Sympathy is Not Dead

Sympathy is Not Dead

by -

On being met where we are.

Last week was a tough one for me. Tough is relative – I know everyone has their stuff. I know my version of tough is nothing compared to another’s. All the same, for me, it was a tough week. My childcare fell through in the afternoons, so as soon as naptime was over, my work time was over. My husband helps immensely but he has an employer and works full-time. His hours are limited during the day. After the pandemic started, I chose to pivot, leave my employer, and start my business, Wellison Enterprises, allowing time and flexibility to navigate raising 3 young children. I had always wanted to do this and given the nature of the pandemic and balancing having a career, this seemed like the best time to jump because my family needed me more than ever. It has had a lot of benefits. It also has its days. 

Last week probably would have been more tolerable but for the fact that my daughter is amid 18-month sleep regression, so we are averaging about 3 hours of sleep per night, right now, again. The compounding effect of a lack of sleep on the lack of help that I deeply rely on to get things done was a lot – even for someone like me who has a lot of emotionally therapeutic tools in her toolbelt to navigate these situations. Sometimes tools are unmatched compared to a screaming, fussy, growing 18-month-old, who wanted to either be held, or completely left to her own devices, which included tearing through every possible cabinet, learning how to climb onto the dining room table, gravitating toward the fire poker, and when that was taken, sitting in the ashes of the fireplace, among other things. Dinners did not get cooked. Cleaning did not happen. The older kids had a lot of screen time when home. And yes, I got to that place. The one everyone dreads. The one nobody wants to admit to. 

I felt sorry for myself. 

I think the level of pain I had last week was amplified by a collective pain for all the mothers who were able to rely on fluid and functional childcare until the pandemic hit. Yes, this is a place of privilege. Yes, it implies access and financial security. In case nobody has noticed, it is also a huge reason why almost 3 million women have left the workforce. There is a collective grieving happening right now because there is a lot of loss. Last week hurt deeply, not because the babysitter cancelled, but because lack of childcare now for me, is a triggering event. Not having childcare has created trauma in my life. The new way of navigating parenting children and working as a mom – even a mom who started and owns her own business now – looks quite different than it did a year ago. It has uncovered that what we believed to be true, was never true to begin with. Yes, I received more time with my children, and I am grateful for that. And I am sad because that part of trust and access in my life died. It is being rebirthed in a new form – a much more honest form. But there is grieving to this process. 

It was a learned belief that my husband and I had access to paid childcare when we needed it, until we did not. And when we did not, I was the one who had to really step up to the plate at home – and this is while I had a full-time job too. That experience has instilled in my mind a limiting belief that I will experience loss every single time a childcare-giver cancels last minute (and stuff happens – this is not a critique on my amazing caregivers). It brings back the panic and invisibility I felt a year ago. I am still very much in the grieving and the figuring out of what the hell happened. I fully intend to move past this belief and recover from this trauma, and I am doing the work to get there. But it is very raw right now. I imagine it is for so many others as well. 

And you know what? It is ok. It is ok that I cried out of frustration. It is ok that I felt alone and like quitting everything. The really hard part is that I did not feel like I could talk to anyone about this. It seems as though this narrative is becoming played, and folks are tired of hearing about the squeeze women experience daily at the loss of childcare – even other women. Even other mothers. Not feeling like I could be received where I was made me feel very alone and invisible. It revealed something to me – and this is very vulnerable for me to say – last week, I needed and was looking for sympathy.

Sometimes sympathy helps us feel seen. And yes, I am referring to sympathy. Not empathy. Empathy implies the person has been there or can imagine being in the shoes of another. Sympathy implies that they have not been there, and cannot imagine being in the situation, but that they see there is a hard time going on, and then they gently acknowledge this. A simple “I see it’s been a rough week. I hope it gets better soon,” goes a lot further than an “at least you’re not …” or “You got this! Just push through.” Reframing can be helpful in a lot of situations, but it is also a defense mechanism that communicates to the other, “I can’t be bothered by this. Or your discomfort is a drag,” and it’s used to avoid having to deal with uncomfortable emotions. It has nothing to do with the person feeling the pain, and everything to do with the person prescribing the reframe. Reframing can actually perpetuate the pain of the other by making them feel less than or not entitled to their own emotion. It’s a good thing to watch out for because it is easy to do. 

However, well-intended sympathy can equate to grace. To holding space for another in grief. An acknowledgement. Not pity. It’s about saying, “I meet you where you are. I see a brighter day ahead, but you take the time you need. It’s ok to feel this way.”

Think about it in this context: when people are grieving the loss of a loved one, people often offer sympathy – not empathy. They offer sympathy because they have not gone through the tragic situation and are not the ones in total grief, but they want to acknowledge the person who is – that they see them and that the hold space for them. Most of the time, it is not pity that founds sympathy, it is grace and understanding that life is hard in this season for another, and that it is ok for them to be where they are. It is letting them know this. When you think about the mass exodus of working women, and of the ones who specifically left because they had to become primary caregivers after it became clear the system was hollow, understand they are grieving. They are grieving their freedom to work and raise kids in the way that they chose. They are grieving the part of their identity they so strongly held onto after shifting into motherhood – the one that said, “I am still a person too.” They are grieving the fact that they were told the institution had their back, but when push came to shove, it had nothing to offer them. 

So sometimes if you don’t to know what to say, sympathy will do fine. “Sym-” means “together,” and “-path” means “emotion.” I think that there is value in that. Meet us where we are.  

Whitney Ellison is a thought leader and coach of the Enneagram and Quantum Energy. Learn more about her by visiting her website, and following her @wellisonenterprises on Instagram where you can find all of her Enneagram series interviews and other comings and goings.