Monday, January 10, 2011

I Feel You

Welcome to the January Carnival of Natural Parenting: Learning from children

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have shared the many lessons their children have taught them. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.


I'll say it:  I have spent most of my life with a less than fully developed sense of empathy.  This has resulted in me being - at my worst - morally inflexible, unforgiving, and prone to write off others' problems as being their own fault.  Things that didn't affect me - well, they really didn't affect me.

The Bee has changed that.  She has taught me empathy.  I think it's wonderful and terrible at the same time.  The first time she cried, my brain started racing all by itself:  is she hungry-cold-hot-wet-poopy-lonely-gassy?  Without much conscious decision, I would pick her up and try to ascertain the source of her unhappiness.  Sometimes holding her was enough, sometimes it was another culprit or it was just her being a crier.  Regardless, those wails made me physically feel her pain.  There is a chemical component to this (which can be affected by method of delivery).  It's hard-wired empathy that doesn't activate until you have a baby.  Now?  I still try my darnedest to make her stop crying, and I really can't stand hearing other babies cry either.  I want to fix it.  Whatever it may be.

At some point, I realized that this empathetic response was spreading into other areas and relationships in my life.  I was constantly playing devil's advocate by examining what factors could have caused a person to do what they had done.  I was responding better and more genuinely to other people's grief (and their joy!). Sometimes it still takes some effort, but more often than not it's nearly as automatic as my feeling for the Bee. 

Why is this important?  Why do I feel like this could be a world-changing phenomenon?  Why does this study about babying and bullying make so much sense?  Because you can't be cruel to someone if you feel their pain.  I think our general lack of empathy can be contributed in no small part to the unnatural way in which we've segregated ourselves into groups based on age and whether or not we have children.  We have decided that children should be neither seen nor heard, and it is no surprise that bullying has skyrocketed.  It's easy to push someone around when you can view them as a non-person without feelings.  It's also harder to do something simple like pat someone's arm or give them a hug after a hard day when you can't quite imagine how they are feeling.

It's not just school-scale bullying that results from a lack of empathy.  It's racism.  Homophobia.  Being frightened of someone with AIDS and telling yourself they probably got it from drugs or promiscuity.  Dismissing someone with a different - or no - faith.  All because they are a non-entity, pure other.  Once you acknowledge that everyone, no matter what, deserves your full consideration, life gets so much more complicated, but ultimately much better.

So, thank you, Bee.  I hope I can teach you empathy half as well as you have taught it to me.


Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

(This list will be live and updated by afternoon January 11 with all the carnival links.)


  1. While I can't say that I have not been empathetic all of my life, I am definitely *more* empathetic now that I'm a mama. Maybe in different ways - I consider others' feelings more often, I take time to look at different points of view. It is a direct result of becoming a mother!

    ~Dionna @ Code Name: Mama

  2. Jamey - I was wondering if you're still posting - I've been a little out of it - and it was such a pleasure to read this. You've always impressed me as someone who has this really awesome, rich and spicy personality full of humor, excellent advice and opinions - but also an incredibly understanding and compassionate soul. I think you must have had some of it before the bee, but I'm so glad that she keeps brining out the best in you.

  3. Thank you for taking this topic to a level that goes beyond yourself and your family. I really hadn't given much thought to the importance of empathy as relates to the host of world problems like the ones you mentioned, and I hadn't really considered how deeply important it is to pass some on to my babe. Like Dionna, I think empathy was something I was fortunate enough to learn in childhood, but now that you mention it, I think it has definitely deepened since I began my mothering journey.

  4. Wow. Just... Wow. I've always been slightly empathic, it has definitely increased since becoming a mother. Trouble for me is; I tend to mother *everyone.* No matter the question or problem, I am driven to fix it. Whether my husband is feeling snacky, a coworker asks another coworker a question, or a child has been abused. I can NOT watch the news because of this!

    That aside, I really appreciate your point that you can't be cruel to someone if you feel what they feel. You may as well be cruel to yourself directly. Great post!

  5. That's so insightful. You've made me wonder if some of the people I know who are not very empathetic would benefit from time caring for a baby (especially some older men I know who were definitely not involved in the parenting of their kids). That connection with bullying is so interesting. I had read about the Roots of Empathy program before but forgot about it. I think I'll actually have an age-appropriate baby in the right place for next school year, so I'm going to write and see if they want me to participate!

  6. *Squee* I have readers! I am beyond excited. Did a little dance with the munchkin.

    Excitement aside, I too would love to participate in the Roots of Empathy program if I have an appropriately aged baby... I'll have to see if anyone is doing it in the DC area.

    The real spark for this post was watching a documentary on California's Prop 8. I don't understand how people can be so cruel as to deny someone's right to have a family. If you want to think they're going to hell, fine. Shouldn't that be enough? It was such an utterly heart-wrenching film. It makes me think that the denial of empathy plays a large part in any dogma.

  7. This was very well written, and thought-provoking! I grew up being too empathetic... I would give away pieces of myself to make others feel better until there was nothing left for me. Motherhood has exacerbated this, but luckily with age comes a bit of temperance.

    But, raising twins, I can see the challenge of teaching empathy.

  8. Beautiful wisdom! Thank you for sharing. reposting on FB. :)

  9. Wonderful post, mama! Have subbed.