Our generation looks at parenting as a skill; we believe it’s something you can be great at if you arm yourself with enough information. This sets us distinctly apart from our parents, who felt that parenting was just what you did, and how you did it wasn’t worthy of comment. Good, bad, or ugly, they made choices and didn’t bother much with how others operated.
It was us, the Gen Xers, who invented the Mommy Wars.
When we’re with other moms, it’s precious time when we should be the happiest. We are surrounded by women going through the same difficulties we are, who understand our frustrations and have shared our experiences. It should be our nirvana.
Sadly, being around other moms doesn’t relax us much of the time. Instead it ratchets up our insecurities, our underlying paranoia that we’re “doing it wrong” (and by ‘it,’ I mean parenting).
While other moms share our hair-pulling scenarios – from a toddler tantrum in line at the grocery store to a pile of poop on the living room floor, thanks to our not-quite-potty-trained toddler – how we handle those situations differs. As it should. But we are all secretly afraid that the way we’ve chosen to deal isn’t the best way.
Of course, other moms out there must be doing it better, and perhaps one of them is in your living room right now, or next to you at the park, or behind you in line at the grocery store. Cue the panic and self-doubt.
When my parents are helping me corral my wily two-year-old, I’m acutely aware that they don’t agree with my decision not to spank my children. They remind me when the tantrums are in full force that I should just “give them a swat” or that if it had been one of their kids screaming in that restaurant, its “butt would have been warmed a long time ago.”
When the smoke clears, and the embarrassment at my child’s behavior is gone, I return to sanity long enough to ask, WHAT THE HELL WAS I THINKING? I considered spanking my kid just because someone nearby told me I should? My husband and I made the no-spank decision consciously, after researching and devouring articles galore, and thinking about our own experiences. I nearly threw all that work out the window just to please people who last parented a toddler almost 30 years ago? (Sidenote: I love you, Mom and Dad! I do! I just don’t agree with you on everything. <3)
The self-doubt creeps in whether it’s my parents or just an acquaintance. Bill and Jen, a couple we occasionally hang out with, have a son just older than Peanut. At restaurants, Bill is more strict than I am. When his son does rowdy things, like standing in the booth, or climbing on the chairs in the waiting area, his father corrects him. It’s not behavior I would encourage, but I probably wouldn’t go to the trouble to scold Peanut if we were dining alone.
But when we’re with Bill and Jen, inevitably, I find myself scolding Peanut just because Bill is correcting his kid. Why do I do it? I go against my instincts because I’m afraid Bill and Jen will think we’re bad parents. And I’m not alone – most of us are guilty of parenting differently when there’s an audience.
My friend Shannon and I were hanging out at her house a few weeks ago. She had just made lunch for her two-year-old, who was watching a cartoon while she put together a healthy meal. When she was finished, she asked him if he was ready for lunch. In typical toddler fashion, he responded, “No, Mommy,” without taking his eyes off his cartoon. She went into the living room, scooped up her son, and switched off the TV, and he immediately went into full meltdown mode. I knew what had happened: she had transitioned him from one activity to another without warning. Shannon knew it too.
Like me, she reads all the research on toddler behavior, and knows that transitions are crucial to avoiding meltdowns. But with me watching, she felt the pressure of another set of eyes. Shouldn’t her child just ‘obey’ her? Would a drawn-out transition be a sign that she was catering to his tantrums? Shannon went against her best judgment and skipped the gradual transition she always used… and why? Perhaps because she was afraid of what I might think of her parenting. (Or maybe she was so distracted by my awesome company that she forgot to complete the oh-so-complicated steps of transitioning from one activity to another. Who knows?)
I have a toddler of my own, and absolutely would never have judged her for taking an extra five minutes to get him to lunch without a fight. I sure hope I wasn’t projecting judgment on her. I totally get it.
But in this age of the Mommy Wars, it’s just assumed that even your closest friends are judging you. We’re conditioned to expect it. When Shannon turned on that cartoon so she could prepare lunch, she apologized for using the TV as a babysitter. Never mind that this particular cartoon was in the second language her toddler speaks. That’s pretty frickin’ amazing, cartoon or not. I’m quite certain it didn’t hurt him one bit to get a little extra exposure to his second language.
(My envy at her little one being truly bilingual so early is indescribable.)
I told her something I’d recently recalled: growing up, my family watched TV at dinner every single night. And after dinner, we watched even more TV. On Saturday mornings, we could watch cartoons until 10am! *GASP!*
You know what? My siblings and I all have Master’s degrees (one has a PhD even), we’re all upstanding citizens, and nobody’s in prison. It didn’t ruin us, so why should we feel bad about a little television? I’m not letting my toddler watch Law & Order. It’s frickin’ Sesame Street and Animal Planet, for chrissakes.
A recent Facebook post I saw asked a group of moms, “At what age is it OK to leave your child in the car while you run inside the gas station?” Many respondents mentioned that they would trust their child at a younger age — say nine — but wouldn’t actually leave them in the car until age 12, for fear of having the cops called on them (sadly, they have good reason to think this might happen). Their answers are a great example of how we change our parenting, and go against our instincts, because others are watching, and we’re afraid of what they will think. Or in this case, we’re afraid of the trouble others can get us into. It’s ridiculous.
(It’s also a major shift from our own childhoods, when our parents would leave us in the car at a much, much earlier age, and not give two shits about it. They had some perspective about the true probability of a tragic accident or kidnapping. Now, we have most definitely lost that perspective.)
I hope my closest friends know that I’ll never judge their decisions. And if a mom I don’t know worries that I’m judging her, I hope she’ll realize I’m just a random stranger, and my opinion does not matter. We are all just trying to get to bedtime with our kids (and ourselves) in one piece. We’re in permanent survival mode, and I’ll try my damnedest not to criticize what any of us do in the name of survival.
If we’re not abusing our kids, and everyone is well taken care of, does it matter that I sometimes let my kid watch an entire Pixar movie so I can get a little cleaning done? Does it matter if someday I have a trustworthy nine-year-old who wants to stay in the car and read Harry Potter while I run into the gas station? It doesn’t. I’m not hurting anyone else. We all make the decisions we have to in order to get through the day.
Maybe someday we will all parent the way we want, even when there’s an audience.