It Could Always Be Worse

Have you ever had someone say that to you?

You’re having a bad day. You found out you have high blood pressure. You got into a car accident. Your company announced pay cuts. You’re frustrated, you’re tired, you need to vent, and so you meet up with friends or family for drinks and vent over beers; or you climb onto the ol’ Interwebs and post a gripe on your Facebook.

Then there’s always that asshole, someone just sitting there waiting for the opportunity to invalidate another person’s difficulties with those varying sets of words that always mean the same thing:

It could always be worse.

“Just remember there are people out there without homes;” “your health problems are nothing compared to people dying of cancer;” and “at least you have a job” are a few of the many varieties people throw out there.

They all have the same intention: to tell you to shut the fuck up, and to remind you that your life is always more fortunate than others. Even if it’s not (necessarily).

Well, I’m sure that not everyone has a purely malicious intention behind saying those evil and unnecessary words. Some people honestly – not sure why, but honestly – believe that by highlighting the misfortunes of others, that they are really doing a service to make you feel less like shit about your own situation.

This is such a social phenomenon (comparing others to ourselves in an effort to feel better about our worthless existences), that modern psychologists have given it a name: Downloading Social Comparison. It’s a little complicated, and more about people that intentionally seek the hardships of specific others to feel good about themselves (rather than to highlight it to another person in a general “other people have it worse” sense); but the concept is still in line with the same.

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By downloading a look at another person’s life, our own issues seem paltry and petty by comparison. (Sometimes. I mean I have a few Facebook friends whose lives definitely make me feel like every time I think that I have my own shit together, I am reminded by their posts that I am actually – in reality – literally the most disorganized and unkempt person on the planet.)

Downloading Social Comparison is actually considered a factor in mental illness by many psychologists. Mental illness, and yet somehow the Nosy Nancys of the world think it’s a positive thing to point out the shit of another person’s even hypothetical and generalized situation every time you gripe about anything shitty that happens to you.

But what’s truly wrong with the “it could always be worse”-ers of the world is also very simple.

Is it possible that someone else has it worse off than you do? Very likely. Especially if you live in a privileged country, such as the United States (I say privileged in the sense that we have clean, potable water and Wifi just about everywhere you go).

Though to use that in an effort to stifle or push away a person’s natural and healthy feelings about their own personal experiences is – in a word – wrong. Sure, other people have it worse, and in particularly dark times it’s nice to remind ourselves to be grateful for the things we do actually continue to have through adversity, when others may not. But to always compare in an effort to forget or to shame a person’s complaints is like saying that  their problems are trivial and unimportant, when in many cases they are anything but. It would be like telling someone they shouldn’t be upset about having to file for bankruptcy because there are some people who can’t afford a roof over their heads. Does the terribleness of others really make it any easier to deal with having to file for bankruptcy? I mean, really…

comepete-with-yourself-1024x1024And anyway, aren’t we allowed to be upset about shitty stuff that happens to us, without having the shame and guilt of someone else’s worse hardships shoved down our fucking throats?

So this happened to me today, actually, which is what prompted this blog post. I posted a Facebook status about how after a year and a half, today was the first time since I was diagnosed with a wheat allergy that I actually felt like crying about it. I just wanted Girl Scout cookies so badly, and there was no way I could eat any of them. In response, someone told me that my gluten intolerance was better than dying of cancer.

Really?! Really.

1ca2d460b89d87aa9db35238d9c3330fOf course being allergic to wheat is better than dying of cancer. Of course it is. What kind of a person would even compare the two? But what I felt after reading that was exactly what that comment’s intention was to make me feel: shame. Shame for thinking that not being able to eat Thin Mints sucked. Shame for being sad that I can’t have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich if I want without having to bake my own bread. Shame for it all, because somewhere out there other people have it worse. Somewhere out there a person is dying of cancer, and their dying thoughts are clouded by all the ungrateful assholes who sit around complaining that they are allergic to the ingredients in a delightful case of Caramel Delights.

How dare I have feelings about my own situation. It could always be worse.

