Some weeks are hard. Really hard. You probably know what I mean. The kind of hard that might find you crying in the shower (or at the dinner table), feeling like screaming (or actually yelling at your kids), and functioning on auto-pilot (or wandering through your days in a fog). It doesn’t even matter what is making it hard. It just is. And you’re struggling.
We all struggle; it’s part of being human. Yet, for some reason, we try to hide it from those around us. Perhaps it’s the shiny allure of social media where we all want to appear perfect. Or maybe it’s the family you know down the street who seems to have it all together. (Just between you and me…they don’t).
So, what can we do about this as a society, community or even family? How do we shift from expecting perfection of ourselves and others to acknowledging our messy, human selves?
I believe the first step is just to say it. Say it to yourself first. Can you acknowledge your own struggle? Can you allow yourself to be less than perfect? Try it and see how it feels. What speaks to you?
Here’s my internal dialogue: “I am struggling and that’s OK. It will get better. I am allowed to take a break and take care of myself in the same way I take care of others. I am doing my best and that is enough. I am enough.”
Now try saying it to someone else. Not your life story. Start with something really small. Perhaps the next time someone asks you how you are, you tell the truth. It doesn’t even have to be someone you know.
Maybe you had to run to the grocery store because you ran out of eggs and one of your kids HAS to bring cupcakes to school tomorrow or they will fail the second grade and never have a friend (or a cupcake) ever again and it’s 9pm and you’re exhausted and the last place you want to be is at the grocery store. The person scanning your purchase asks you (reflexively) how you are. You could certainly say “fine” and leave the store. Or maybe this time you look the other person in the eye, take a deep breath and say, “It’s been a hard day”.
Try adding in, “how is your day going?” and see what happens. They might give you a funny look and keep scanning your groceries or (more likely), they might let their guard down just a little bit too and tell you how tired they are. And there it is. A moment of human connection and being real. You probably still have to go home and bake those cupcakes, but now you might just feel a tiny bit lighter as you walk out the door.
Remaining curious allows us to keep an open mind about ourselves and the family down the street. It may sound funny to be curious about yourself, but when days are full of work and kids we can often forget to check in with ourselves. I have days when something has been nudging me, like a tiny pebble in my shoe, and I’ve been ignoring it. I’ve learned to stop and pay attention and be curious about what is seeking my attention. Sometimes I just need to repeat my internal dialogue and sometimes I need to dig a little deeper to figure out what I need in the moment.
Let’s now use our curiosity in thinking about another family who we perhaps don’t know very well. You’ve seen this family at your child’s school and your kids know each other. The kids have been bugging you to invite this friend over and you’ve tried. Multiple times. The parents always offer some sort of excuse for why their child can’t come over. They seem friendly enough, yet they continue to reject the idea of a playdate. There are several conclusions that you might come to at this point. I think of these as stories we tell ourselves. The first story might be about your child or family. Maybe they don’t actually like or trust you. My first impulse is generally to blame myself. Maybe I said something that offended them or they don’t like the looks of me, my house…or my dog. Maybe they’ve heard stories about my family and they don’t want to be associated with us.
There’s probably another story.
It’s easy to jump to conclusions when we don’t know the real story and to make one up. If this were a story about me refusing playdates when my kids were little, the real story might go something like this: I’m not comfortable with having a playdate because of my child’s behaviors. I’m completely overwhelmed by her needs and sometimes feel like just making it through the day is all I can do. She tends to get over excited very easily and when that happens, she vomits. The last thing I want is for her to throw up on your white carpet. It would be mortifying for all of us and I spend so much time cleaning our carpets that I would feel compelled to clean yours as well. You would probably refuse and say it was no big deal, but it is a big deal and I have the stained carpet to prove it. If she manages to not get too wound up during the play date, we will likely face the same consequences later. Often, this happens in the middle of the night and I’m changing sheets and washing hair at 2am after an already exhausting day. If you had some sense of what was going on with my child, you might offer to have a playdate at a park. I might consider this if I knew for sure that you’re not grossed out too easily and that it’s a fairly empty playground. I can’t take one more look of judgment from another parent who thinks I’ve brought my child to play while sick. Even if you can handle all of this, your child may not be able to. My kid who works so hard to fit in doesn’t need to feel any more different than she already does.
But I won’t share all of this with you.
I probably won’t share any of this with you.
Likely, my response to a play date would be, “Yes, that sounds like fun! Life is really busy right now for my family, but perhaps some time in the future?”.
The truth is that we will probably never know the whole story. Remaining curious allows us to stay out of judgment of others. What would have helped me to be more forthcoming with my own story? I’m not entirely sure, but what I do know is that my fear of judgment from others is what kept me quiet.
In the years that have passed since, I’ve learned bit by bit to become more vulnerable. I’ve also learned that my vulnerability makes space for others to be vulnerable as well. So, let’s make a deal. The next time we meet, if I’m struggling, I’ll tell you. I hope that you will tell me as well.