On a rare night out together, my friend of twenty years, a SAHM to four kids under eight, tells me about her afternoon of dealing with her three-year-old’s toileting accident on the kitchen floor; because shit happens (literally).
It’s a story so revolting that it will be repeated at the said kid’s 21st birthday party, but that’s nineteen years away, and right now, my friend is simply exhausted. I can tell she’s feeling it tonight, because I’m so perceptive and intuitive (but mostly because she’s already had three drinks).
As we order a second bottle, she quietly admits that being at home with four kids for most of the day, every week day, is “a lot of work”. Say what now?
Knowing how hard this dedicated and loving mum works to raise her kids and give them the best of herself, and having witnessed the levels of noise, mess, food prep, washing, and now kitchen poo that she’s adeptly been dealing with since the stork delivered baby no 4, “a lot of work” seems a massive understatement of the situation.
So I tell her, “You’re amazing. I don’t know how you do it.” And regret it immediately.
I want to convey support. I want to give her a genuine compliment, because she’s not giving herself enough credit. I want to tell her that she’s far better at handling four kids than I would be, and probably even dealing with motherhood in general. I want to say that her kids are so lucky to have such a loving and dedicated mum, and I’m just so impressed with her.
Instead, I say I don’t know how you do it, because I’m a douchebag who is thinking of herself, rather than what my friend needs to hear. I’ve got one kid who’s ten years old, so I don’t deal with fights and unconscionable amounts of laundry, and the schedules of multiple little people; and I suspect that, unlike my friend, I wouldn’t be great at it.
I mean, I love children, especially when they’re silently watching television in another room, but I don’t think I would do a great job of handling four. I’m 41 years old and I’m woman enough to admit my inability to give myself endlessly (or for more than ten minutes) to other people’s needs (because what about me?), would be a major problem.
Plus, I’m the kind of person who thinks “Can someone please turn off the children?” at birthday parties. You’d think that my senses would adjust easily to the sound of multiple kids because I grew up as one of four, but man, that was way back in the ‘80s.
So, when I say, “I don’t know how you do it”, I might as well have said, “I don’t know how you put up with all of that shit”. I’ve made it clear that how she copes in this terrible, horrible situation (aka her normal-everyday-life-which-she-cherishes), is beyond me. That her life is so remote from mine, and such a struggle, I have no idea how she manages it. Maybe even that it’s a relief to me that I’m not in her position.
Because I don’t know how you do it implies all of those things, especially to an exhausted mum, even though that isn’t my intention at all.
When in fact, I do know how she does it; she just gets on with it like every other parent in the world. We all make sacrifices, fight constant fires and know it’s not always about us.
Now back to me.
I’m disappointed in myself. I know how that comment feels on the receiving end. It’s something that people regularly say to me about my own normal-everyday-life-which-I-cherish, of being a sole parent.
I usually respond with, “I know, I’m amazing”, because I realise their intention is to demonstrate support – to tell me I’m doing a good job in a challenging position. But it makes me feel as though I’m a bit of a freak. That my situation sets me apart from them. It makes me a little defensive, and I want to retort, “I don’t know how you cope with marriage.”
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So it’s just not a helpful, or necessary, statement to make. It sounds judgey, even when it’s not meant to be. And I know I shouldn’t have said it, because no one has to explain their life to another, or gain approval of their choices.
But it’s something that we do commonly say to each other, without realising its full impact. I’ve heard it said to women with night shift husbands, or a seriously ill child, or an additional needs child. I’ve heard it said to a woman who’d just been widowed and was raising three kids alone.
Most of the time, it ends the conversation. Where does the other person go from there, when you’ve made it clear that their alien life is something you can’t comprehend? There’s slim chance they will open-up any further, and feel you could possibly understand their challenges, or even their victories, without judgement.
So now, sitting in the bar next to my friend, knowing why she smells vaguely of bleach, I decide never to respond with those words again. The next time I want to tell someone that I think she’s doing a brilliant job in a situation I don’t have experience in, I’m going to try, “I know it must be hard, but girlfriend, you are smashing it.”