always tried to convey to those volunteers years ago. What they thought was going to be hard about caring was how unpredictable it would be. “What do I do? What do I say? What’s going to happen?” But whenever that could shift towards “I don’t need to change anything; I just need to listen,” there was relief and ease. For us to have day-in and day-out empathy for people going through hard things, for our spouses, and for our kids, we need a posture of understanding before correcting or solving. This is actually natural UX. As a researcher, I love to sit behind the freedom to simply understand what a user is trying to say, well before a client’s team and I turn toward actions. It’s that same posture I’m trying to cultivate, somehow twisted and hard to access by my expectations of what it means to parent or support.
The second clue may be about our own fallibility.
Do you remember that moment when you realized that your parents made a lot of mistakes? When they no longer controlled the universe or walked on water. My kids are a long way from that moment (I still have them convinced I can see through walls), but I feel it every day - and I think it’s powerful. There is nothing more absurd and embarrassing than me yelling at my distraught child to get his shoes on because we’re going to be late and “This is important to me!!!” Parenting is deeply humbling. We are deeply flawed. But if that’s the case, might it mean we might let up a bit on the flaws of those near us…?
Ah, but that is a new can of worms and our next topic. Empathy for self— what are the barriers to seeing ourselves as I described? Perhaps deeply flawed, but also worthy of respect and care. Join us next time as Chloe digs in.
If you haven’t already, check out the previous posts in our empathy series.
Exploring Empathy Part 1: An Introduction to the Series
Exploring Empathy Part 2: Empathy for Users
Published on February 6, 2023