The Supporting Role

You know what gets old?  Managing other people’s feelings.

I mean, I’m really good at it.  I’d likely score very high on whatever empathy scale or test you gave me.  I think it’s the result of growing up with a mother who needed that kind of intense, watchful focus – she was a bit like a bomb that might go off if you didn’t handle her carefully, or you accidentally pushed the wrong button.  And so I grew up and into a career that, at its essence, is managing other people, including (and sometimes especially) their feelings.  In the Before Times, at work in an office, I probably knew many of the personal details of most of the people I worked with.  My current boss sometimes calls me the “office glue.”

And don’t get me wrong, I like doing that.  I like knowing things about people.  I enjoy it; I want people to trust me, to want to talk to me.  That’s not a complaint.  I am, in fact, a trustworthy and reliable person.  I can be a surface-level gossip (because that’s relatable and makes other people comfortable), but the big stuff?  I don’t gossip about that.  Your secret, assuming it’s deeper than the fact that you call yourself a mustard snob but your fridge says you buy cheap mustard too, is safe with me.

But sometimes …. sometimes, particularly during a pandemic, it gets old.  The radar’s up, I’m getting signals, someone’s in a mood, someone’s a little off on a Zoom call, and my little brain-cogs are working overtime, focused on what does she need here, or how can I make him happier, and … eh.  I decide, it’s someone else’s turn.

Because they didn’t ask for all that management.  They just asked to be human and live and say stuff, and not to be treated like rare bonsai or hothouse flowers.  They aren’t puzzles, and I don’t have to solve them (or find all the pieces.)  Things break, stuff’s missing, they deal.  They figure it out.

The funny thing is (this is kind of a dark post, isn’t it?) I think I have some emotional distance, and enough self-understanding about my understanding-ness that I can, in the wrong time-space continuum, be a real witch.  I can be, in a precise moment, a deeply cruel and unfeeling person.  Don’t get me wrong – the guilt almost kills me, practically immediately – and then I have to go back and apologize and explain and undo whatever boneheaded thing I’ve just done (or, more likely, said) to try to fix it.  Most of the time I’m forgiven.  The kids gave me one of those twee wall-plaques, like the ones that say Find the joy in today or It’s the little things that count, only mine says Lord, keep your arm around my shoulder and your hand over my mouth.  It’s hanging in the hallway next to the kitchen, with the fridge magnet they also gave me that says It’s like my mom always said, what the f*ck is wrong with you?  OK, I’m a mixed bag.  Aren’t we all?

The twins are limping along toward high school graduation in June.  The last two of four kids out the door.  We’ve been in lockdown together for more than a year, three of us in this tiny house. I’m simultaneously ready to buy them tickets to anywhere, just to get away from them, and absolutely dreading it.  Deep, bone-aching dread.  I’ve now spent …. 26 years?  Being someone’s mom at home and someone’s mom at work.  I want to try out for a different supporting role. We’ll see how it goes.

How are you doing?  Are you more on the empathetic side, or less?  Do you get tired of it?  Do you want to emerge from the pandemic and try to do (or be) a different person in some way?

  • HeidiC says:

    I had a tarot reading with a friend, and she told me that there are other ways to care for things/people than to worry. That’s been stuck in my head, and I really feel you on the office empathy thing, so maybe it will be useful to you too.

  • Alityke says:

    I hear you!
    Having spent my whole working life understand people & illness without having to be told. Then as a manager being moved into roles of managing difficult people. All whilst raising 2 boys & working opposite shifts to hubby.
    I was the one who friends confided in, who did & does keep their secrets.
    Just occasionally I just got so tired pure stoopid came out of my mouth. Like asking my boss to keep her word & telling a well know manipulative crybaby she was just that & it wouldn’t work on me.
    Let me say retirement & lockdown have been pure unadulterated bliss! Only hubby to live with & after 35 years together we rub along accepting of each foibles!
    Being empathetic is exhausting!

  • Dina C. says:

    I’m a total empath, and an emotional sponge. Our daughter, 21, is in the working world, living at home, but planning to move out later this fall. I’m happy for her, but know I will be very sad, especially since her dog (our first dog!) goes with her. She and her brother, and the hubby, seem to be made of tougher stuff than me, so while I overthink and agonize, they steamroller on with their lives.

    • March says:

      Oh, no, and you’re losing the dog too?!?! That would be really, really hard. Sometimes I wish I were made of tougher stuff.

  • Sarah B Patton says:

    March, I loved your essay – I can relate to so much of it. My version of “snakes and toads” coming out of my mouth is when I manage to hold back on the mean comment at the moment then have it burst out later when the poor person (teenage son same age as the twins!) is least expecting it. Barring more pandemic disruption, we’re looking at 4 kids out of the house this September and it will be… weird.

    • March says:

      yessssssssss The last fight I had with Whit was one I totally picked, in the moment, and unfairly. I did apologize. And I know! Maybe THAT story of you and me and our surprise babies will make it on here at some point, hehe.

