Beneath Surface Appearances

Beneath Surface Appearances

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.

15 Comments

  1. You hit the nail on the head – sometimes they just need to be heard and they only need YOUR ear – simple – no need to fix, no need for advice – just listen!

    I wrote a blog post on my website a while ago on that –

    Thanks for sharing your life with us,
    Nancy

    Reply
  2. Great post – I had exactly the same situation with my first child – heart rate dropping, emergency C-section, the blues – it felt quiet wierd reading your first pararaph. Only difference is that now he is a strapping 21 year old…

    ALSO – I have a friend who often says she wants to be calm and graceful like me when she grows up! (even though she’s in her 40s) – and I am always taken aback and wonder where on earth she gets that from… certainly NOT how I would describe myself.

    The reason why we cannot easily get into someone else’s shoes is a result of how we assimilate information. An event goes into our neurology via a whole lot of filters and we get an internal picture that is quite different to that external event. No-one else can see that internal picture unless we describe it in great detail….

    So I agree with you … the most important is to be a good friend anyway … and always ask what kind of support your friend needs.

    Reply
    • It seems like we also share a birth experience, Kirsten. Since having my daughter, I’ve met lots of women who had similar C-section stories. Part of me wishes I had known this before giving birth so I would have felt better post surgery. The other part of me realizes that knowing those stories would have pregnancy more scary for me!

      As to your friend’s observations, maybe you’re a lot like me: I feel like my inner personality doesn’t always match my outer personality…not always a bad thing if you’re a worry wart like me.

      Thanks for the comment.

      Reply
  3. Well, what we communicate is like a tip of the iceberg. We communicate and most of it is filtered. We only express what we think the other person will understand. We only express what we think the other person will care about. That’s it. You can completely understand anyone or even express to anyone. It isn’t possible. But, it always is possible to understand someone and understand yourself.

    Reply
    • Those are fair points, Jaky. It would be impossible to communicate absolutely everything to everyone…we would never get anything done. I also like the distinction you make between “completely understanding” and “understanding.” It is possible to get close enough to understanding that it’s okay if you don’t know the whole picture.

      Reply
  4. You are so right! What we see and experience on the surface may be so different than reality. I’ve learned to release judgement and to be a good listener.

    It took me many years (I’m still practicing) to refrain from offering advice.

    Isn’t it surprising that our perceptions can be so far from reality?

    Reply
    • I have to admit that I still struggle with this too, Wendy. It’s so easy to fill in the blanks, especially to assume life is easier for others than it is for me.

      Reply
  5. I actually think many of these observations and feelings apply to my personal belief that as women, we oftentimes feel insecure and judge ourselves because from the time we’re young girls we’re conditioned that motherhood is an ^expectation* that’s full of bliss, coordinated accessories, and unconditional love.

    In fact parenting is exhausting, oftentimes thankless, and a never-ending 24x7x365 vigil full of extreme emotions we hadn’t even realized existed (including many bodily fluids, screaming tantrums, and sleep deprivation… and that’s just the first years before the ‘dark side’ teenage behaviors and heart wrenching choices begins).

    Yet all of the ads and media (and now FB) show everyone doing it so ‘effortlessly’ and with a smile and so many cute baby photos. Let me be the first to admit: it takes all of my self restraint to only comment that I choose not to have any more for myself and feel unapologetic about being a ‘career woman’ because my real inclination since I care for others is to sound the alarm and warn others so they choose parenthood with their eyes wide open instead of being lulled by the hype of parental pressure, tiny baby advertising, and cute social media posts which represent a small fraction of the life people are signing up for! LOL!

    Yes of course we wouldn’t trade it for the world, but I feel sad that the amount of pressure we feel (both genetic and societal) to be Mothers does not seem to have dropped in relation to my observation that we seem to have lost the ‘village’ and ‘generational’ support networks that once existed to help us survive and thrive (read: sleep).

    What makes me happy? More men are stepping up as fathers and in the home, and more women are winning the bread. Hard work, equality of partnership, and love for all. Oh, and my boys. I absolutely love and wouldn’t trade my boys for anything. But I’m not signing up for any more and sure wish I lived in the same state as my BFF so I could take her girls so she could rest because I know how much she needs it right now. <3

    Reply
    • Alix,

      Many of your comments really struck home. First, I’m really lucky that my husband is very supportive. He not only has a job where he can telecommute, but when he’s not working, he’s right there beside me, raising my daughter. During that period where my daughter was waking up every 2 hours, he was there. He feeds, he bathes, he changes diapers, he lets me sleep in, he takes her to the doctor. I don’t know how I could have made it this far without him.

      And both of us have felt the squeeze from not having close family nearby. Our families live several hundred miles away, and there are days I wish my mother and mother-in-law were around to be part of our support network. At least, we are fortunate that we’ve built a network of friends where we help each other out. It’s not the same as our family, but it gets us through the day.

      What’s interesting about your observation is not that I felt pressure to be a stay-at-home mom. Far from it. I felt more pressure to stay in my career. I had my baby a solid 10 years into my career. I had a middle manger production job at a large video game studio. These are not easy positions to come by – they take years climbing the ladder. On the flip side, they come with a lot of stress and long working days. I had to go on complete bed rest the last month of my pregnancy because I was burning out. After my daughter was born, I just didn’t want to go back. My head was telling me, “Don’t waste your education, don’t waste your professional career,” but in my heart I wanted to stay home and watch her grow. I didn’t want to come home and have a babysitter tell me about her first coos, her first steps, her first words. Selfishly, I didn’t want my husband to tell me either (and he would have quit his job to stay at home too). I hemmed and hawed, fighting brain and heart, and in the end, I did what I felt was right. I put in my notice, quit my job, and a huge relief washed over me.

      Being a full-time mom, as you said, isn’t easy, but for me at least, it’s less stressful than my old job. And even though I no longer bring home a salaried pay check, I’m still working, just more on the side. I have a small side consulting business, a little project management website I run, and I’m teaching a class at a local university. That seems like a lot, but I only devote about 10 hours a week to working, most of it when my husband is home. I’m very happy with my choice. I don’t want to be in this situation forever, but it’s right for me right now.

      It’s true, it’s hard being a parent in this day and age. There are a variety of pressures we face. I can’t stress how very fortunate I feel that I’ve found something that works for me. I certainly don’t think it works for everyone. I have friends who would never give up their jobs, and I support them fully in that choice. Different families have different needs. I simply hope that everyone can find the balance they need to be happy, both for themselves and their families.

      Reply
  6. fantastic insight and it makes a good point. People have a lot covered on the inside. I personally think we should take sometime and give our loved ones some “active listening.” Maybe then they will open up even more.

    Reply
    • I agree we should all practice active listening more. It would help a lot to identify problems, especially with our loved ones who are less likely to speak up.

      Reply
  7. I think it is possible to connect deeply with people, beyond their surface appearances. I’ve been practicing NVC(Non-Violent Communication) lately with my mother, challenging myself to be more authentic with her. She always tells me it’s hard to understand what I’m thinking, what I’m feeling, because I have a deep pattern of repressing my emotions and keeping a serious face all the time. That’s why it’s so important to practice Non-Violent Communication, because we can understand the feelings and needs of the other person, without relying on their physical appearance, facial expressions. I love this post, because it resonates with my spiritual beliefs. The body isn’t real, only the mind is. The body only serves to separate us. Our minds are all connected, and we have the power to empathically communicate with other people.

    Reply
    • Mike,

      I have never heard of NVC. It sounds like a great technique to becoming a better communicator. Do you have more information to share? I would love to read up on it.

      Reply

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