There’s an article over at BlogHer today that has me all fired up. It’s about judging parents, and how it’s actually ok.
Except it’s not.
It was written by a new mom, someone whose blog I actually really like. A young mom. A mom who maybe hasn’t weathered the storms of toddler reflux, breastfeeding failure, post-partum depression, child sleep disorders, isolation from friends and family, and plain ol’ active/curious/energetic toddler temperament.
Her solution to having your toddler melt down in the middle of the supermarket? Leave. Leave your groceries, leave your cart, leave your pride, and carry your screaming child outside so that they don’t hurt anyone else’s ears. Or assault their peaceful zen yoga moment. The one that is happening in the produce aisle.
But really. Here’s why her article kind of made me cry.
It’s easy to judge other moms, when you haven’t been there. It’s easy to give advice about two year old tantrums, when your child hasn’t had one yet. We judge other moms because it’s easier than helping them. It’s lazy. It’s critical. But you know why we really do it?
Because it makes us feel better about our own parenting.
If you start a sentence with “I would never…”, then your own back gets a little pat of encouragement. You feel like you’re putting another penny in the “Good Mom Bank”. But think on this for a minute. Have you ever wondered WHY a mom might be “letting” her toddler have a meltdown in the supermarket?
Perhaps she’s like me, and the days and the hours and the minutes have started to melt together. Maybe her husband is on a long business trip, and she’s let the refrigerator get low on dinner options. Maybe she’s been feeling really lonely lately, and that feeling, coupled with the dread that she gets when it’s time to take her antsy little boy shopping, is almost too much to bear. Maybe her toddler is transitioning from riding in the shopping cart like a baby to walking through the store like a big boy. Maybe they’ve worked on good behavior all week, leading up to this trip. Maybe he made it through every single aisle, and his mom thinks that the end is finally in sight, and they hit the checkout line, and he loses it. Maybe her child is hungry and she’s pushing the limits of his patience, but she needs to get just a few more things to add to the meal that she promised a new mama she’d make for her.
Sometimes when I’m shopping by myself, I hope that I run into “that mama” in the checkout aisle. So that I can give her a knowing smile, fish a Lightning McQueen car out of the bottom of my purse, and load all of her groceries on the checkout belt so that she has both hands free to soothe her crying boy. Wouldn’t that be helpful? I mean, instead of glaring at her and hoping that she leaves her cart in the middle of the aisle while she banishes her child to the car?
Or maybe helping out is what I secretly wish someone would do for me. That someone would throw a knowing glance my way, at a time when I need it the most.
Parenting is hard. The lessons that we’re required to teach our children can be taught in many ways. I like to think that Max is learning that it’s ok to be upset. It’s ok to be pissed off that you’re in the grocery store with Mom, and because you’re 2, you get to resort to using pure emotion to express your feelings, since you haven’t yet learned the phrase “Mom, I’m exhausted and pretty bored here. Can we please hurry this up and go home?”
My job as Max’s mom, is to love him through his meltdowns. But my job is also to model for him how to interact with the world around him. I used to get embarassed when he had a tantrum in public. My cheeks would burn with shame, and I’d hustle him out of wherever we were as fast as my legs would carry me. But now? Now that he’s almost three? I quietly bend down to his level, or pick him up in my arms. I acknowledge that he’s upset. I help him find a solution. And I show him that we can both hold our heads up high, even when we feel like shit. And then I shoot a “Fuck you, stop looking at me” stare at anyone who starts to open their mouth.
Of course, I don’t do this in the library. Or the movie theater. Or when his behavior is clearly offending someone else, or ruining their right to have a pleasant outing somewhere. Some drastic times call for drastic measures. I am not a permissive parent who lets my toddler call all the shots. When Max started screaming “I don’t waaaaant to share” during the backyard brunch that Sean’s boss was throwing, I quietly scooped him up and took him out to the car. We had our little talk over a few goldfish crackers, and he was able to return to the party and play nicely. There is a time and a place. There is a nice comfy spot where boundary-setting and rule-breaking meet somewhere in the middle.
The rest of the time? When we’re in a public place that can tolerate a little more toddler energy? Well, you have no idea how hard we’re working on learning how to navigate the world around us. Not just Max, but me.
