Many years ago, before I had children, I joined the staff of a large nonprofit organization as what I thought would be a relatively insignificant cog in a mighty machine. Instead, I was surprised when my new boss put me in charge of a committee to plan a big redesign of the organization’s enormous web site. I’d never sat on a committee or even attended a committee meeting before, but my boss said it wasn’t hard. I trusted her.
What followed were were months of meetings and planning sessions. We interviewed vendors, discussed budgets, and were deliberate in our choices. We began the nearly inconceivable task of moving tens of thousands of pages of content from one system into another, page by page, which took hundreds and hundreds of hours. For the unappreciated staff members who were responsible for their departments’ pages, I threw “parties” in our training room and fed them cookies while answering their technical questions. During that time, I went home each night to my first baby, who was born in the early stages of the project’s conception and who turned one just before the new site launched.
The launch was an unmitigated disaster.
The staff was thrilled to have it complete, but we had missed a major consideration. Though we had been thorough amongst ourselves, the organization for which we dozens of staff members worked was a professional association. Our members used this web site for their work — for reference, for activism and advocacy, and for their own teaching tools. They were our most important stakeholders — and we hadn’t asked them a thing about the site before it launched, a fact which they — appropriately — did not take well. After an onslaught of angry emails, the director of the organization flew several board members and a dozen other influential general members to our office on a Saturday. I kissed my baby girl and my husband goodbye and went into the office.
I was 28 years old. I had never met a member of this organization before. I had never been to a board meeting.
That day, I sat in the conference room across from furious, highly inconvenienced and impatient professionals whose frustration with me, personally, was as palpable as it was utterly justified. One of them, a petite, bright-blue-eyed woman with tremendous technology chops and deep respect in her profession looked across the table at me and asked, leaning forward with both hands on the table, “Did you beta-test this web site at all?”
I blinked. Paused. Breathed. I felt sweat gather under my nursing bra and crossed my arms over my chest. “We tested it. We checked every link. We made sure all the menus worked. We made sure it connected to the member management system. We did test it, for sure.”
The woman cocked her head to the side and asked again, “BETA-tested, though? With someone other than staff? With any members?”
I must have visibly slumped in my seat. “I never got a list of members,” I mumbled. “I never knew I should…”
In that moment, I watched this woman — one who intimidated me, one whose name had been ricocheting off the walls of my office for the last week — realize how inexperienced I was. I watched her face soften as she took in my age, the lack of guidance I’d been given, and the earnestness of my response. I saw the frustration shift direction from me to the bigger picture.
“OK,” she said, far more gently. “OK. I think we see how this happened. You did what you thought you should.”
I saw in the moment the way that she went from anger to empathy. From there on, the conversation was far less about blame and anger and far more about a path forward.
In most of my writing life, it seems like I write about the way my second child — who was born two years after the experience above — was failed by a pediatric medical establishment that couldn’t see the humans behind the bigger diagnoses in their specialty areas. On the surface, that’s true, and what I’ve written above seems to have nothing at all to do with that. The reality is, though, that what I’m really writing about in both cases is empathy. I’m really writing about how no one is a statistic. I’m writing about how no one is a “problem,” a “failure,” or a “diagnosis.” No one is the sole, lonely source of a challenge they are facing or in which they are complicit. My stories are almost always about widening the lens a little to see what happened before or even what is happening simultaneously.
My second daughter didn’t refuse to eat because she was willful or because I was anxious, although both of those things are true. She wasn’t unable to swallow because a doctor misdiagnosed her, although several doctors made the wrong diagnosis which kept her esophagus kinked for years. Doctors didn’t refuse to see past my motherhood because I only saw myself as a mother, although I felt defined by my parenthood for years and years. In every case, the complicating factors were numerous. In every case, my moving forward with grace required empathy.
Sometimes I succeeded. Sometimes I did not.
Everyone enters their work with handicaps. They come with previous experiences that contrast to new policies or protocols. They come with babies at home keeping them awake at night, worries over fathers in nursing homes, and divorces in progress. They come with impossible quotas over their heads, unrealistic expectations by their bosses or themselves, or a lack of functional tools. They come with bias. They come with a lack of confidence. They come with their own stories. As I sift through the rubble of my child’s early years, at the mercy of other people’s challenges, I am searching for that empathy. Sometimes I find it. Sometimes I do not.
The board member across the table that day went on to advocate for me to be given increased authority and influence at that organization. We began corresponding about the issues that concerned her about the web site, and long after I left the organization to care for that second child who needed me, she and I have kept in touch. I often think of that moment when she — a woman who had traveled across the country to share her grievances with whomever had launched that disastrous site — looked in my eyes, recognized my humanity, and moved on with compassion.