I Hope My Child Isn’t a Jerk (or Why Learning Empathy Starts in the Womb)

I’m currently 16 weeks pregnant. Around this time in the pregnancy, my little one’s ears are fully developed and are slowly turning on. He or she first hears the sound of my heartbeat and blood pumping and very gradually begins to hear me speak. Shortly after will follow the muffled hushes of their father and other people around me.

Even though I know my words can’t be understood this early, I can’t help but be self-conscious. My tone will impart happiness, sadness, anger, and a range of emotions that I don’t yet want permeating into the safety of my womb. And yet the world goes on around me, and I have to harness these emotions while conceding to my child’s personal fragility. That is the start of motherhood, scary as it is.

Being self-conscious of my voice means being more aware of how I talk and interact with others. I have a much broader span of empathy than I have ever had before and yet at the same time, if there was ever a time to yell loudly and proudly, it’s now. I don’t want my baby to be a jerk, and I want to lead by example in being a kind person.

Here is what the early days before being a mother have taught me about my voice and your voice and how collectively they work together, in a series of minor vignettes.

When I sing praise, I need to sing a song not a verse.

It’s important to thank people for things. Expressing gratitude is seen as a formality or a lost art that gets glossed over in a fast-paced society. But it doesn’t stop at saying “thank you.” It’s important to express why you are saying thank you and express it in a way that is sincere.

I recently called a support line for an online product I had used trying to get some old information that had likely been archived a long time ago. I wasn’t even sure if the data was still there; it was just a shot in the dark.

The man I spoke with was so persistent in trying to find for me what I was looking for, and each time he failed in one place, I thanked him for trying before he continued looking further. It was an exercise in futility.

When we came to a dead end, even though I hadn’t gained anything, it was still important to say to him, “That’s okay, you really went above and beyond as a customer service rep. I had no expectations that you would find anything and it’s admirable that you tried as hard as you did. I’m definitely not upset about years-old data that no one promised would be there forever. You did an awesome job looking and I am appreciative of the amount of time you put into that effort!”

It’s important to tell people why you’re pleased with what they’ve done, because that feedback is important, especially on a microtransactional level.

I want my child to know that feedback loops are an important part of life. I don’t want to tell my child “you’re so smart” because they don’t really get value out of a passive compliment like that.

I want to tell my child, “I think it’s awesome that you studied hard and did really well on that test! Keep it up!” And likewise, when my child does something less than subpar, I don’t want to admonish them for it. I can only hope in those moments, I say, “Uh-oh! It’s okay! We all have moments where we don’t get everything right. Let’s review this thing you’re having trouble with and keep trying!”

I’m human, so there’s chances I won’t ever do this with perfect grace, but it’s important to get practice on other less tiny humans while I can.

When all I hear is the echo of my own voice over yours, I need to shut up.

I’m a senior developer for Treehouse. Some level of leadership comes with that job role, and it’s often very organically created and self-fulfilled leadership. I am no one’s boss, I’m not a manager, but in some way I serve as a leader. Yet, I sometimes forget that being a “leader” has very little to do with authority and much more about empathy and humanity. Trying to be a leader is more than barking at others, it’s about hearing and listening beyond my own thoughts and opinions.

A few weeks ago, I joined a new work team where initially I was the only developer on the team. I had really liked the team I was on previously and felt a real sense of camaraderie with everyone, so it was bittersweet to disband and start anew with other people.

I struggled for a few moments in my new team because I wasn’t letting myself personally relate to all the non-developers I was now surrounded by. They didn’t think the same way as me, their priorities and outlooks on things were different from mine, and I found myself alienating myself from them by making comparisons that were full of contrast. I think this is a common place to be when put in a new environment with new people.

I was trying to define my place in a group by trying to see how we were all different rather than how we were alike, and that’s not what a team is. Eventually, another developer joined the team, which I was incredibly happy about. But despite that, I saw that there was a growth opportunity for me in understanding other people better.

So I started looking for opportunities to do this. I had to stop thinking, “Why doesn’t this person understand my point of view?” and instead start to think, “Why don’t I understand this person’s point of view?”

I am starting to appreciate other people a lot more and see human qualities in them that I missed before from changing my perspective. I worried so much that people viewed me as a robot that I failed to see that I was viewing them as robots. And that’s not fair of me.

I want my child to see by example that life is not all about working towards the end game of getting what you want. You may not get everything you want all the time, but if you invest in other people and other people’s happiness, you’ll generally be happier as an outcome. Sometimes this is just a simple matter of compromising, other times it’s making personal sacrifices in pursuit of doing the right thing for others when they need it.

