Last fall while I was out for a walk, I passed a young mom on the street. When I first saw her from a half a block away, I thought about how lovely it must be to be out for a mid-afternoon walk on a warm and sunny afternoon. As we walked toward each other, I made up a whole story in my head about this woman, her family, and her life. I imagined her baby had just woken up from a nap, or maybe they were heading home soon so that she could put him down in his crib for one. I thought about the books she might read to him, classics like Brown Bear, Brown Bear or new favorites like The Day the Crayons Quit. I thought about milestones like crawling and standing and walking.
I thought about how happy she must be.
As I approached her, she paused for a minute to talk to the baby and I noticed the baby looked to be about 10 or 11 months old. And then, all of a sudden, I was looking at myself.
Once upon a time, I was the one pushing a cute baby with chunky thighs through a quiet neighborhood in the middle of a warm and sunny September afternoon. Once upon a time, I was the one reading Brown Bear and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Once upon a time, I worried about nap times and baby- proofing.
Once upon a time, that woman was me.
Except my truth looked nothing like the hypothetical narrative I had just conjured in my head about this stranger. I hadn’t felt happy. I felt scared, tired, and lonely. Each day was about survival, making it from one naptime to the next. I didn’t feel in control of my life, but instead like I was gripping the steering wheel and hanging on for dear life.
These images of my own truth, contrasted with the stories I had made up in my head about a stranger on the street, flooded my brain in a matter of seconds and suddenly I had the urge to stop this woman who I had never met. I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and ask, How are you? How are you REALLY? Are you okay? Because it’s okay if you don’t feel okay.
Maybe her baby was up all night teething. Maybe her spouse was traveling. Maybe they had been fighting, bickering about socks on the floor and whose turn it was to get up with the baby. Maybe her family lived far away. Maybe she was counting down the hours – the minutes – until bedtime. Maybe her baby was sick and couldn’t go to daycare so she had to take a day off work and while they were out for this quick walk around the neighborhood, emails of stress were filling her inbox. Or maybe, just as I had imagined, she felt like the luckiest woman in the world out for a mid-afternoon walk on a lovely September afternoon.
How often do we do this? This hypothetical story thing about how other people are feeling without actually asking, How are you? How are you REALLY?
Because the truth is, the imagined story is rarely the truth. As parents – heck, as humans –much of what we see are the snippets and snapshots. We see adorable Facebook photos. We hear about how so-and-so’s son is walking, talking, potty training. But do these glimpses into other’s lives represent reality? Sometimes, they do. But most times, they do not.
We ask new parents whether the baby is sleeping through the night, but do we ask a new mom how she is really feeling? We talk about baby names and share pediatrician recommendations, but do we ask a father how he is feeling? We don’t shy away from asking intimate and personal questions about the labor and delivery, breastfeeding, maternity leave, and returning to work. And somewhere along the way – after a parent is out of the new baby haze perhaps – we assume that, unless we are told otherwise, things are just fine. We stop
asking, to the extent we ever did ask, How are you? How are you REALLY?
Lately I’ve been wondering what might happen if we did ask this question more often. Perhaps people would assume that we are nosy, busy bodies who are crossing boundaries. Or maybe – just maybe – they would answer the question. Maybe parents would start answering with an honest “things are tough” or “I’m exhausted” instead of a generic or canned response. Maybe we’d connect a little more. Maybe we’d all feel a little less alone. Maybe we could breathe a collective sigh of relief.
If you asked me, I would tell you that I am tired, always tired, but content. Happy even. I would tell you I am missing my parents and my siblings a lot right now. I would tell you I’m worried about my dad, who is recovering from surgery. I would tell you I am worried about my mom too, who is soldiering on through it all as usual. I would tell you I sometimes feel beaten down by my younger son’s incessant demands and whining, and often exhausted by my headstrong and rambunctious older son. But in the same breath, I would also tell you that they fill me with joy and awe. And if you asked me how are you really?, I would tell you that after a long stretch of feeling emotionally “off,” I am thankful to finally be feeling like me again.
I’m no longer a young mom pushing a baby in a stroller. I’m the middle-aged mom walking her dogs in the afternoon while the kids are school. But you know what? Maybe we never stop needing to be asked that question. And maybe we never stop needing to answer it.