“The least amount of judging we can do, the better off we are.”
–Michael J. Fox
Do you delight in having your every move scrutinized by strangers in public places? Strangers who seem to know how to handle your life better than you do?
Do you find joy in receiving unsolicited advice from distant relatives or pearls of wisdom from random women on the Chick-fil-a playground?
Do you bask in the glow of hard stares from your fellow shoppers or diners when you raise your voice to the tiny human(s) accompanying you?
If so, I have good news! PARENTING IS JUST THE THING FOR YOU!!
Just between us, I don’t like any of these things. But like a bunch of other stuff that comes with parenting (sleep training, potty training, training wheels, all the TRAININGS), no one told me that being tried in Mom Court on a regular basis was part of the parenting package.
I made it through my pregnancies with a few misdemeanors, mostly related to food: sushi, cold lunch meat, and the occasional diet Coke resulted in a sentence of serious side-eye from the Mommy Militia. My baby registry choices faced the firing squad (“You don’t really want that stroller, do you?”). My birthing plan, or lack thereof, received several citations (“You do not want to deliver at that hospital.” “You can’t do that birthing class; you need to have this lady come to your house.”)
My grand jury trial as a mother took place when my baby arrived and we began the arduous task of breastfeeding. This was an aspect of mothering that I had been warned about, and I thought I was going into it with my eyes wide open. I was fully prepared for the experience to be hard, but rewarding. I was banking on being motivated to stay the course by the vast amount of data that undeniably proved what a superior choice breastfeeding was for both me and my baby.
As it turns out, there is no amount of preparation, motivation, or hard data that can ready you for the real-life experience of being solely responsible for sustaining another life. Breastfeeding was not a magical experience for me and my baby. It was kind of awful, actually, for everyone involved. The baby was frustrated and hungry. My husband felt helpless and excluded. And I felt…all the feelings. Exhausted, hopeless and unsure of everything except that I was a complete failure as a mother, unable to fulfill the most basic of mothering functions. It was literally what my body was constructed to do, and yet it couldn’t. How would I be able to give this baby the best life possible if I couldn’t even feed her? Each time someone suggested how to increase my milk supply, it felt like a veiled way of saying, “The real problem is you’re just not trying hard enough.” My confidence level was in the tank, and each judging comment sent it sinking lower and lower. I remember being so ashamed when I would feed the baby a bottle in public. It felt like everyone was staring at me and whispering about the poison I was feeding my baby.
You know, there are classes you can take that will certify you to be an official lactation consultant. OR, you can be like some people who think classes are for dummies, and just up and decide one day that you are an expert on all things related to breasts and milk and feeding babies. You can also roughly push all your thoughts and opinions on to sleep-deprived, confused, and emotional new mothers who can barely process the plotline of a 3 a.m. episode of The Golden Girls. You can tell these women how they should feel about this unfamiliar body that they are inhabiting. A body that is no longer their own, and yet it must be their own, because every inch of it hurts in some new way, and they feel every ache, pain, and tear. Something else you can do is deliver all that very useful, personal information in a way that makes it seem like your way is the only way to do things so that this baby will thrive, that anything less will result in a child with the IQ of a tree stump, and it will be 110% the fault of the hopeless mother who selfishly refused to perfect the football hold. You need a license to be an official lactation consultant. But all you need is a mouth to be an UNofficial lactation consultant.
It seems that when it comes to parenting, all you need is a mouth to be ANY sort of consultant. Who knew? Parenting experts are everywhere! And they are more than ready to tell us exactly what they think. About what we’re doing, about what we’re not doing, about what we should be doing, about what they’re doing, on and on and on.
“When have you been judged as a parent?” This short question posed on my Facebook page garnered some lengthy responses. The stories were as varied as the ways you can feed a baby (yes, there is more than one way). Working mothers felt judged when someone thought they spent too much time away from their children. Stay-at-home mothers felt judged because they felt society viewed them as lazy, pampered, and insufficiently contributing to their household. Mothers with small families felt judged as selfish because they didn’t have more children (as if that decision were completely under their control). Mothers with large families felt judged by others who thought maybe they had taken on more than they could handle. Mothers of children with special needs felt judged by people who didn’t understand their child’s differences, or worse, thought that they should keep that sort of thing at home, away from view.
The individual stories were each different, but they all followed a similar sequence.
1. Mother finds herself vulnerable in a situation of uncertainty.
2. A disconnected person intervenes with unsolicited opinions and/or advice, usually under the guise of trying to be helpful.
3. Mother experiences a range of emotions, including shame, rage, defeat, frustration, and more uncertainty.
4. MOTHER NEVER FORGETS.
“I don’t know why you even had these children if all you’re going to do is work all the time. They never see you!”
“Oh, so you don’t work? What in the world do you do all day? Must be nice…”
“Just one? Well, you better get on it. Can’t wait too long, you know.”
“My, you have your hands full. I don’t know how you keep them all straight! How will you ever be able to send them all to college?”
