“Did you hear that?”
(A new mommy approaches a group of her friends at a park, carrying her newborn. Her friends are chatting as they watch their toddlers play)
New Mommy: Hi, everyone! I’m back!
Friend #1: Hi! It’s good to see you out with your new baby.
Friend #2: I didn’t get out for weeks after my son was born.
Friend #3: Oh, I know! After my C-section I was down for the count for nearly two months.
Friend #2: I almost had to have a C-section, but at the last minute they checked me again and I was fully dilated. The doctors had already gone to scrub up for the operation. The thing that kept me home for so long was the mastitis. I was on three different medications before that started improving. I have never experienced pain like that in my life. You know, I heard of someone once . . .
These sweet women, in their eagerness to share have managed to never acknowledge each other’s story. Also, in a few short minutes this New Mommy, who spent 25 minutes choosing and dressing her newborn in a special outfit, who brushed her hair and put a little make-up on for the first time in a week and was bursting to share the highlights of her first ever birth experience – in a few short minutes this mommy’s excitement turns to disappointment. If she wants to share what’s in her heart she’ll have to join the pecking-order of one-ups. For some this is a perfectly fulfilling conversation. For others – it leaves much to be desired.
There is a place for superficial scattering of self-talk, there is. But, I think, it is too often the standard. Women want to be heard. They want to be known and understood, validated and appreciated. In this pursuit, we spend so much time interjecting our own stories because we have little faith that anyone will give us the opportunity. In these situations we can either sit and quietly listen to others’ experiences or we can snag the spotlight for a few seconds and try to fill our craving for validation. Yet, as the play-date continues, we feel empty because our contribution to the stream of evolving stories is never actually acknowledged.
Sure, the others may sit quietly while we speak, but at the end of your story another voice begins her own tale.
Imagine the dynamic change that would bless this New Mommy from our opening scenario if, instead of jockeying for attention, the others in the group invited her to share. What if they handed her the spotlight? What if they let her bask in the warmth of her friends’ encouragement and attention for 3.5 minutes? Would that threaten the worth of the others in the group? No. In fact it would change the rat-race for attention. When one woman feels heard she becomes free to actually hear and fill that same need in another. The trick is to give that first gift to someone.
Sometimes it is difficult to swim against the current of social norms. However, I suggest that next time you experience this scenario – and you find yourself tempted to add your own story – throw a wrench in the beloved social norm. Instead of one-upping the last story, bring the superficial to a screeching halt with the introduction of a simple tactic. It is called a follow-up question.
Perhaps a return to our “New Mommy Scenario” will help animate this principle.
(When last we left our play-date Friend #2 was just about to begin another story)
Friend #2: I heard of someone once . . .
Friend #1: . . . Hold on, just a sec. I want to hear your story, Friend #2, but first I want to hear about how New Mommy is doing. New Mommy, how are you feeling? Where did you get Baby’s cute outfit?
New Mommy: I am exhausted, but it’s okay. My mom will be flying in tomorrow. She’ll be a big help. She’s actually the one who bought this sweet little outfit. Look, it’s got a matching Binki.
Friend #3: How cute! Tells us about the past week of your life. I bet you’ve got some great stories.
As a social, yet quiet, woman I found myself in these situations without the tools to navigate them. I would awkwardly try to add a story of my own and then felt it fall flat when it was left unacknowledged. This disappointment led to less sharing on my part and a feeling of isolation from the group. I didn’t have the confidence to take more than 10 seconds of the group’s time for my own story. But, I had just shared something that meant a whole lot to me. (“Did you hear that? I just said something.”) I could only guess that I was either uninteresting, invalid, or poorly timed. So, in social situations I usually opted to speak with other ladies one-on-one, hoping to give them the validation and to receive the validation and connection we each craved. One-on-one is great, but I think we can boost the encouragement and love even in our group settings.
This lost cause came to my attention when, one Sunday, I sat in church waiting for class to begin. A new mother carried in her new baby. I observed as the woman seated next to me said to the mother, “Oh, what a cute baby!” and then proceeded to talk all about her own child. The new mother was kind and moved on to look for a seat. I watched as an older woman stopped this new mother, looked at the baby, gently patted the baby’s legs and asked the new mommy all about the baby, all about the family, the mother, her health, her needs and then offered encouragement. I considered upon how this wise older woman must have made this struggling, exhausted, mama feel; she looked so alive as they spoke, like she could breathe better. It made me want to make people feel that way too.
A few years ago, in a church hallway, I ran into my brother-in-law’s sister. She started out with the typical, “Hey, how are you doing?” and I answered with the typical, “Oh, pretty good.” But then she asked that wonderful follow-up question. “I heard you’re mom wasn’t feeling well. Is she doing any better?” I answered. She followed this up by asking another question, “What have you been doing for fun lately?” Now, as we established before, I am quiet, not much of a talker. But, she kept asking questions and I was happy to answer them. She seemed genuinely interested. Then came another question, “Oh, you said you’re son’s birthday is coming up, how old will he be?” This sweet lady was filling up my little heart. She had no idea how floored I was that she was interested in me, my thoughts, my family. She had plenty of other things she could have been doing, but she focused, for those 3 minutes, on me and I felt so … valid and loved. I have thought about that conversation many times since then. She has a gift. It is not just the gift of keeping up a conversation, but I think her gift is that she actually cares about people. The source of her interest was not social pressure to look thoughtful. She just is thoughtful. As the conversation continued I found myself trying to reciprocate the attention. She answered my question and then somehow I found myself answering another question. She’s good. Her gift of 3 minutes has been a lesson to me and I hope to become more like her.
Not every life event needs to be heralded at every social gathering we go to in a big way. That would get really old and annoying.
Not every woman wants all eyes on her and not every “conversation” of story sharing needs to be hijacked. There’s a happy usefulness to that kind of free-flow, too. But in these free-flow situations we could do better to at least say, “Wow. I can’t believe that happened to you,” or, “You are one brave woman,” before we start our own story. (Apparently acknowledgment is pretty important to me. As a side note: in our marriage my sweetie will hear what I say, but sometimes he’ll get lost in the thought of what I just told him and end up saying absolutely nothing. A few years ago I told him that I would at least like him to grunt or something, just so I know he heard me. He usually responds when I tell him a story, but now if I say something, and a minute passes without any sort of acknowledgment, I’ll grunt for him. He’ll hear me and laugh, recognizing that he must have zoned out a little. We all need reminders.)
This lost cause is just a little reminder: In one-on-one and group situations – grab that spotlight and shine it on another so that she doesn’t have to fight for the appreciation she needs. Fill her bucket a little and you just might find your own easier to fill. It may take some time and you may have to grab the spotlight and shine it on every other woman in the group before the culture changes, but trust me, your minutes-long sacrifice will be well worth it and some New Mommy out there will love you for it. (All that, and if nothing else, a nod and a grunt is a good place to start.)