  • Queen-Cupcake says:

    March, my experience is different from yours–I have never had children. However, as a former child, and an “over-sensitive” one at that, I recognize a fellow traveler in you. The radar is always on. Someone like you, I suspect, can walk into a roomful of people and be immediately tuned in to the emotional radio. It can be noisy or silent, but you know it is there. I think it is a special talent, and sometimes a challenge to manage. Is it learned? Is it hard-wired? I have always wondered. What I do know is that it is something to be nurtured, respected and given room to rest when necessary. What you call emotional distance might be looked at as vision from a height. I often forget to tune in to myself because I am sensing others. I’m grateful for this, your post, and the wisdom of so many others here on the Posse. Peace, and love.

    • March says:

      The radar IS always on, isn’t it? You’re so right about the room. I’m there and it’s all washing over me, that emotional noise. And mostly I use my superpower for good, but I wish sometimes it had an on/off switch. The pandemic hasn’t helped. Fingers crossed we are getting closer to the end, and new beginnings.

      • Musette says:

        I’m a lot like the two of you in reading the room – but where we diverge is, if it’s just foolishness in the emotional arena, I have no problem stomping all over that noise. If it’s legit, then I will move heaven and earth to try to fix (or at least give support until it can be fixed) but growing up with manipulative parents leached all the ‘prop’ out of me.

        And it’s only getting leachier as I age.


  • Portia says:

    March, sometimes I read your posts and think we are quite similar in some ways. I’m glad about that. You’re cool, and gorgeous and fun. The fact that you are also all the other stuff makes me drawn to you even more.
    Good luck with letting the kids go. I really love that they gave you those sayings, perfect.
    Portia xx

    • March says:

      I sometimes worry that I’m the worst mom ever (a sentiment I think they’d disagree with 97% of the time.) I wanted to parent differently than I was parented, but that doesn’t mean I did it so amaaaaaazingly. I just gave them different complexes, I guess. I’m pretty hands-off and that’s been a mixed bag for them, too, particularly in this area where parents are all up in their kids’ lives, planning their futures. My kids will have to sort themselves on that one.

  • Cinnamon says:

    This struck a chord — in a number of ways. My child is back at home when he should be at uni but it’s pointless — there are no activities, no places to go for a night out, etc, so he’s here. I like having him around, but I really feel like he needs to be having that ‘experience’ (which clearly isn’t possible here). And I need to move on to my ‘next step’. Hoping things are ‘normal’ for his third year. Ah, support. Really hard to get a good balance. I discovered saying ‘no, I can’t’ was incredibly liberating (but for a long time there was still that undercurrent of guilt). On a different but still slightly related note, are you still thinking about moving to the southwest when the nest empties?

    • March says:

      I know! I’m not even sure they’re going to school in the fall, and I know several friends’ kids decided to just chuck this year (what would have been their first year of college) and stay home and work. And I always have that undercurrent of guilt, even though I am pretty good at saying “no.” And yes to your question! But there are a lot of details I need to work out first that are turning out to be more complicated than I thought. But we’ll figure it out.

  • Ann says:

    I really feel you March! More often than not I feel like I supporting actor in the play of my own life, I don’t really mind either but it just has to be a good role.

    Some people talk about “obliger rebellion” and there might be some truth to that, that you give and give and give, and then you throw in the towel and sometimes people are shocked.

    When I am overwhelmed I do find it kind of delicious to just not care about things, my version of not caring is pausing several moments before answering a text, ha ha I’m in so deep.

    But man and having your two youngest move away soon, that’s a lot. Where are they going? I guess school has to start sometime, I wish them and you all the best. ??

    • March says:

      Ha! I am actually pretty good at drawing boundaries, a consequence of a life as a suddenly-single mom with kids. I mean … there’s just stuff I can’t or won’t do. We’re trying to get the boys set up with their older sister in Maine, but renting a place for them has proved a lot harder than I thought it would be. But we’ll figure it out. I won’t be surprised if they ultimately decide on a gap year, though. This last year of the pandemic, what would have been their senior year with all those milestones, has been pretty awful. I think they need a break too.

  • Tara C says:

    I’m not really a hand-holder, despite working in an admin support role for 30+ years, and not being a mom except to furry critters (who get massively fussed-over and spoiled).

    I could stand to be more empathetic and am making an effort to do so. Had a good conversation with a friend tonight that helped set my GPS for the future in that regard. I want to reach out more, help more, turn my gaze outward instead of inward where it naturally wants to go, as a hard-core introvert. That’s my goal for the final chapter of my life.

    • March says:

      That sounds like a great set of goals. We’re never too old to take a look at ourselves and the world around us and decide if we want to make some adjustments to that GPS.

  • Musette says:

    Honeysnakes! I am so excited for your next steps – but know this: you will ALWAYS be a mom, to your kids and all the others of us who rely on you to give a damb. And that’s okay. And you always are going to know when to step up for someone – and when to step back. Or step off. And that’s okay, too.

    You being you? That is a price beyond rubies. It is, quite literally, priceless. and much appreciated.


    • March says:

      Aw, hon. I treasure all our long, rambling conversations. And I hope to have more time and energy at my fingertips in a few months. <3