“I don’t know why she brings that child out to things like this. Isn’t there someone who can stay at home with him? It’s just so uncomfortable.”
Mothers everywhere are feeling judged. The traveling courtroom can pop up anywhere: your local Target, a PTA meeting, even in your own living room. The presiding judges are constantly rotating. Sometimes it’s a well-meaning, but know-it-all friend sitting on the bench. Often the robe is donned by a complete stranger. The holder of the gavel could be a mother-in-law, a sister, a teacher, or a Sunday School matron.
Or it could be me. Wait, what? That’s right. Guilty as charged. If I’m under oath, I have to admit to passing judgment on my fellow mothers. Even though I’ve been judged and know the pain, even though I know I’m not the perfect mother, even though I know it’s counter to everything I want to teach my children…I’ve done it.
“Can you believe she has that child out at a restaurant this late? That baby should be in the bed!”
(One of the parents does shift work, and a 9 PM dinner is the only time of day they can be together.)
“I mean, he still has a pacifier! He must be 5 years old. That mother needs to put her foot down.”
(I literally have no idea how hard it is to wean a true paci-addict. Don’t hate me, but my babies gave them up almost voluntarily. Also, just because he looks 5 doesn’t mean he’s not just a really big 3-year-old.)
“She doesn’t work, but I can’t get her to sign up for a single volunteer position in the classroom! She needs to step up.”
(But she can’t step up because she has a controlling husband and crippling anxiety. She’s barely holding it together.)
“Kids, do you see that child acting out? This is why I tell you girls to behave in public. Don’t be that kid.”
(There are children with all sorts of special needs that I have no way of understanding. I have no idea what their mothers struggle with every day. But those mothers need groceries just like everybody else does. There’s no telling what sort of pep talk she had to give herself to walk into that store, knowing her child would probably act out in a big way.)
Let’s flip the script one more time. If the judge is not always some terrible, horrible insensitive monster, but rather a harmless busybody, or a normally kind person such as myself who sometimes indulges in a bout of self-righteousness, could our feelings of being judged actually be somewhat self-imposed?* Stick with me here. I’m not saying we’re asking for it, but could it be possible that while we’re swimming in this sea of self-doubt and vulnerability that we call motherhood we’re constantly judging ourselves, and thereby jumping to the conclusion that everyone else is judging us, too?
Hold on a minute. My head just exploded a little.
OK, I’m back.
(*FYI, I’ve already contemplated this whole idea about how we judge ourselves unfairly. If you’re interested, you can read more about it here.)
Let’s go back to when I said I was embarrassed to feed my babies bottles when we were in public. Remember that? I felt like people were shooting daggers at me with their eyes as I poisoned my child with powdered infant formula. But what if they were looking at me just because I was holding a beautiful little baby? An angel with bright eyes trained on my face, and chubby kicking legs, so excited to have that delicious bottle to drink, and a warm, squishy body to melt into. What if those people I perceived as judges were actually admirers, or at least appreciators? Maybe my “judge” was actually a fellow mother who remembered what a hard season of life this was, but knew that if I heard “Enjoy every minute,” one more time I was liable to go into full-on rage mode. How I wish I could go back to that unsure version of myself and tell her to stop worrying about what everyone was thinking and just return the gaze of that sweet baby, and know that she’s happy. She’s fed. She’s loved. And, in this moment, it’s all good. You’re good.
I have so much to learn about parenting. For each perceived “mommy win” I secure, there are countless failures propping it up. But if there is one thing I know, it’s that NO ONE KNOWS WHAT THEY’RE DOING. It’s all a giant game of trial and error! The very best parents are simply doing the best that they can.
Mom Judging is real, and it needs to stop, no question. We need a village to raise these children and not one that wants to prosecute each other on the Town Square! (I mean, who will microwave the chicken nuggets if all the mothers are stuck in Mom Court?) The best place to start is with ourselves. We are our own worst critics. We have to start giving ourselves a break when it comes to parenting. When we are gentle with ourselves, it gets us in the habit of being gentle with, or at least tolerant of, others.
But let’s also be realistic here: haters are gonna hate, and judges are gonna judge. A bunch of self-care mumbo jumbo isn’t going to eradicate the scourge of Mom Judging. So, the next time you feel that you’ve been put on trial, take a beat. Your judge likely doesn’t know your heart or see your full situation. Your judge is imperfect. Your judge is misguided; possibly acting out of feelings of their own insecurity. Most importantly, your judge wasn’t picked to be the parent to your child: YOU WERE. Momma knows best.
To Mommas everywhere, doing your very best and giving it your all, just let those judgments roll off your shoulders. Remember that your judge is self-appointed. The conviction they hand down is unenforceable. You can skip bail. None of this is going on your permanent record. I found a quote that summed up the situation nicely: “Behind every person is a story, behind every story is a person. So think before you judge, because judging someone doesn’t label who they are, it labels who you are.”
Court is adjourned.