I have one much simpler response to all of that…it’s simpler than explaining Downloading Social Comparison, and a lot easier than going into all the things that are wrong with trying to invalidate the feelings of others. Just one response, which goes like this:

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Today, I Wave My Surrender Flag

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We all have these days. Days that are so insurmountably horrible that it’s all we can do to curl up in our pajamas, head buried under the covers – hoping and praying that tomorrow will be even the slightest bit better.

If only one thing goes right tomorrow, I may survive.

It’s really rough being a parent sometimes. Most times. Everyone thinks that after the baby stages, things get easier – the sleeping normalizes; the feeding is regular and doesn’t always result in projective spit up all over your nice, new cashmere sweater. Suddenly being a parent is as simple as walking down the street to get the mail. Right?

Please say that’s right.

Unless there are a series of land mines and snipers between you and your mail box, I would argue that there is nothing more wrong to assume. Parenting post-baby years is still a war zone. Some days, I would argue it gets even more difficult as time goes on. Or, perhaps, things stay equally as difficult, the challenges just change. Infant sleeping patterns are replaced with school dramas; projectile spitting up is suddenly found in the form of a child that cannot – no matter what you do, and how old they grow – stop wetting the bed at night.

As parents, it is our job to navigate these challenges, carefully. To pay attention to them and to do everything within our limited humanity to develop superpowers and avoid difficulties for our children, at all cost. Lest temporary problems become lifelong debilitations.

For years, now, I have known – in the deepest, darkest depths of my soul – just how challenging motherhood can be at times. Of course it is all worth it. Of course there is – nine times out of ten – more good than bad, as the drum of days continues to beat on. But I have known. I have felt it: the simultaneous beating of the struggles and the pain and the hardships.

But either as a result of internal feelings of inadequacy, or external pressures from society and others mothers who just seem to do it so well, we bury the feelings of the battle cry that motherhood is, in fact, a war zone in which only the most astute and resilient survive.

To say the last few months in our home have been difficult is an understatement. Each day has brought a new set of challenges, a new series of emotional hardships that I find myself more and more incapable of understanding. It started with a move – of my ten year old’s biological father, halfway across the country, and out of our daily lives. Without going into all of the complexities involved in her relationship with him, I will say that we rejoiced; but only after she rejoiced. Which she did, even more than I ever could have imagined she would. Life was going to be normal, finally. She wouldn’t have to sit at his house every other weekend anymore, miserable and crying and fed donuts and Twinkies; returned sick and depressed. She could do sports like other kids, and love my husband as the father she always wanted him to be. And never have to worry again that after a weekend of “visiting,” her biological father would suddenly decide to not return her to Mommy and Daddy.

Within a week of his exit, though, suddenly we were reminded (by him) that life would not really be normal. With his move came a new set of obligations, most notably: a ten day trip at springtime or Christmas time (depending on the year), and a whopping five weeks in the summer. My daughter’s separation anxiety from me grew to heights it had never been before; suddenly she was depressed and had days where she was all-but-functional.

From there, life began to fall apart.

Most days suddenly had the potential to include some form of stomachache, crying, pouting, distraction, hyperventilating, fighting, and insomnia – if even the thought of her upcoming trips cropped up in her precocious, ten year old mind. And up until now, I have been fairly successful in squashing these down before they got out of control. On some days, before they even had a chance to occur. Life really was going to be normal, even if it cost me everything. And every, waking minute of my time was spent trying to be a superhero with my own human limitations – a superhero whose one and only strength is to prevent all the bad from entering her heart.

Now that we are within four weeks of the first trip, though, the war zone is more toxic; the tension can be cut with a knife; and on today I was slapped with the unfortunate fact that I am not a superhero, I am only a mom. And a flawed one, at that. No matter what I do, some days it really is not enough.

It will never be enough.

Under the covers, my head buried – I am hoping and praying that tomorrow will be a little easier. That it will have a little less crying; less hyperventilating. That my newfound understanding that I am not a superhero, and that I cannot prevent all of the bad feelings from rushing through the floodgates of my ten year old daughter who wants nothing more than to be a normal kid.

Today, I wave my surrender flag after the guerrilla warfare of motherhood has beaten me down in ways I never – not in a million years – thought being a mother would do. Hopefully tomorrow just one thing goes right. And maybe it will be that my surrender and retreat gives us all the strength to make that happen.