Do You Have Any Kids? :: The Power of Empathy

do-you-have-kidsI’m an in-home therapist, working with kids and parents. I have held this position longer than I have been a parent. When I see a family, they are not necessarily willing and ready to work with me; I am usually seeing them in crisis so that is okay. Nonetheless, there are instances where these families will ask me that very question:

Do you have any kids?

See, in grad school we even discussed this very thing. A client, any client, will want to know how credentialed you really are, to relate what they are going through. “Are you an addict?”  “Do you have divorced parents?” or any issue that a person is experiencing. And we learned how to process that with the clients, how to answer (or not answer), about objective perspectives, empathy, understanding without relating. Disclosures have their place in therapy if being used for the right reasons; I refer to it as “friendliness without being friends.” It’s a hard line to walk, expressing that you are someone’s equal while still building boundaries to ensure that the therapeutic experience is solely about them and their needs.

I always have answered truthfully and shortly to the answer. Some take the “no/yes” response as sufficient, others press further and the above paragraph applies. No matter what my answer is, it does not change their situation. But it has made me more aware of how often I hear these kinds of questions day to day.

“How can you possibly know what I am going through, you don’t have any kids.”

“Do you have any kids?”

“As a mother/father/parent…”

I say these phrases as well. It’s natural to want to justify my experiences.  As parents, sometimes we seek out other people’s credentials, to make sure that they really “get” us.  You end up building this support network of people that can actually relate to your experience. But do people need to relate in order to understand?

HAVE KIDS tampa

I think what worries me about those phrases  is that it’s so easy to minimize other people’s experience when we suggest that one can only have an input on a situation if they are a parent themselves. When joyful things happen, or when tragic things happen, a parent looks at it through the perspective of a parent. I mean, how can you not? But empathy, objectivity, kindness, those things don’t magically appear when someone becomes a parent. It’s like you were a sociopath and then a baby shows up and you suddenly have emotions.

You can have empathy without perspective, and you can have perspective without empathy. I don’t want to discount someone because they cannot necessarily relate to me. But that isn’t what it should be about. We all understand happiness, sadness, fear and love. Those ideas didn’t just come to me when I became a mother. However, I also do have a completely different kind of love and appreciation that became apparent when I had my child.

I also think about how hurtful that question can be; and I don’t want to cause more hurt to someone by dismissing them for something they might not be able to control. I look at my friends who do not have children, and they might not know the details of the daily experiences that I have, but they are right there with me feeling what I’m feeling, recognizing the good and bad that comes with the emotional roller coaster that is parenting. I think that’s something we can all understand. They’ve loved, they’ve lost, they have felt the highest high and the lowest low. We have all loved, lost, felt the highest highs and the lowest lows. Until the next experience comes and makes us feel those things all over again. Whether it comes from being a parent shouldn’t be the point.

Listen to those that might not have the same experience as you. It doesn’t mean they don’t understand you, that they can’t feel for you. And sometimes, looking at something through fresh (and probably much more rested eyes) is exactly what we need.

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