As she pushed her baby in the swing, my friend said, “I don’t really like those social activities. I find them overwhelming, but thanks for the suggestions.” Because I was also struggling with feelings of new-motherhood insecurity, I had distanced myself from my friend’s suffering by sharing a list of mom-and-baby activities, as if I were prescribing an antidote for maternal loneliness.
I’m not the only parent who’s fallen into this trap. Mothers are all piled together in an overwhelming sea of firsts, which comes with a lot of questions about sleep training, potty training, taming tantrums and other parenting woes. I don’t know a mother who hasn’t offered advice to fellow moms at the park, at the grocery store or on “new mom” social media platforms.
But perhaps we’ve given too much weight to the idea that mom knows best. When other moms share their parenting woes, we’re sometimes quick to use the same problem-solving techniques that we adopt with our kids: asking questions, gathering information and giving mounds of unsolicited advice.
Social worker and researcher Kelsey Crowe calls this tendency “non-listening.” She holds empathy boot camps, where she teaches adults how to be present and supportive for loved ones during difficult times. Crowe says that although we should just listen to each other’s concerns, we often adopt one of several non-listening styles when responding to stories about relationships, heartaches, illnesses and parenting challenges.
“These behaviors are rooted in our desire to fix someone’s hardships as a way to make them feel better,” she said. “It’s also a way for us to feel useful.”
Crowe recently shared five non-listening styles and briefly described how they emerge during parenthood.
The Sage. Filled with wisdom, this person offers her insight freely, along with advice, even when it isn’t sought. Crowe says that Sages often respond to a fellow parent’s angst with something like, “Sometimes we have to accept that from the time our children are born until they turn 18, parenthood is filled with unknowns. Accepting this reality is the best way to tackle our parental misery.”
The Optimist. This person sees the world through rose-colored glasses and is always ready to lend a peppy perspective. An Optimist may tell a struggling parent, “Parenthood is the most joyful time of a mother’s life. Don’t you love every minute of motherhood?”
The Doomsayer. These parents react with alarm to any situation and aren’t afraid to bring up other “what if” scenarios. Crowe says Doomsayers often say things like, “Oh, my — that’s awful. I’ve heard that if you don’t tackle this problem (such as sleep training or potty training) quickly, it spirals out of control. What if your baby isn’t getting enough sleep and it affects their cognitive development later in life?”
The Epidemiologist. Armed with a lot of factual questions, Epidemiologists frequently bypass how someone is feeling. A common response to another parent’s angst might be, “Have you researched such and such? I think you should talk to these experts about your concerns. Have you used Google? Or how about researching your topic on Bing and Yahoo, too?
The All About Me. These parents turn the subject toward themselves, using personal examples and sharing their own problems. They say things like, “Oh, my gosh — I’ve struggled with the exact same thing. As a matter of fact, it’s causing me so much stress that I’ve begun losing sleep and …”
Crowe says we all resort to these non-listening styles from time to time because we underestimate the value of simply listening to each other. “We think that if we’re just listening, we aren’t doing enough to help a friend in need, and so we jump into advice mode,” she says.
But most of the time, parents don’t expect friends or family members to solve their worries. After all, unless that friend is also a pediatrician, she’s not likely to cure a newborn’s colic, and few friends are so magical that they can extend maternity leaves or help parents find that perfect balance between work and life.
“Most parents just want someone to listen to their experiences without judgment,” Crowe says.
Juli Fraga is a psychologist and writer in San Francisco. You can follow her on Twitter @dr_fraga.
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