When I was a mama of three very tiny, very messy, very beautiful rug rats, we had DAYS THAT WENT ON FOR LIFETIMES. My husband, Craig, left at 6:00 every morning, and as I watched his showered, ironed self leave the house, I felt incredibly blessed and thrilled to have so much time alone with my babies and incredibly terrified and bitter to have so much time alone with my babies. If you don’t believe all of those feelings can exist at once–well, you’ve never been a parent to many tiny, messy, beautiful rug rats.
When Craig returned each day at 6:00 p.m. (he actually returned at 5:50, but took a STUNNINGLY LONG TIME TO GET THE MAIL), he’d walk through the door, smile, and say– “So! How was your day?”
This question was like a spotlight pointed directly at the chasm between his experience of a “day” and my experience of a “day.” How was my day?
The question would linger in the air for a moment while I stared at Craig and the baby shoved her hand in my mouth like they do–while the oldest screamed MOMMY I NEED HELP POOING from the bathroom and the middle one cried in the corner because I NEVER EVER EVER let her drink the dishwasher detergent. And I’d look down at my spaghetti-stained pajama top, unwashed hair, and gorgeous baby on my hip–and my eyes would wander around the room, pausing to notice the toys peppering the floor and the kids’ stunning new art on the fridge . . .
I’d want to say:
How was my day? Today has been a lifetime. It was the best of times and the worst of times. There were moments when my heart was so full I thought I might explode, and there were other moments when my senses were under such intense assault that I was CERTAIN I’d explode. I was both lonely and absolutely desperate to be alone. I was saturated–just BOMBARDED–with touch, and then the second I put down this baby I yearned to smell her sweet skin again. I was simultaneously bored out of my skull and completely overwhelmed with so much to do. Today was too much and not enough. It was loud and silent. It was brutal and beautiful. I was at my very best today and then, just a moment later, at my very worst. At 3:30 today I decided that we should adopt four more children, and then at 3:35 I decided that we should give up the kids we already have for adoption. Husband–when your day is completely and totally dependent upon the moods and needs and schedules of tiny, messy, beautiful rug rats, your day is ALL OF THESE THINGS and NONE OF THESE THINGS, sometimes within the same three-minute period. But I’m not complaining. This is not a complaint, so don’t try to FIX IT. I wouldn’t have my day Any.Other.Way. I’m just saying–it’s a hard thing to explain–an entire day with lots of babies.
But I’d be too tired to say all of that. So I’d just cry, or yell, or smile and say “fine,” and then hand the baby over and run to Target to wander aisles aimlessly, because that’s all I ever really wanted. But I’d be a little sad because love is about really being seen and known and I wasn’t being seen or known then. Everything was really hard to explain. It made me lonely.
So we went went to therapy, like we do.
Through therapy, we learned to ask each other better questions. We learned that if we really want to know our people, if we really care to know them–we need to ask them better questions and then really listen to their answers. We need to ask questions that carry along with them this message: “I’m not just checking the box here. I really care what you have to say and how you feel. I really want to know you.” If we don’t want throwaway answers, we can’t ask throwaway questions. A caring question is a key that will unlock a room inside the person you love.
So Craig and I don’t ask “how was your day?” anymore. After a few years of practicing increasingly intimate question-asking, now we find ourselves asking each other questions like these:
When did you feel loved today?
When did you feel lonely?
What did I do today that made you feel appreciated?
What did I say that made you feel unnoticed?
What can I do to help you right now?
I know: WEEEEEIRRD at first. But not after a while. Not any weirder than asking the same empty questions you’ve always asked that elicit the same empty answers you’ve always gotten.
And so now when our kids get home from school, we don’t say: “How was your day?” Because they don’t know. Their day was lots of things.
Instead we ask:
How did you feel during your spelling test?
What did you say to the new girl when you all went out to recess?
Did you feel lonely at all today?
Where there any times you felt proud of yourself today?
And I never ask my friends: “How are you?” Because they don’t know either.
Instead I ask:
How is your mom’s chemo going?
How’d that conference with Ben’s teacher turn out?
What’s going really well with work right now?
Questions are like gifts — it’s the thought behind them that the receiver really FEELS. We have to know the receiver to give the right gift and to ask the right question. Generic gifts and questions are all right, but personal gifts and questions feel better. Love is specific, I think. It’s an art. The more attention and time you give to your questions, the more beautiful the answers become.
Life is a conversation. Make it a good one.