I remember standing in the kitchen of our old house about fifteen years ago. My kids were roughly 3 and 1. It was nighttime, and I was exhausted, the kind of exhausted you only experience after you’ve been chronically sleep deprived for months because you have an infant in the house. Our youngest son Patrick was supposed to be sleeping, I needed him to be sleeping because I needed to be sleeping, and the tricks I’d learned for getting our older son to sleep weren’t working on him. They rarely worked on him. And then I remember a flash of profound insight that I carry with me to this day: Oh, of course.
Phrased that way it doesn’t make sense, much less sound profound. “Of course?”
But here are all of the thoughts that went into that phrase. If you would have asked me, before I had children, if I would have expected my two children to be the same, I would have answered, “Of course not.” I knew that. So did it make sense to expect that all of the techniques I picked up parenting my first child would work with my second? No, of course not. Yet without realizing it, I had just been assuming that my kids were the same, that what worked with the oldest would work with the youngest. With that context, the full thought that went through my head was closer to: I have two different kids. Of course I have to adjust what I’m doing.
My “oh, of course” thought was immediately followed by this one: “This is the difference between knowing something intellectually versus knowing something emotionally.” My 20-year-old self, single and without children, could tell you that you shouldn’t expect your kids to be the same. I knew that intellectually. But I didn’t know helpless it felt to be struggling with frayed nerves, desperate for sleep, and realizing that the wisdom I thought I had earned from keeping one child alive for three years was worth a lot less than I thought because “my kids weren’t the same.” That’s emotional knowledge.
“Emotional” might not be the right word, but it’s close. When I talk about “knowing something emotionally,” I’m talking about something primal that seems grounded in the body instead of in the brain. It’s the difference between thinking, “If I skip eating breakfast, I’m going to be starving at lunch” and actually being starving at lunch. The first is an abstract thought in your brain; you could ignore it if you wanted. The second is a demanding reality coming from your body that fights back when you try to ignore it. “If I have more than one child, they’ll be different” is an abstract thought. “I’m crazed and at my wits end because I can’t figure out how to take care of my infant, and everything I learned from raising my toddler is useless” was an unignorable feeling grounded in my chest.
That night in the kitchen was not the only time I have been surprised at my emotional response to what I thought were dry facts, just the first time I’ve noticed it. What particularly embarrasses me are the times I realize that someone’s been trying to explain something that they know emotionally, but I just didn’t get it at the time. For example: in 2017, I took a business trip to Beijing, and I had a day by myself before meetings started. I wandered through the tourist areas on my own, like I’ve done in countless cities… but this time I stood out as a foreigner and was repeatedly approached for one scam after another — strangers constantly in my personal space, trying to get me to go one place or another, trying to get me to ride in their rickshaw… After extracting myself from the infamous “Tea House” scam, I was surprised at how strongly and suddenly I felt: “I like being new places and seeing new things, but I don’t like being a target. This isn’t fun any more. I’m just going to spend the day in my hotel room.” That’s what I did. At the start of that bad day, I knew intellectually that I would not look like most people on the streets of Beijing, but I did not know what that would feel like.
I wish I knew better ways to predict how I would respond to situations, and I wish I knew how to understand others’ knowledge at an emotional level, not just an intellectual level. But so far, my emotional knowledge obeys three fairly limiting laws. First: my emotions can be felt in the moment (“I’m uncomfortable because I’m out of my element and repeatedly targeted by strangers”). I can’t always predict what things will feel like, and even as an adult I find myself occasionally floored by the realization, I’ve never felt this way before. (Parenthood brings lots of those.) Second: After I’ve experienced something, I can remember how it felt (“I was uncomfortable wandering the streets of Beijing alone”). Finally, I can make guesses that some other situations might feel like things I remember (“Maybe women catcalled on the street feel like I did when I was alone in Beijing”). I’ve found no way to short circuit the process and have other people give me the whoa, I’ve never felt this way before sensation — I can’t pick up others’ emotional knowledge.
Because of this, I try to be humble about my ability to predict how I’ll feel about a new situation, and try to be patient with myself when I get it wrong. I try, but don’t always succeed, to bring that same humility and patience to other people’s emotions. Just as I can’t always predict how I will react to a situation until it happens, I know intellectually that different people can have different emotional responses to the exact same situation. But it can still feel jarring to have a situation provoke one response in me and a different response in someone else. I’m slowly getting better at recognizing when I’m tempted to be drawn into this fight: “You are not emotionally responding to this issue in a way I feel is appropriate! I’m going to try to convince you to feel the same way I do about this!” Because I am so full of humility, I call this The Dewey Truce. When the heart of a disagreement is about different emotional responses to something, I try to remember that my energy is best spent trying to understand the other person’s emotions (however flawed my empathy may be) rather than trying to convince him or her that my response is “correct.”
When I was younger, I guess I just didn’t understand how emotions work, and since my job is mostly explaining things to computers, that gap wasn’t too obvious. Nothing I had read or heard prepared me for how the intellectual knowledge of “my kids are different” would feel at different times terrifying, frustrating, and delightful. I keep experiencing whoa, I’ve never felt this way before as I wander into new stages of my life — and this is one of the joys I’ve been finding about growing older. My life feels richer now because I can remember “all of the feels” I’ve picked up along the way.