I spent the first 45 years of my life trying to please my mother, and will doubtless spend the next 45 mourning my decision to stop. My mother was a deeply unhappy woman, tender-hearted but narcissistic, and unable to relinquish her identity as a victim. I was well into middle age before I fully realized the futility of trying to help someone feel better when they don’t want to.

It is no coincidence that I have always derived the most satisfaction in my life from aiding others, in any way I can. (This is not to suggest that I spend all of my time helping people. I’m not that kind of saint.) In a professional context, my life as a Public Defender investigator was about as good as it gets: I helped my clients, obviously, but also their families, and case witnesses. Being involved in a criminal proceeding is confusing and scary to “normal” people- there was a lot of fear and anxiety to calm, and I was happy to do it. If I have a passion for anything in life, it is for making people feel better.

Yesterday,  in the course of my part-time job, I was at a customer’s home as the “support” half of a design team. We were there to offer advice on furniture and decor in several rooms, including that of her teen-aged daughter, who was present during part of our visit.

Mom was clearly feeling stressed, and the daughter, who had not expected to see us, was at best, less than fully engaged with the process. After a fairly unremarkable exchange between the two of them, the daughter left for lunch with a friend, and the mother returned to our project, clearly distracted and almost distraught.

My colleague and I are both mothers of daughters. Hers is the age of the customer’s girl; mine is “grown.” We commiserated over the  drama inherent in living with a female teen, and I took it upon myself to assure her that the friction is usually temporary, and absolutely typical.

I did not really expect to spend so much of our time addressing the dynamics of our customer’s relationship with her kids, but it seemed right, because she was in such distress.  This very attractive, perfectly groomed woman, in her beautiful home, emanated emotions I could recognize and relate to: isolation and shame.  Isolation in the sense of thinking that the rest of the world isn’t challenged by what she was dealing with, and shame that she wasn’t handling it better.

As a human being, I couldn’t ignore what I saw. We talked for quite a while, and I allowed her to vent, carefully offering observations and suggestions. My colleague shared some of her experiences with her own daughter, and eventually we were able to return to our initial purpose.

In my resumed role as designer support, I listened to the consultation and took notes, thinking of the horror management might feel at the time we spent off -task. I dismissed my worry; had we not spent the time addressing the customer’s immediate concerns, we would have never had her attention.

I realized yesterday afternoon that as much as I enjoy my part-time work, I will never be completely satisfied by helping at just a superficial level. Choosing throw pillows is a daunting burden for some people, and it’s fun to turn someone’s dread to enthusiasm as she feels empowered to develop and exert her taste. But there are bigger problems out there, and more pain. I won’t be satisfied until I can tackle some of that again.