A total lack of sympathy

What’s really been getting my goat lately is that people won’t allow me to moan.

‘I’ve had five hours sleep in the past four days.’

‘Well that’s what happens when you’re a dad,’ they say in this incredibly patronising tone of voice, as if I didn’t know that.

‘All of my clothes are covered in snot and vomit.’

‘That’s called “being a parent”,’ they reply with smug self-satisfaction.

‘I’m completely exhausted and I haven’t eaten a proper meal in days.’

‘We’ve all been there.’

‘But you’re not there now! I’m the one bursting my baby’s snot bubbles and trying to clean it out of her hair at four in the morning! I’m the one sitting up all night listening to the mucous rattling in her throat in case it it develops into something worse! And I’m the one who’s tired, hungry, dirty, smelly, and more than a little volatile, so I’d appreciate a little more sensitivity to my plight from some well-rested, well-fed person standing in clean clothes, thanks!’

I have discovered, since the baby started with her cold, that if you complain about parenting you get no sympathy whatsoever. It’s weird –  I figured that, because other people have struggled just as you have, they’d be more empathetic about your situation, but it’s the opposite. Anyone who has raised a child of their own in the mists of history tries to make you feel like an asshat for saying that, God forbid, you don’t always enjoy the feeling that your brain is about to burst right through your forehead.

Maybe that’s because there’s this notion that not only are parents meant to suffer but they’ve chosen to suffer. And I get that. I knew going in that it would be hard. I knew that I would suffer, and I accepted that in order to get the good bits of having a child, I was going to have to face the bad. But when the baby has a cold and I’ve had so little sleep I’m hallucinating, for God’s sake let me have a little moan about it!

It doesn’t mean I don’t like being a dad, or that I’m such an idiot I hadn’t realised it would be hard, it simply means I’m letting off steam, which is human, and natural, and healthy. I’m pretty sure even the most positive of people come home some days and say, ‘Man, if life is a shit sandwich I’m the filling right now!’

What is not helpful is when, instead of people saying, ‘Hang in there, lad,’ and slapping you on the shoulder, which is really all you want and need to buoy you up, they shut you down, belittle your struggles, and marginalise your pain.

The worst thing is when you say, ‘This is so hard,’ and someone replies, ‘Well, just imagine how much harder it would be if X, Y or Z,’ as though you’re not allowed to complain, as though your difficulties don’t matter and aren’t important because other people have it harder, and that’s just so wrong.

One of the best things I was ever told, and something I firmly believe, is that all suffering is relative.

I was sixteen and on my first date – she was a scary girl with a nose ring, tattoos and leather jacket. We met by a pond in the February cold and huddled together on a bench as the world froze around us. And in the dark we talked about things that really mattered to our sixteen-year-old selves: dreams, poetry, UFOs, alternative history, magic, the Illuminati, emotions, spirituality, The X-Files, parallel dimensions, the faking of the moon landings, Nirvana, and what it means to be a human. Ah, those wonderfully naive days before I discovered her whole identity was based on Alanis Morrisette lyrics and Mia Wallace’s character in Pulp Fiction, and I found that I didn’t actually believe in UFOs, alternative history, magic, the Illuminati, or the faking of the moon landings. The mid-nineties: simpler times.

Anyway, at one point the conversation got round to problems, because we were teenagers, after all. I told her about my chronic loneliness, but qualified it by saying it was very minor compared to the problems other people had.

‘Don’t do that,’ she said. ‘Don’t dismiss your problems. All suffering is relative. A starving African’s need for food is his worst problem; your loneliness is yours. It doesn’t mean your problem doesn’t matter.’

And while she might have turned out to be full of it, she spoke a lot of sense just then.

So yes, in the general scheme of things, a few nights of missed sleep don’t amount to much; yes, other people have it much harder; and yes, I chose to become a dad and therefore any struggles I go through are willingly faced; but telling someone who has had five hours of sleep in four days and is wearing a T-shirt encrusted in dried snot and sick that what he’s going through is trivial and unimportant will get you knocked off his Christmas card list before the next patronising syllable escapes your condescending lips.

So next time you hear me gripe, please, pretty please, instead of marginalising my feelings, just nod sagely and say, ‘You’re doing a good job.’ That’s all I need to hear.

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