I’m feeding him macaroni and cheese and french fries in a restaurant because he has serious GI issues that we see a specialist for. I prefer to try out new foods and textures in the safety of our own dining room, so that when he gags on it and vomits everywhere, it’s not three tables down from you. So pay attention to your own food, not mine.
When Max and I flew to Palm Springs a few weeks ago, he sat in his seat like a perfect angel the entire time. He played with toys. He watched a movie. He ate his snacks and called out to me with the things he saw through the window. The grandmother sitting next to us whispered to me “Kudos on your parenting. He is sooo well-behaved!” And I glowed, from the inside out. Until she whispered again “Now if someone would just HOLD that baby a few rows back, maybe she’d stop crying!”
And my heart broke for that mom. Because I had been in her shoes. And I will be again. I didn’t need to look behind me to know that she was holding her baby. And soothing her. And loving on her. And sweating with frustration and probably crying right along with her. And dying a thousand deaths inside, because she thought that every single person on that plane was judging her. How does that help her? How does that give her the encouragement she needs to take a deep breath, and soldier on?
I have been that mom. And if you haven’t, then you haven’t earned the right to judge me. I remember having a new baby, and being afraid to go outside. I remember setting a goal of driving downtown and walking from the Nordstrom’s at one end of the block, to the Starbucks at the other end. I would repeat (in my head) over and over, “It’s ok, you can do this. No one thinks that you’re a bad mom for pushing a crying baby in the stroller. They don’t know that he has reflux and doesn’t sleep. They can’t see the vomit stains on your sweater. Really. OK maybe, but who cares? Keep walking. One foot in front of the other. See? You’re doing it….you are DOING it!” Just writing that makes me cry. Because it was so hard. And I felt so alone. Until one day I realized, I could walk backwards out of Starbucks, open the door with my rear end, pull the stroller through, and still not wake my baby or spill my latte. I got this. This is soooo under control.
Have you ever noticed how many mamas with new babies are sitting on the sofas in the Nordstrom’s ladies room? It is safe in there. They’re all thinking to themselves “I can DO this. In just one more minute….or maybe two.”
And so our babies grow, and our parenting skills grow, and we learn that mothering doesn’t just happen on the playground. It happens in the grocery store, and in the Starbucks line, and on the airplane, and in a crowded restaurant. You can’t always choose your teachable moments folks.
So instead of judging each other, what if we put our brilliant mama minds to good use, and came up with some ways to support each other?
I’ll give you my top 3 helpful “I got your back, Mama” hints, and then you can give me yours, OK?
1. Make it better. Be useful. If you see a mom struggling, pitch in. “Here, let me load your groceries into the trunk while you get your kids loaded in.” or “Can I offer your child one of my son’s toys to play with while we’re stuck here on the runway waiting to take off?” or “I’m coming over to visit tonight and I’m bringing dinner”.
2. Don’t assume. Some children have sensory issues that cause them to get easily overwhelmed. Some kids have autism, or other special needs that look a lot like behavior disorders, though they are purely neurological. The mom feeding her kids McDonald’s may have just worked a double shift, and she may be spending her last 5 dollars to get food into her kids bellies before bed. You don’t know if you just assume.
3. Do some research on child temperament. All children are different. What works for one mom may not work for me. I don’t do time-outs, because they don’t work for Max’s temperament. We never let him cry it out, because of his health issues. I believe that he is a little person who has big emotions and valid needs, and so I let him learn about life at his own pace. I used to think that everything that was right with Max was thanks to our STELLAR parenting methods. While that does help, much of it has to do with his natural temperament. And his propensity to take things apart to discover how they work? That’s not bad parenting….just a curious temperament. It’s all in how you frame it.
As parents, we’d be well-served to remember “First, do no harm”. Take a deep breath, take a step back, and ask yourself if the judgement you’re about to make is really helpful. Could it be hurting someone? Could it be making things worse, when they already feel like they’re failing/outnumbered/hopelessly overwhelmed?
And then go whisper “You’re doing a really great job. This is hard isn’t it?” to the first struggling mama you see. I promise, she won’t be that hard to find.