Have you ever had a thought banging around in your head, and you’ve considered writing about it, but it has never felt like the right time. And then a few things happen, all at once, all related to that original thought that’s making dents in the sides of your skull, and you realize that you basically HAVE to write about it, even if you don’t really want to?
That’s what just happened to me.
The problem is, I’m still not exactly sure what I want to say, and more importantly, I’m not at all sure how to say it. So I’m sorry if this post is all over the place, making little and less sense. I shall endeavor to construct a cohesive narrative, we shall see if I succeed.
I guess, I should start at the beginning, because the beginning is a very good place to start.
So this train of thought left the station after my breastfeeding disaster subsided and I started processing all that had happened in the weeks leading up to my hospitalization, my decision to quit breastfeeding and then my eventual compromise of exclusive pumping. During that whole ordeal, I was surrounded by friends and family (and gentle blog readers!) supporting me through my struggle, assuring me that I could stop breastfeeding and still be a good mother. I was very thankful to know that I wouldn’t be judged for giving up breastfeeding and giving my baby formula. I absolutely believe that support allowed me to make the best choice for myself and my child.
Except the were moments where I felt people were so keen on me quitting that I wasn’t entirely sure I’d be supported if I decided to keep breastfeeding, despite all our struggles. I understood where everyone was coming from. I knew they saw me putting pressure on myself to keep going, and they wanted me to know that it was okay to stop, and so they focused their support on helping me see that stopping was a viable option. But sometimes I wondered if they supported my choice to quit breastfeeding, at the expense of supporting me in making the choice that I wanted.
Luckily I had lived enough, by that point in my life, that I understood what was going on, and ultimately I knew, deep in my heart, that my friends and family would support me no matter what I chose. I also recognized that in the thick of it, even I was unsure of what I wanted people to say. And I do believe that knowing I could quit helped me to find, and have the confidence to follow, the path I eventually took. Still, I spent a lot of time afterward, wondering if it were even possible to support me equally in either path, to communicate that it would be fine if I kept breastfeeding and it would be fine if I quit to formula feed. Was there really anything anyone could have said to make me feel 100% supported, no matter what I chose?
As this was rattling around in my head, I read Loribeth’s post–and the article it linked to–exploring whether saying, “I can’t imagine,” is an empathetic or dismissive way to respond to someone’s grief. I will admit that I have fallen back on “I can’t imagine” frequently, believing it an adequate way of validating one’s suffering. If I have never experienced a similar tragedy, the last thing I want to do is presume to understand the sorrow of those who have, and so I assure them that I can’t even imagine how hard it must be. I believed this to be respectful of the difficult work they are doing working through their grief, living with it every day.
What I never even considered was that by saying, “I can’t imagine” I was actually distancing myself from them and making them feel more alone. In my attempt to validate their feelings I was actually excusing myself from understanding, or at least they might believe that was what I was doing. As an empathetic person, I of course do try to understand how hard it is to suffer a specific loss, but I also believe that by not having lived it myself, I can’t really know what it’s like. I guess I assumed that reverence was more important that recognition. Or maybe I just believe recognition to be impossible, so I fell back on reverence. Perhaps I was wrong, either way.
This discussion (the comments on that post are very enlightening) rekindled a conversation I’ve been having with myself for several years, about the differences between pity, sympathy and empathy. While no one wants another person’s pity, there are some who don’t even want their sympathy and it seems that everyone is hoping for empathy, but I wonder what each one actually looks like, and if one person’s perceived sympathy is another person’s perceived empathy (and maybe even a third person’s perceived pity?) And if that’s so, how can we be asked to lend support, when we can never be sure that we’re doing it in the right way.
I think at this point, I don’t believe there is a right way. Not only is there no one way to manage grief that can be prescribed to all grievers, I doubt any one person who is grieving knows exactly what will alleviate their suffering. It changes from day to day, hour to hour, even minute to minute. What might have been a salve to the soul one moment, might tear open a scab the next.
I have experienced this myself and I am surprised that even I can’t seem to decide what I want from my loved ones when it comes to processing my perceived losses post-secondary infertility. Generally I still closely identify with the struggle we endured before welcoming our son and I appreciate when that struggle is recognized, even now. But there are moments when my mother mentions, for the umpteenth time, that she still can’t believe how lucky we are to have our son, and I just want her to stop bringing it up, because it dredges up all these feelings of guilt that maybe I take him for granted, or anxiety that maybe we weren’t really meant to have him at all, that his presence is some cosmic mistake that has so far been overlooked but may some day be noticed, and rectified. Even as I’m processing those emotions, though, I feel confused, because I know how important it can feel for our struggle to be recognized and validated, and yet when my mother does it, I bristle. How can I expect other people to know what to do or say, when I can’t figure it out myself?
So all of this has been swirling around in my head of late, and then Cristy’s post popped up in my reader and I was delighted to read her take on many of these same themes. Reading her story of the breastfeeding advice gone awry hit especially close to home and just reiterated the fact that it can be so hard to support people through these experiences because a person’s unresolved grief and guilt can make it impossible for them to understand what we’re trying to say.
Now I’m left with all these questions, and no answers, and I’m no longer sure how to reach out and show support. My cousin just emailed me and told me that her son is having trouble breastfeeding and she isn’t sure what she should do. She wanted to know more about my experience and how I came to pump exclusively. Of course this brought up all sorts of difficult emotions, as I’m still processing my grief and feelings of failure about our breastfeeding experience almost three months after I quit trying to make it work. In the end, even after I was able to put those feelings aside, I didn’t know what to say, I didn’t know how to assure her that no matter what she chose it would be the right choice. I mean, it’s that cognitive dissonance all over again: How can two totally conflicting decisions be equally correct? And yet I absolutely believe that to be true, I absolutely believe that she’d be making the right choice if she chose to keep breastfeeding, or pump exclusively or formula feed. And I tried to convey that–while also convey the feeling of loss I still feel–I really did. I’m just not sure that she will read the same words I wrote.
Do you ever find it difficult to show support? Do you ever feel you’re not even sure how you want others to support you?