Trigger Warning: Everyone Is Suffering From Something
Perhaps you’ve never suffered like a woman struggling with infertility or a new mom or a single mom. But what about the parent who lost a child? What about the grief-ridden doctor who accidentally killed a patient? What about the child soldier forced to murder his mother? The child prostitute who knows no other life?
There is no reason to compete to wear the crown with the most thorns. Instead of trying to one-up each other or guilt people into helping us we need to take responsibility for our own choices, our own lives, ask for help when we need it and give it when it is needed.
We rarely know who is enduring what, who can’t sleep at night because of what they’re going through, who locks themselves in the bathroom at work because they can’t stop the tears. So many people are suffering so much in the privacy of their hearts.
Rank-ordering which pain hurts the most doesn’t ease our suffering. But it can easily belittle what others are fighting through.
Trigger warning. I am legitimately hoping that I will not further hurt those struggling with deeply personal heartache. This is a heartfelt attempt to broaden our call to compassion for anything and everything that people can face — poverty, divorce, job loss, illness, a death in the family — there is no shortage of things a human being can suffer. Nor is there any shortage of catastrophes that can devastate entire communities and populations — mass shootings, natural disasters, recession, corruption.
We do not have to outrank anyone else’s pain to qualify for empathy.
The superlative tone to a great many articles and posts follows the same formula. They make their case for greatest suffering humanly possible and they will often list other populations who particularly misunderstand and need to change their behavior and language around particular topics. Then they call upon the entirety of their community — friends, coworkers, neighbors and family with a very specific call to action — usually in the form of a long list. Some of the suggestions read a little bit like, please, someone come take my place so I can take a break from living my own life.
But none of these articles give advice for how you can support your friends or family or neighbors who suffer tragedies like terminal illness or an untimely death. I wish they would link to the articles that do. That would provide broader context while promoting crucial compassion during times of incomprehensible suffering.
Instead, the consistent themes I’m seeing in these pieces are that people do not feel like their partners are doing an equal share of housework, household management, and child-rearing. And nobody wants to do their own chores.
Most people are happy to help during difficult transitions. But your requests need to be stop-gap measures — not ongoing adulting you just don’t have the energy for. As though everyone around you spends their days skipping through fields of sunflowers with none of their own exhaustion, fears or struggles.
The more of the articles I read I am struck by three imperatives.
1.) Most of the “helpful suggestions” listed in these articles for how best you can support your loved one, typically a single mom or a new mom, can actually amount to living that person’s life for them — not only bringing a hot nutritious meal ready to eat but also a stack of healthy frozen meals ready for them to reheat later. Some articles stress the importance of family-friendly healthy meals that require no prep work from the recipient. Others recommend the exact opposite — ditch the organic vegetable stir fry or Moroccan carrot salad and indulge the new mama in your life with a bag of M&Ms, fried chicken and a bucket of soda — “she will weep tears of joy.” That suggestion seems to reflect the dietary preferences of the author more than the needs of an exhausted mother who might be neglecting her own nutrition.
Bringing a friend one or two ready-to-eat meals is kind and generous. An actual stack, as one article suggested, “to stock their freezer”? That is asking people to do more than you would do for yourself. When was the last time you made two or more lasagnas, let alone six? Not everyone has the time or budget to make six lasagnas for someone else. And that shouldn’t be the price anyone has to pay to prove their friendship.
These articles also advise against making open-ended offers to help — just dive right in and do any and all housework that needs doing. “New mama will appreciate it so much!”
If you are close enough this is something you can do if you have time and it feels appropriate for both parties. But you also need to maintain boundaries before you become or make your friend become an unpaid housekeeper.
And yes, being a single parent is an endless staggering endeavor. But the frustration should be directed at the parent who abandoned their responsibilities, not the community who apparently failed to sufficiently fill the void the absentee parent left behind. No matter how overwhelmingly hard single parenting absolutely is the other people in your life don’t magically stop being people. They might be hurting too. They do not exist merely to lighten your load. We have to remember each other’s humanity. And we can’t take it personally when our friends, neighbors or family members can’t do as much as our partner should have.
2.) Everyone gets to feel pain but nobody gets a monopoly on it. We could support each other so much more lovingly if we weren’t trying to compel (read: guilt) people into helping who should’ve noticed our suffering/struggling and taken the initiative to pitch in.
