The Compassion Gap and Mommy Forums
The first night of motherhood during which I got less than three hours of sleep I felt okay—almost. I had an extra half-cup of coffee and tried to wipe the tiredness from my face with a cold cloth like it was the yesterday’s mascara. When I lost sleep again the next night and the next, I felt the bolts in my head begin to loosen and all kinds of things begin to come out. Mostly these things were tears and complaints, of which my husband got the brunt. I tried to share some of them with the internet, too, to lessen the marital burden. I said to my birth month forum on BabyCenter, “I am so tired.” And the response I got was the same one that had been frustrating me on everything from pregnancy pains to natural childbirth to the beginning bumps of breastfeeding: “This too shall pass.”
Jennifer Senior’s study on modern parenthood All Joy and No Fun notes that a 2009 survey found that 80 percent of mothers believed they didn’t have enough friends, with almost 60 percent admitting to feeling lonely. Senior notes that this decline is most typical in the preschool years of childhood, from babyhood to age three. BabyCenter is free and anonymous. Its largest groups of users are separated by due date of expectant children or birthdate of already born ones. These boards become a substitute for the social situations that women do not have in their early motherhood years. BabyCenter notes that 8 in 10 expectant moms visit its website monthly, and many of those moms continue to use the resources and forum after the birth of their children. An anonymous place to rant and brag feels like a safe place for the tired, concerned parent.
The “This too shall pass” response which the common answer to first-time parent concerns, though, is the sympathy equivalent of a kick in the groin. I beg you, all of you, to stop saying it. Don’t type it. I promised myself never to be on the giving end of it. Yet, almost three years and another child later, I turned again to BabyCenter to visit my new child’s birth month forum only to see mothers making the same complaints I had two years ago. My initial internal response is “Tough cookies. It gets better.” I stopped my fingers from typing it, but I couldn’t stop myself from thinking it. With my oldest a rambunctious toddler, the problems of babyhood seemed minor in comparison.
I discovered that I’m not alone in my lack of sympathy. There’s documented evidence for why we fail to have sympathy for other people in situations we were in once. In their 2014 research paper called “When Having ‘Been There’ Doesn’t Mean I Care,” three scholars explored this phenomenon. They note that in situations as various as bullying and unemployment, people who have come out the other side as surviving bullying or getting a job have less empathy for people currently in those situations than people who have no experience with those conditions.
The American Psychological Association identifies the common risk factors for Post Partum Depression (PPD) in addition to the obvious change in hormones after the birth of a child or previous experience with anxiety. Other factors come into play, like dealing with the stress of a challenging baby, a feeling of isolation, and a lack of social support. The APA also notes that as many as one in seven mothers suffers from PPD. How many of us know how challenging our infants are in the moment? There is no ranking system for infant crabbiness, some sort of Richter Scale that we can measure the seismographic changes of baby temperament day to day.
While I was never diagnosed with PPD, I had some of the symptoms and suffered a prolonged period of “baby blues.” Motherhood can be extremely isolating, especially for first time moms. My son, who now I recognize was a relatively normal baby, shocked me with his seemingly meaningless crying. Being a good mom, to me, meant making sure he had the right times to nap, and breaking from his schedule gave me the same kind of guilt I remember as I felt when I had personally insulted someone. With only my son for company from eight a.m. until five, I struggled. Away from a work environment for the first time in my adult life, I struggled. Hundreds of miles from my parents and in-laws, I struggled. Although I was never alone anymore, I had never felt so alone in my life.
The consequences of anonymity, the compassion gap, and PPD meet on BabyCenter’s birth forums with startling regularity. More than once on my birth month forums, a poster has thoughts which stretch beyond depression. Instead of seeking prompt medical attention, they often share these feelings with an internet forum of women. The poster might share their doubt, helplessness, and sometimes even the thoughts which disturb them so much, while a faceless internet soaks up the information, unable to do anything. Many of those who reply to the posts try to give help, maybe stress the importance of telling a medical professional. Some tell them the feeling is normal although it is not. Some question if the poster is real or just someone trying to cause drama. Occasionally the poster will disappear from the board for several days; a week might pass. Members of the board will continue to type on the thread, shouting back across the void and wonder what the face looks like on the other end, the face beyond the avatar.
The experience of being a parent necessitates moments of jumping the compassion gap. Toddlers aren’t live-tweeting their every skinned-knee and teenagers don’t share their blog posts about their first heartbreak with you, but we see it written in their skin and across their faces. Maybe our kids don’t believe us when we say, “I’ve been there.” Maybe it’s just that our own experience, that compassion gap of getting past our own skinned-knees and heartbreak, can’t save them like we wish it could. We see the compassion gap more with our children because it hurts more to us. Means more because in those moments we can almost imagine our own first skinned knees and lost love. We kiss boo-boos and open a carton of ice cream to split. We listen when they talk.
As for my online forums, I’ve stopped typing back, “It gets better.” I’ve stopped telling my friends that, too. In the moment, the struggles that new parents face are different than any in their lives up to that point. Instead of saying anything, I’m working on listening. It’s the only thing that makes me feel less lonely.
“Postpartum Depression.” American Psychological Association. APA, n.d. Web. 08 Mar. 2016.
Ruttan, Rachel L., Mary-Hunter McDonnell, and Loran F. Nordgren. “When Having Been There Doesn’t Mean I Care.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2014): n. pag. SSRN. Web. 07 Mar. 2016.
Senior, Jennifer. All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. New York: Ecco, 2014. Print.
Rachel Mans McKenny is a mother, writer, and professor at Iowa State University. Her fiction has been published in The KneeJerk Review, Tenth Muse, and several other literary magazines. Her non-fiction has been published in The Chronicle of Higher Education and on Macaroni Kid.