Word of the Year | Empathy

Cake Smash

March 23, 2024

baby girl in white dress with flower details sits on white bed

Last year, my word of the year was Connections. You can read all about it here. I wasn’t going to do another word of the year this year because my enthusiasm for it dropped off shortly after I wrote the blog post (ha!) but, one day early in January, I was listening to a parenting podcast – because when you’re the mother of burgeoning teenagers, you take all the help you can get!!! – and the word empathy catapulted into my brain and wouldn’t leave.

smiley one year old gazes at her parent during one year photo session

Motherhood is a constant battle I fight inside my own head. Many nights I lay in bed turning the day’s events over in my mind, picking apart my words and (re)actions and knowing that I could’ve done so much better for my children. One of my loudest self-recriminations is remembering how I expected my little ones to know better from a very young age. I treated them like little adults and forgot that they were learning how to navigate the world. I often came down on them way harder than I should’ve or expected more from them than they were capable of – it’s ridiculous to think about now.

cute one year old girl sits on a white bed and plays with a pillow while laughing

I was actually rolling this over in my head a couple weeks ago and made the somewhat brain-damaged comment out loud in *front* of them that I should’ve treated them like dogs instead of mini adults. They all looked at me sideways but it made sense when I explained it to them. When the dog does something she isn’t supposed to, I talk to her like a dog: “Silly girl, what are you doing? Tissues are not for eating, leave that in the trashcan.” (Lady loves to go in the trashcan and pull out whatever tastes or smells good to her, eww.)

birthday girl sits in a web chair next to balloons and letters that spell out ONE

But if my toddler did something similarly goofy, rather than talk to him in a silly, sing-songy voice the way I talk to my dog, I’d invariably be annoyed and chastise him like he actually knew better. It’s amazing that my kids turned out as well as they have because I had as little an idea of how to parent as they did of how to adult. Sigh. Empathy in hindsight stinks.

baby girl props her feet up on her chair and smiles during her birthday photo session

I had a cake smash in my studio the other day and I adored how the mother interacted with her baby. She gently told the baby what she was going to do before she did it, she gave her little one time to adjust to transitions, she didn’t force things like diaper or outfit changes on the baby but waited for her to be ready. She was just a gentle, considerate parent and I complimented her on her empathy at the end of the session.

close up shot of little girl's toes and her pretty pink dress

With teens, I’m now making it a priority to embody empathy, thanks to that podcast for kickstarting me in the right direction. My middle child got a second piercing in her ear after Christmas and the six week mark just came around, when she could change her earrings. She pulled one earring out to change it and everything went haywire. The hole was showing signs of infection and started to close up almost immediately and she had to put another earring in quickly which led to some tissue trauma. It was a stressful event for her, physically and mentally.

baby girl, surrounded by balloons, reaches for wooden letters that spell out ONE

A parent with less empathy might have been detached and said something like, “Well, I guess you should’ve waited longer rather than dive right into changing the earrings.” I knew better though. I thought about how I might’ve felt in the same circumstances and said, “Wow, that must’ve been a bummer. I know you were excited about changing your earrings, I’m sorry that happened to you.” The first comment would’ve caused her to shut down; the second comment opened up a conversation where we talked about the signs of infection and what the next steps might be. At the end, she decided to wait six months before trying to change the earrings again, which is a really wise decision.

a little girl's hand reaches for wooden letters that spell out ONE during her birthday photo session

Another of my kids recently was feeling frustrated with the messy state of her bedroom. She has a lot of clothes but they’re mostly hand-me-downs from her sister and she feels like her room is a tornado of stuff that isn’t really to her taste and it feels overwhelming. Rather than lecture her about her first world problem (something I probably have done in the past, because it is indeed a first world problem), I showed empathy by offering to go through the clothes with her and help her separate out what she could use from what she wouldn’t. We decided we’d donate what she didn’t want and go to the thrift store to find some things more to her taste. She felt validated and heard and confident that there was a viable solution.

a beautiful pink cake and a curious baby

It isn’t hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and respond in a way that is therapeutic. While I wish I could go back to that young mother and whisper in her ear about the importance of empathy, I can only learn from my mistakes and vow to do better. Every opportunity I get now, I flex my empathy muscle and watch the situation become positive when it could’ve gone the other way.

baby girl sits on white flooring and plays with her pink birthday cake

Featured on Subkit, Liz Viernes Photography is based near Brookville, MD, and specializes in maternity, fresh 48, posed and lifestyle newborns and first year milestone portraits.

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