We like to think we know our family and dearest friends, down to the deepest detail. Without telepathy, though, we can never truly know what it’s like to walk in their shoes.

Take one of my good friends, who gave birth to her son around the same time I had my daughter. We had eerily similar birth experiences: the first few hours of labor went okay, but the baby’s heartbeat began to drop so we had emergency C-sections. We hold the same values on parenting, so we exchange advice on breast feeding and sleep training. We both gave up full-time jobs to become full-time mothers. Our situations are so similar that I didn’t know how to respond when she asked me last week, “Why is being a mother so easy for you?”

I’ve had my fair share of struggles becoming a new mom. I had a pretty hard case of the baby blues after birth, believing for a week that my husband and I would never love each other again. My feet swelled up so badly from the IVs at the hospital that I developed painful ingrown toenails I’m still trying to resolve. Around Christmas, my daughter was waking up every 2 hours during the night, and I honestly didn’t know how I would survive to her first birthday. Don’t get me wrong: I love being a parent more than anything else I’ve ever done. Period. But I would never call it “easy.”

Confused, I asked my friend why she asked me such a bizarre question. She replied, “Because you’re so rational and calm about the whole mom thing.”

Delving Beneath the Surface

A person’s outward demeanor does not necessarily reflect the true nature of what’s happening inside. We know this instinctively about ourselves, but sometimes it’s hard to see that in others. Even though my friend and I discuss intimate details about our lives, she never gets to see the real me: the mother-in-action. My friend doesn’t see me when I cry because I’m tired and overwhelmed. She doesn’t see me when I have to call the doctor’s office in a panic because my daughter develops an angry rash (which turns out to be very common and not the major medical emergency I made it out to be). My friend only gets to see the play-date mommy, reflecting on babyhood like a professor might analyze a philosophical question.

That’s not to say that I understood her situation perfectly either. I knew that her baby had colic and she’d struggled for several months with breast feeding, but it wasn’t until this particular conversation that I found out she’d been getting help for postpartum depression. Looking back, she had given me all the clues in our various conversations, but I never added them up in my head. When she told me about the diagnosis, she was ashamed, hinting that she must be a bad mother. I hope I convinced her this couldn’t be further from the truth –getting help is the best thing a mother can do for her child.

Getting Past Appearances

No matter how close you are to someone, you will never be able to understand their situation completely. Every person has thoughts and emotions they don’t share with others. It’s natural to have this separation.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t work on delving beneath the surface to try and understand them better. First, you can learn more about your friends by being there. Talk to them when you can. Make it a point to meet up in person if possible, at least call regularly if you can’t. Trust your instincts if you feel something is wrong and be more available during those times. Some people are more open about their problems and will tell you when they need you.

For any problems you can’t possibly know or uncover, you can always give the benefit of the doubt. Don’t assume that you know everything about their lives. Especially if your friend is going through a transition (i.e. marriage, break-up, job loss, new child, death in the family), you can bet there are feelings and emotions lingering beneath the surface that you can only imagine. It’s human nature to fill in the blanks, but the less assumptions you make about the life you can’t see, the more supportive you will be.

On one hand, it’s sad to know that we can never fully understand what it’s like to be another person. On the other hand, if you can be a good friend, it doesn’t really matter. Sometimes just walking beside them, instead of in their shoes, is all they really need.

Photo by Joe Fakih Gomez Photography

Deborah Fike

Deborah Fike is the Director of Educational Outreach for Spotkin, an educational games company that marries fun with learning.  She’s also the founder of Avalon Labs, which provides marketing consultations and writing services for start-ups and online businesses.   She carves out a significant portion of her time to raising her two younger daughters.

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