Reprint from June 17, 2009
In the early days of my mothering career, I wrote a story about repairman that came to look at my air conditioner. At the time I was a stay at home mother, and had been for 4 years. I had a 7 year old, a 6.5 year old and a 4 year old. I was very lonely for friendship and conversation. So I spent time watching and talking to the repairman and wrote this story afterward. Just as a little reminder to me of that ordinary experience made extraordinary just by being present to it.
I spent most of the last hour talking with the HVAC repairman – a tall, slender, silver-haired man in his 50s who had a kind, gentle voice and a quiet, humorous way of conversing. He had three kids too, so he totally understood the insanity and joy that kids bring to life.
He had a non-judgmental way of looking at the world, and it came through when he spoke. When he laughed, it was a gentle kind of laugh. When we discussed the probability that my husband and our friend made a mistake when they installed an attic fan in the first place (they reversed the fan blades, I think), he simply said, “but to be honest, that would have been the last thing anyone would have thought about”.
The loneliness a stay-at-home mother can feel is all too sharp. Especially for this highly sensitive stay-at-home mother. When I worked in the laboratory, I loved having conversations with my colleagues, sharing work-related information, troubleshooting instruments, sharing personal stories and troubleshooting lives. It was something I sorely missed.
I love people (most people anyway). I love watching their facial expressions, I love listening to the cadence of their voices, I love trying to interpret what their non-verbal movements are telling me that their words are not. I love wondering about the soul of the person beneath the facade of the body that I see.
It’s easy to forget this experience when I’m with my children all day long. The cacophony around here is unbelievable at times and it is too much to take in.
I stayed around this kind, hard-working man when he worked on our air conditioning unit. I asked if he minded if I watched while he worked on it and he said, “not at all”. I watched his hands as he worked on the wiring, listened to his voice as he spoke, and joked about the frustrations of three closely spaced kids.
When I told him I was going to get the kids’ bikes out so they would quit bugging me every five minutes for them, he laughed and said, “oh, that’ll never happen”. I laughed because it probably was so true.
I was grateful for him because he lifted me out of a melancholy mood I’ve been in. And he really didn’t do anything except make me laugh and talk to me and let me watch him work.
I miss the laughter, and the easy-going feeling of communicating in this relaxed way. My husband and I are going through a rough patch – not because of each other, but because of the intensity of parenting young kids in general, particularly intense kids like we have (someone is always crying around here). It’s hard to find the laughter in the midst of chaos with little ones. I look to my husband to help lift me up when he comes home from work…but I see him caught up in his own emotional storm – frustrated and weary from work and commuting in clogged traffic (he swears everyone is out to run him off the road). Coming home for respite, he finds it’s not quite the oasis he was hoping for.
For the first time in a long time I saw him laughing and having fun with the girls in my daughter’s room yesterday. I saw him smile and laugh…I saw him happy for the first time in a long while. While I think he’s not horribly unhappy, it’s been a while since I’ve seen an expression of happiness and not grouchiness. And of course, being deeply sensitive to his moods, it affects me too. I can’t be really happy when he’s looking grouchy. I’m sure he feels the same way about me too.*
Something has to change. I’m not sure what that is…but I know I’ll figure it out. Send me some wishes that it will happen sooner than later.
August 3, 2013
Husband did start having serious troubles at work, having what I think were panic attacks. When he was laid off the next year, it came as a bit of a relief, even though it was hard going for a long while.
I just learned about empathic resonance about two days ago. I experienced this a lot, even though I never had a label for it. It’s kind of like an “emotional contagion” and it is explained in Joseph Cambray’s Synchronicity (p 74-75) as this:
However, emotional contagion also has a positive side, most likely an adaptive aspect, as it can support social interactions and relations, and is thought to be one of the foundations of empathic resonance.
Cognitive neuroscientists have measured the transmission of basic emotions such as anger, sadness, disgust, or joy as occurring within milliseconds, often without conscious awareness, though frequently with alterations in mood. Humans tend to spontaneously mimic and synchronize with the emotional behavior of others, especially those with whom they have some intimacy, often without consciously registering the phenomena. Reciprocally, evidence supports the role of imitation and mirroring of others as generating the psychosomatic conditions enhancing feelings of intimacy; hence, a strong correlation between the degree of imitative behavior and the capacity to empathize has been documented.
I think, perhaps had I been around someone, anyone, with more joy, I might have picked up on that as well and it may have gone a way to keeping me more sane. I tended to pick up the affective moods of my close friends and frequently gravitated towards more upbeat individuals, knowing what kind of unhappiness my childhood of origin sensitized me too.
I think I was affected a great deal more than I had thought by my husband’s feelings.
Like a continuous feedback loop, I think we had gotten ourselves pretty stuck in negativity for a good long while. I think we’ve been getting better, and I have been working towards cultivating more positive emotions and experiences since those early days.
I think we laugh a little more, play a little more and enjoy life a little bit more than we had been in those days. Partly because my husband is self-employed and now doing what he really enjoys – massage therapy – instead of working for bosses who really only think about the bottom line.
I still think I could use more work in this area. I have been thinking about something else I’d read about empathic, or limbic, resonance:
Amini and Lannon of A General Theory of Love, and correlates these findings of Western psychology with the tenets of Buddhism: “Each time we meet another human being and honor their dignity, we help those around us. Their hearts resonate with ours in exactly the same way the strings of an unplucked violin vibrate with the sounds of a violin played nearby. Western psychology has documented this phenomenon of ‘mood contagion’ or limbic resonance. If a person filled with panic or hatred walks into a room, we feel it immediately, and unless we are very mindful, that person’s negative state will begin to overtake our own. When a joyfully expressive person walks into a room, we can feel that state as well.
I find this to be true, even when I’m reading other people’s words – via their blog or email. I don’t think I do a very good job of being mindful of what emotions are truly mine.
The question is, how to honor another human being’s feelings while protecting our own state of being. I think now is the time to work on that.