A few days ago, a friend forwarded to me a status update that one of her friends had posted on Facebook. It went something like this: “Just finishing up my important, challenging job. Then heading home to straighten up my house and prepare an Easter feast. Tomorrow I do it all over again. Any stay-at-home moms care to walk a mile in my shoes? I didn’t think so.”
Believe it or not, this person is a mom. Part of me thought, “Well, no, actually I wouldn’t want to walk in your shoes, but not because your day sounds hard. I just wouldn’t want to have a shitty black heart.”
There is something in the world of motherhood that I like to call one-downing. As you can guess, it’s the converse of one-upping, a game of let’s fight for the crown for who’s got it harder. I suppose another word for it is martyrdom. There’s just something about having more or harder bad experiences than the next woman that imparts a feeling of superiority. I find it so weird, even though I know I’ve been guilty of it at times, especially when my kids were babies. How is it that you “win” by having crappier crap on your plate? And how does your crap diminish mine? Your child being up all night vomiting has no relation to my kid’s chronic nosebleeds, does it? Nobody wins.
I’ve been on-again, off-again reading a book called A Grace Disguised, by Jerry Sittser. The author is a minister who lost his wife and two young children in one fell swoop in a horrible car accident. He writes about experiencing unexpected blessings—not sure he’d even call them that—through catastrophic loss. One of the things that struck me from the get-go was his belief that people often don’t understand that every person’s hardships take place in the context of that person’s life so far, and their pain is experienced in degrees against only their baseline. In other words, the fact that his whole family died does not in any way diminish the catastrophic loss someone feels when a spouse abandons them, or after being laid off from a lifelong job, or in the weeks after a miscarriage. Each person’s suffering is not to be measured with anyone else’s measuring stick but his or her own.
I thought of this the other day when I received a letter from the mother of a girl my family sponsors in Sierra Leone. Dusu’s mom doesn’t normally write the letters. Dusu does. But the normally obliging and studious Dusu is coming of age, and her mom clearly needed to reach out to a fellow mom for support:
“…of late, she has been not the child I use to know. Last week, she left the house without saying goodbye, and spent the whole day with friends without going to school. I tried to talk to her to see reasons and be serious in school. The father is no more, and she is my only hope. Remember us in your daily prayers as we keep praying for her to change her attitudes. How are your children doing?”
She sounds like your average mom of your average young teenager, doesn’t she? Dusu and her mom subsist on farming. With the money she receives from us, Dusu typically buys school supplies, replaces pieces of her school uniform that she’s outgrown, and then gives some to her mom to buy food or seed. Dusu does not have play dates or soccer games or a treehouse. She goes to school and then comes home to work until sundown in her family’s fields. In the context of my children’s life, the hardness of this family’s existence in a wartorn county—and God only knows what happened to the dad—is a thousand degrees beyond anything mine has ever experienced. Yet somehow I could completely relate to her mom as a mother.
Did you notice how she asked about my children? Isn’t that something? That really touched me, for she just has to know that, at least materially, we live an easier life than she does. It doesn’t keep her from connecting.
Of course, I have no intention of writing back with my own little heartaches—worries about my son maybe having a processing disorder or my daughter’s bruised sense of worth after a relentless character-attack at the hands of an adult last year. It’s not because I don’t have a hope in winning a competition of one-downing with Dusu’s mom. (Let’s be real: I don’t.) It’s because, as mothers, I really do think it’s so important to just hear each other’s heartache and instead of saying, “Yeah? Well, guess what happened to ME?” try to say, “That must be hard on you. How can I help?” Even if your own kid was up all night vomiting. Even if your child is in a wheelchair. Even if you had to be on your feet all day and then come home to take care of a hungry family in a filthy house.
Wouldn’t it be nice if instead of one-downing each other we actually put away our little personal measuring sticks and lifted each other up, knowing everyone’s hardships are measured in degrees against their own experiences, not ours? That suffering is felt against the backdrop of their own lives, not ours? There are so many moms in the world, and we have so much in common. How nice it is when we can focus on that (and so many times, we really do). It’s not a competition. It’s a community. Right?