Before I was a mother, parents tried to justify their parenting techniques to me all the time – they would say “just wait until you have kids” or “we’ve tried everything” (followed by a long explanation of their trials leading up to that moment). I could never understand why they felt the need to explain their reasoning so thoroughly. Had I given them a weird look? Did I say something that made them think I was judging them? Either way their words and reasoning had no meaning until I was there in the middle of it, on the front lines.
Personally, I had very few preconceived notions on what it would be like to be a mom (from my lack of experience with babies and children). But I did have some things I had noted that I KNEW I would never do. I told myself:
- I will never yell at my kids
- I will never use electronics as a babysitter
- I will never let my child throw a tantrum at the grocery store
- I will never regularly make my child hotdogs and other processed foods
Well, the reality of parenthood is very different. Looking back now, I realize that the over-sharing parents weren’t necessarily reacting to anything I said and did. These parents were likely in a constant state of feeling like no matter what they did they would appear to be “bad” parents.
While I never thought I was judging parents for their choices, my mental tally of what I would never do as a parent did have an impact. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t form opinions, merely that parenting is so tightly watched that fear has become a real challenge in what I believe can be one of the most difficult tasks life has to offer – raising caring, responsible, self-reliant children.
Parenthood is a constant labyrinth of guessing games. I asked for advise from mom friends and read many books and online articles on how to get my 6-month-old to sleep without an hour long routine (if one thing was messed up, restart the hour) and being able to put him in his crib to sleep (rather than only sleeping on me). All of the information contradicted the next.
Through trial and error we ended up with a solution that incorporated bits and pieces from a few sources. It took an amazing amount of work and amounted to a ton of lost sleep and lots of tears, but we eventually got him to sleep in the crib in less time than before (note that the new nightly routine still evolved as he got older, all through guesswork).
In the end, every choice I made was placed under immense scrutiny (did I do the right thing? Would others have done this differently? Is my son going to be “scarred for life” because of anything I had done?). I imagine this is a fairly consistent pattern of questions every parent asks him or herself on a regular basis.
So back to what I thought I would NEVER do as a parent: Now, when I see a mother struggling through her shopping with a screaming child, I want to throw my fist up in the air, not in annoyance, but to show solidarity toward her efforts to maintain her cool and keep marching forward through the aisles. At a booth next to me in a restaurant, I see a father nearly falling asleep with his toddler tapping away on a tablet, and I just want to offer him a pillow. And I feel camaraderie when I see parents looking at the store ads for the food sales in an attempt to stay within a rigid budget – yup, hotdogs are on sale – dinner!!
Sure there are things that I want to do differently from some parents I’ve seen, but I will not delude myself into thinking that I might do the same things if I were in his or her exact circumstances. We never see what it’s like for others behind the curtain, so to speak:
- What stressors are they dealing with?
- What kind of temperament is their child?
- How much does that person secretly push down of their own natural tendencies to be a better parent for their child?
- Do they have any support from family, friends, anyone?
- Could this just be an off day where their child is pushing every single button possible in an apparent attempt to drive them completely insane?
- Had their child been up ALL NIGHT sick or just screaming for no apparent reason?
Each and every parent is required to be an ever-changing and growing fixture of authority, play and instruction for their child(ren). Living in a world of too much information, many parents live in constant dread of being judged for their parenting choices even though every single one of us is doing what we can for ourselves and our children (and we all know bad days happen for all of us). So, let’s look for the good in others and support, rather than judge, parents and non-parents alike through this labyrinth of guesswork before us.