Why keeping casual conversation casual can be really hard
There are several women in my office who are currently pregnant, have recently returned from maternity leave and/or have toddlers. That translates to a whole lot of talk about pregnancy, childbirth and the newborn stage.
I often don’t join in these conversations. I’m the weirdo standing there awkwardly listening and not saying anything. Not because it’s too painful to talk about what happened with L, because it’s mostly not anymore. Rather, it’s because I don’t know how to insert myself into these conversations without feeling like a giant raincloud.
←This is my raincloud face. I think sometimes this is what I look like all day without meaning to.
The things I have to say are most definitely not intended to garner sympathy; they’re things that have become normal parts of our lives. But they are often things that you can’t really just drop casually into conversation with people who don’t know much, if anything, about L’s health issues. For example:
Friend 1: “Wait, they have different mattresses for labor and for postpartum?!”
Friend 2:“Yeah, my hospital did.”
Friend 3: “Mine did too – labor mattresses in labor rooms and postpartum mattresses in separate postpartum rooms”
Friend 4: “Mine definitely didn’t. They just changed the sheets.”
Friend 5: “My labor mattress was sooo uncomfortable!”
Me: “L came so fast that I wasn’t in the room long enough to really notice much about the mattresses and I actually don’t know whether or not they typically have separate rooms for labor and postpartum because I was moved to a NICU mom floor, and also I don’t remember some of the details of the first couple of days because I was in shock from the trauma of it all.”
Friend 1: “How long do you have to keep a newborn at home before you take them out in public?”
Friend 2: “Well everybody has different opinions on that. I waited about a month.”
Friend 3: “I wasn’t very cautious with my second, we took her out in public after just a few days.”
Friend 4: “I think anywhere from 2-6 weeks is pretty typical.”
Me: “Oh, I wouldn’t know because my son didn’t leave the NICU until he was 4.5 months old and then we had to be extra careful because every little cold or fever would land us back in the hospital.”
Or, they are things that I intend to say in the interest of empathizing, only I have to censor my full experience to make sure it doesn’t come across as “consider yourself lucky and stop complaining because it could be SO much worse” rather than as the relatable “we’re all in this motherhood boat together” comment I intended:
Friend: “My kid is so picky! I don’t know what to do anymore. Dinnertime is miserable. It’s a constant battle and I feel like I’m constantly losing it.”
Me: “I know what you mean. I know it’s normal for toddlers to be picky, but L has such a short list of foods he’ll eat,
and then we have to make sure he doesn’t eat things that won’t pass through well, and some things he used to eat he stopped eating when he was puking so much, and he won’t eat at all when he doesn’t feel good, and if he doesn’t eat he won’t grow and will have to go back on TPN and it does feel like it’s a constant battle that’s all on me and it’s all my fault if I can’t have successful meals. I think we have to try not to put so much pressure on ourselves, but that’s really hard.”
Friend: “My child will. not. sleep. I’m at the end of my rope. I feel like I have a newborn again!”
Me: “L won’t sleep without me these days either,
which is weird because that never happened before a couple hospital admissions last fall where I slept in the hospital bed with him. He actually wouldn’t LET me lay down with him before that! He never even slept in our room as a baby because he was in the NICU, and then when he came home he was hooked up to IV fluids and for a long time we strapped him into a Tucker sling so we could dramatically elevate his crib mattress to prevent him from choking on his puke in the middle of the night. Honestly though, I miss sleeping in my own bed but at the same time I really like those nighttime snuggles. We just have to do what works for us right now, and trust that it won’t last forever.”
Friend: “My daughter HATES tummy time and I’m worried she’s not going to get strong enough….”
L couldn’t do tummy time for a long time because he had so many abdominal surgeries and an ostomy bag, so the NICU physical therapy team taught us that there’s this neat way to recreate tummy time where they’re sitting on your lap and not laying down at all!”
Sometimes my potential contributions to these conversations are jokes – to me:
Friend: “You know that newborn smell? I just loooove that newborn smell!”
Me: “Mmmm, me too, the sweet smell of sterile gauze and chlorhexidine….”
Why isn’t anybody laughing?
I’ve never been made to feel like I shouldn’t share our story – in fact, I’m fairly certain the women I talk to every day would be wonderfully understanding and would hate to know that I frequently censor myself. But I often stay silent because it’s easier than navigating the awkward silence or sympathy that would almost certainly follow, or going into a long explanation that immediately switches the conversation from a casual chat among friends to a serious talk focused on me. Many people at my office don’t know about L’s medical struggles, and while it’s nice to be able to have casual conversations about my child rather than always talking about my sick child, sometimes that omission feels like I’m hiding our difficulties, which doesn’t feel great either. It would be nice to be able to have casual conversations about my sick child, but I haven’t found that balance just yet.
I’ll keep working on it. Until then, please know that if I make a casual comment about something that seems alarming to the rest of the world, I probably really just meant for it to be a casual comment. If I slip up or open up about things that are harder for us than they are for you, I’m not trying to engage you in the Pain Olympics; I’m just throwing in my experience with yours and trying to give and receive the points of connection that we all need. If I’m silent, it might be because there are too many things that I don’t know how to say casually, or because I’m protecting myself or you from a conversation I don’t want either of us to have, or because I’m taking a moment to weigh whether my hilarious medical joke would receive the raucous laughter it clearly warrants or would instead be met with blank stares.
And if I say “I’m tired,” or “that’s hard for us, too,” there may be an entire onion of meaning behind those simple words. Don’t be afraid to ask; I don’t mind peeling back a few layers, and sometimes I need to – but it can be awfully hard to start.
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