When I’m nice and you’re not nice, I still need to continue being nice despite your behavior.

I recently had to contact a former employer over what was potentially a historical accounting error on their end. On one hand, I should have caught the error as it was happening, but on the other, it shouldn’t have happened to start.

Hoping to get a better understanding of what had actually taken place so I could rectify the situation, I politely e-mailed someone from that company, explaining the situation and requesting more information. I was fairly tactful but the response I got was near-vicious, not helpful, and made me cry.

The response I received was quite inappropriate. I was stunned. How had I come in so soft and been retaliated at so fiercely?

Sitting at my laptop, I couldn’t stop crying. I didn’t understand how I could be so polite and understanding about a potential error made, and have them be so rude to me in return.

What would my son or daughter read of me upon witnessing an interaction like this? Is my kindness a flaw? Is bullying the only way you can be assertive? And is crying when the world is not fair to you a sign of weakness?

All I can do here is reframe. One person being an asshole should not be representative of my whole outlook on what I can expect out of being, or trying to be at least, a good person.

Me being a nice person and you being a raging asshole are mutually exclusive behaviors. My kindness didn’t provoke you to act like an asshole. You being an asshole provoked you to act like an asshole. And that’s what this person was to me.

I will continue to assert my voice, kindly and calmly but confidently, regardless of your unwillingness to reflect the respect I extend to you. That is the role model I want to be for my child. I can’t control people around me and sometimes those people will serve as horrible barriers.

Regardless, I will not return abuse with abuse or violence with violence. And it’s important that my child see, again, that it’s important to live by your principles even when others choose to take advantage of them.

My tears and laughter are part of my voice too.

I cry sometimes in what others might deem completely inappropriate situations. I currently could blame that on pregnancy hormones, but I won’t, because the reality is that I have always been this way on some level. Other people sometimes say this is the result of “really feeling things strongly.” And at some point, I considered that maybe it was a flaw to feel strongly enough that I cried. Maybe it prevented me from rationally or logically approaching things during moments of problem-solving. Maybe crying wasn’t very adult-like of me. And likewise, maybe laughter was a sign of immaturity.

Of course, anecdotally, I have never been in a situation where I opened myself up to being vulnerable with another person–whatever the setting–and failed to walk away from it feeling a stronger connection with them. Plenty of people, people I would have never expected, have seen me cry, and that is okay. These people do not need to be my best friend, parents, or life partner. They just need to be humans that understand what it feels like to be overcome with emotion.

Although this is not a story I like to focus on exceptionally, when I first started my job at Treehouse, I had an enormous miscommunication with Ryan Carson, the company’s CEO. I was sitting in the airport in Portland, flying home from an development team meetup, using some of Treehouse’s internal communication tools. In a company-wide conversation, he had called me out in response to something I had said. Anyone in the company could see it. I hadn’t met Ryan in person, so I couldn’t really pin down his personality or his voice, and so I misread what he said to me as a personal attack. I read it over and over again, but in that panic, I kept misreading it and broke down in tears. I sobbed the entire rest of the way home.

When I got home, I reached out to the person who was my mentor at the time (Treehouse was a flat company then, and there we no managers) and asked him what he would do in that scenario, but he wasn’t really sure either in the moment, but I could sense he felt horrible too just being involved and advocated for me where I was too upset to do so myself, and I’ve always been incredibly thankful for that.

I admitted that I was crying and hadn’t stopped crying since I saw the comment. And how awful I felt. I was already in such a negative place that I knew the only thing I had left to connect me to the world was how I was feeling.

As you might have guessed, this was all a huge misunderstanding. It was explained to me what meaning had actually been intended and of course, once Ryan realized that there was some other way to read what he’d said, he felt horrible and was profusely apologetic. It’s really funny to me now, today, but for that one day, it felt like my world was coming to an end! For a while after that, any time we ever talked, he’d apologize again, and I’d laugh, because really, it wasn’t a huge deal anymore.

Although making myself vulnerable in that moment made me feel terrible, I don’t regret it. It was smarter of me to quickly share with others how upset I was so that the miscommunication was quickly resolved, and is laughable in hindsight, given I’ve never had anything but very positive interactions with him since then.

I want my child to know that crying is a natural outlet for emotion and shouldn’t be suppressed if it’s just where you happen to be at the moment. Sometimes you just have to get all snotty and gross for people to truly see who you are and what your intentions are. This doesn’t mean you’re weak. It means you have a heart.

I am the first person my child will ever know and I certainly hope that just as much as it can hear my heart being while it’s in me, it knows that heart is full of love for it and others.