note: I wrote this awhile back but revamped it a bit because I needed to be reminded of this again and thought that perhaps if I need to hear it right now, others may too.
The job of being a mom is such a tough one and yet, as moms, we are often hardest on ourselves and on each other. As a mom, I struggle with guilt and being hard on myself. I struggle with insecurities. I question all the ways that I am potentially screwing up my kids. I believe that in today’s society, it’s harder to parent than it has ever been because we are bombarded with so many mixed messages through the constant presence of media in our lives. I hear so much conflicting advice that it’s really hard to know which way is up sometimes. Yet, in this challenging role as a parent, we are under the scrutiny of other parents constantly and instead of encouraging one another’s efforts, we often judge and criticize each other.
It starts before a mother even gives birth. I still struggle with finding myself judging mothers in this category. I will admit to seething whenever I see a pregnant woman smoking. I am the mother of a precious girl who has to fight for breath with a severe lung condition that is in part due to her birth mom smoking. That little girl was also born full term but was low birth weight and didn’t have the sucking reflex. She also suffers from prenatal exposure to other things. So I tend to judge harshly those mothers who smoke, drink, or use drugs during their pregnancy, but I need more compassion. Many of those mothers are struggling with addiction or even mental health issues and I don’t know each of their circumstances, so I have no right to judge them. I may be raising children born to them, which can cause me to feel anger at their choices, but my judgment of them doesn’t help anyone. But this is an obvious one. What about the not so obvious? What about how we analyze exercise during pregnancy, diet during pregnancy, choosing to find out the sex of the baby beforehand, and choosing natural childbirth versus getting an epidural?
Then this precious baby is finally born and in the first hours, there are decisions that mother will make that will be scrutinized, that may determine her future friendships even. To circumcise or not circumcise? To put the baby on a schedule or to respond to their needs? Cloth diapers or disposable? To breastfeed or bottle feed? If breastfeeding, for how long? The breastfeeding one is a huge source of guilt and / or judgment among mothers. Breastfeeding is wonderful. I don’t think many would argue with that on its merits. But it is not for everyone. So many moms that I know were only able to do it for a few weeks before they had to give up because of infection or the baby not latching properly and every one of them endured judgment and harsh words after. Trust me, they were hard enough on themselves.
So if you make it through that first year, you have navigated through making your own baby food or buying it and being judged either way, not putting your child in enough baby and me programs or putting them in too many, being attacked for your choice to co-sleep with your baby or to get up at night with them or to let them cry it out, keeping them in a crib for too long or not long enough, using cloth or disposable diapers, baby wearing or not, using a soother or not, letting them suck their thumb, all-natural wood toys only or plastic, graduating them to a cup or keeping them on the bottle and then you are faced with the big one…the decision to go back to work or stay at home.
If you decide to go back to work (for which you will be judged and even ostracized by some), then you have the additional public backlash minefield of choosing child care. There’s day home versus day care versus a nanny or other options such as family care available to some. A mother’s guilt for being away from her child all day and having another person or group of people participate in raising them is plenty big without anyone else adding to it. Over the years, I have met women who absolutely have to go back to work. Most of them do not want to work, they have to. But then there are mothers who want to work, mothers who have careers that are important to them, sometimes careers that make a difference in the world, or just careers that they are passionate about and that recharge them for mothering. Who am I to say that their reasons to go to work are any less valid than my reasons to stay home?
If a mother chooses to stay at home with her children, she faces condescending remarks and belittling questions. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard that I am “just” a stay-at-home mom. I have been treated like I am uneducated and unable to contribute to discussions that involve anything other than raising children. I like to think of myself as an intelligent human being who, when having gotten sufficient sleep, is capable of stimulating conversation. But because I am a stay-at-home mom, I am often seen as less than. People can assume that I don’t work because I am not capable of getting a decent job. And if you are a stay-at-home mom, you open yourself up to judgement by other stay-at-home moms about how you choose to parent.
For all moms, there are topics and issues that, though they should be a personal decision, become a hot button, a place for debate that often turns nasty. Preschool or not? Too many activities or not enough? How to discipline. Free range parenting or helicopter parenting? How structured to have their schedule. Early bedtimes or late bedtimes or no bedtimes at all. Daily baths or not. Chores? These are things that moms judge each other about. These are also things that moms wrestle about within themselves. I used to make judgements about the bedtime thing. We had come to a decision for our family that our kids would have a very early bedtime. I had done research and read about how most kids are in a constant state of overtired and what effects that has. We also liked the thought of having time to ourselves in the evenings and we reasoned that if we started it out early, then there would be room to move it later as they got older. I still believe these things but I no longer think that other people are WRONG because they do it differently. There are some parents who don’t even get home from work until the evening. Do I think that a child should go to bed early at the expense of having a quality relationship with their mother or father? Absolutely not. There are other reasons too that people choose later bedtimes and frankly, they are none of my business.
The only times I should think of stepping in to give an opinion on someone else’s parenting decisions is if they ask me directly or if I suspect that a child is being abused.