I’ve seen the same arguments made by people with autoimmune illnesses and people with anxiety and depression. Come over and do their laundry. Take them out to coffee. Bring them takeout. Organize the clutter that’s taken over their house These are all great gestures of friendship — but not obligatory. Managing your life and your illness will always be your responsibility.
I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression since before I knew what they were called. But I never felt like my friends or family should come over and do my laundry for me or stock my freezer with meals so I can just reheat when I’m too low to grocery shop and cook for myself. I needed friendship from my friends. Their company was the gift I most appreciated. The time they spent chatting with me was a salve every time. I never thought of them and my chores in the same sentence. But I happily fold laundry with a girlfriend of mine who is a full-time architect and single mom. We hang out when we can. And if she’s folding laundry while we catch up I reach over and start folding too. If we’re drinking wine in the kitchen I start doing dishes while she’s cooking or meal-prepping or mom-ing in general.
The difference is that she never implied that I had to because her time is more valuable than mine. And she never measured my value as her friend by how much of her housework I do. She thanks me and says how much she loves that we can hang out this way in the midst of her busy life.
3.) We have largely lost our collective village mentality. If we had the communal lifestyle of generations past we would be sharing the daily workload in a lot of ways that would alleviate the acute stress of our individual struggles. Not enough people have a close-knit community. Prayer chains and meal trains were a way of life before they had labels. We used to just call it community.
The calculations being made about what the salary of a stay-at-home parent would be don’t seem to be being made to their partner — the one with whom they share bills and chose to start a family. They should be sharing it with their partner if they feel their contribution of labor to the household “account” is being undervalued.
But instead, complaints are lobbed across the internet like “parents are not compensated for the work they do in the home.” The tone implies that they should be. By whom? It’s a passive statement. Who is supposed to be paying you to do your own laundry and dishes? The government? Your employer? That’s just adulting. A girlfriend of mine, who is always the first to say, “your hard is hard too”, is struggling right now. She is personally and professionally overwhelmed. I just don’t want to human right now. But she doesn’t expect anyone to human for her. She wants compassion, support, filthy memes to make her laugh and inspirational quotes to keep her motivated. She doesn’t expect anyone to be her stunt double.
The world doesn’t stop spinning just because we’re exhausted. It never stops. That is also a blessing we can be grateful for. And no one should have to prove their love by relieving us of our responsibilities, especially since theirs don’t stop just because ours are overwhelming.
“In a pinch? Happy to help! Overpacked your life? Time to adjust your world.”
When you’re trying to ask for help, please don’t imply that your suffering is greater than someone else’s and they are therefore morally obliged to help you. Stop competing. Stop saying things like “you have no idea.” Your reader very likely does. Don’t alienate them by trying to one-up them because you’re shaming them for not proactively intuiting your needs. Just ask for help because it would help you not because those around you are morally bereft if they don’t. What if you scheduled a time when you could both work on lasagnas together? What if you combined forces to divide the labor instead of hoping for free deliveries?
Of course we would all be deeper fuller richer more spiritual beings if someone else was doing all of our grunt work so we could delve into personal growth and development, ambitious career goals, fitness goals and creative pursuits. But who cleans the housekeeper’s house?
Wiping your own ass keeps you humble. Forgive me for such a vulgarity but why shouldn’t we be doing our own dishes, laundry, mopping and grocery shopping? Who exactly is supposed to come along and relieve us of life’s daily necessities so we can luxuriate in quality family time, me-cations, staycations, vacations and career advancement unfettered by the attendant obligations that come from simply living?
One of my best friends put it like this: “It would be rad to outsource responsibilities. People do it all the time. It’s called a fucking job. And they get paid. But asking people to do your ‘low hanging fruit’ type tasks under the guise of a hard time has a shelf life. In a pinch? Happy to help! Overpacked your life? Time to adjust your world.”
If your partner isn’t doing enough, take it up with them. Have a heartfelt discussion and perhaps do it with a calendar and a pencil — with the specific objective of assigning tasks that balance the workload in a way that feels equitable for both.
If your community leaves you feeling isolated without a village start building one. Reach out at your church or your child’s school. Bring your neighbors a pie. Have your children walk the neighbor’s dog. If you have no time or money or energy, smile and wave. It’s a start.
Giving instead of asking can fill your heart in ways that might surprise you. Even if you’re exhausted. You never know who might be suffering more than you. And they might be eternally grateful you did.