Now if parenting weren’t enough of a challenge, bring in this generation. Now we have to contend with the new issues of technology and the environment. Now mothers can feel guilty because they are not being environmentally conscious enough or because they have not bought locally grown food. Up the guilt if the food they have bought is not organic. This one brings out some very heated discussions (go ahead – throw some organic tomatoes at me for bringing it up!) but it saddens me that in this world of fast food and processed food, even moms who are making huge efforts to keep their families healthy by feeding them fresh fruits and vegetables can be told that it’s not good enough if they weren’t locally grown and organic. And for those moms who choose to go that route, they are judged too, called “granola crunchers” and laughed at behind their backs. Eating is so much more complicated than it used to be too. Fish is so healthy for you, but now you have to worry about mercury levels. Meat is controversial. Soy has its nay-sayers too. Dairy-free advocates abound and so do the gluten-free. What can I feed my kids without someone thinking I am a bad mother? Yuck! Is this making anyone who isn’t a parent already want to be one? Not so much. It’s tough out there and we are our own worst critics. The technology…filters on your internet, playstation, X-box, wii, i-pods, cell phones, gadgets galore. I have been judged for my refusal to allow a gaming station in my house and to instead make my kids use their imaginations and play outside and save the playstation time for when they go to other houses. I have been judged for my decision not to get my kids a cell phone. I have judged kids who come into my vehicle and listen to their I-pod or play on their PSP while I drive them places, not attempting to make conversation with the rest of the people in the vehicle, making me feel like a chauffeur. I have tried not to judge their parents, but sometimes fall short of that.
Types of parenting have their own subsets of groups and judgements. Special needs parenting is a mine field. Depending on the special needs of your child, there are divisions and camps and you are forced to choose sides. If your child is deaf, you have to decide on cochlear implants or not and the advocates on both sides get up in arms. If your child has Autism, there is the camp of those who believe it was caused by Immunizations and the camp that doesn’t. There is the behavior modification model and the diet model. There is early intervention and diagnosis or the “do not label them” avenue. It is confusing and scary enough to have a child with special needs, but then to feel under attack because of the choices you make to best help them is so discouraging. As parents, we all want what is best for our kids and we know our kids better than anyone else does, so in my opinion, that makes us in the best position to make decisions in their best interests. Why do those decisions then get treated as though we were trying to harm our child?
Adoption is a hot topic in itself. Those who choose to undergo fertility treatments and not opt for adoption are judged. Those who adopt internationally are asked why they didn’t help kids in their own community. Those who adopt locally are asked why they didn’t help the children in places that don’t have a social system to care for the kids. Those who adopt a healthy newborn are judged for not adopting an older or special needs child. Those who adopt an older or special needs child are judged for taking on too much or for “doing that” to their other children. People’s reasons to adopt are judged. For example, it is not considered okay in most circles to admit that you were trying to help a child who needed a home by giving them one. For some, infertility is judged as not enough of a reason to adopt and for others, it is viewed as the only valid reason to adopt.
Once you do adopt, there are judgements made on how much of your child’s adoption story you choose to share, whether you do attachment work or not, how soon you take your new child out, how strict you are with them, how you approach their issues with food, how you approach their behaviors, and of course how you speak about race if it is a transracial adoption. Oh, transracial adoption is its own hot topic. And there is the judgement about natural hair care.
Homeschooling. I homeschool. Please do not assume that because I homeschool, I think that it is wrong to send your kids to school. Please don’t feel that you have to justify your choice to me. And please, please, please, do not judge my choice. It works for our family. Two years ago, we sent our oldest to school because it was no longer working for him. I received some support from the homeschooling community for this and I received some harsh words and pat answers. It was a painful enough decision without that. It was the right choice. I stand by it.
What else do we judge each other on? The weight of our kids, religion, the way we go about living our faith, the strengths or talents of our children, education, exposure to the arts and classic literature, TV, bike helmets, car seats, and a million other things that invoke equal sentiment.
There is also the whole family size thing. We have had some terrible things said to us because of our choice to have a large family. People from strangers to close friends and family have said things that are downright cruel. Many have been said under the umbrella of “because they love us”. I have heard that people who have an only child have been under similar scrutiny. They have gotten comments from well-meaning family or friends and from perfect strangers. In the case of those who cannot have more than that one child, this is just devastating. Others choose to only have one child. I am sure that they have thought out this parenting decision and do not need the input of others unless they have asked for it. Perhaps people who only have one or two children look at mine and think, “those poor kids” and those with large families often look at small families and think the same thing!
Even in admitting my own struggle with judging other moms, it is difficult not to sound judgmental! I think it is human nature to compare ourselves with others. Most of the time, that comparison just leaves me feeling like I come up short. Comparison doesn’t help us to feel good about ourselves or about the other person. I wish that we could encourage each other. I wish that when we do things differently, we could learn from each other. I wish that we could ask each other questions in a loving way so that we could open up our worlds. I know that it is important that when we make a parenting decision, we know our own reasons behind it, but that does not mean that we should have to justify those reasons to others.
Today, please encourage another mom. Phone one up right now and let them know one thing that you admire about them. Go outside of your comfort zone and choose a mom that you have differences with. Heck – phone or e-mail as many moms as you can just to say an encouraging word. We all need each other. This is a tough job and we are stronger together, lifting each other up than we are tearing each other down.
Sharla Kostelyk is the mother of seven children, including three adopted from foster care and two adopted from Ethiopia. She started Adoption Magazine in 2011 and is the author of That These Two Will Live and Shield: A Framework of Self-Care for Foster and Adoptive Families. Sharla blogs at The Chaos and The Clutter.