When a mother reaches for a bottle of formula before even trying to put her baby to the breast, I judge. When my neighbour brings home fast food multiple times a week for her kids, I shake my head. And when I see cranky babies in the grocery store at 9 p.m. at night, I wonder why they aren’t home in bed.
Likewise, I’ve felt the stares of strangers when I breastfed my toddler in a restaurant. I was called “cruel and heartless” when I weaned Will with bitter polish after other methods failed. And I’m frequently told that his sleep issues are my fault because I’m inconsistent and cave to his cries every night.
Judgment, it seems, is the plague of motherhood.
I know few mothers who haven’t felt the scorn of others, yet have been more than willing to cast their own stones. As if raising a child isn’t hard enough, we’ve created a war zone where mothers keep constant guard, afraid they’ll be slaughtered for failing to achieve a pinnacle of parenting no one has actually seen in real life. The mean girls have become mean mommies.
Give up breastfeeding and you are a failure. Continue it too long and you are a freak or hippy. You’re cruel if you let your children cry it out. Overindulgent if you let them sleep in your bed. Go back to work too soon, you don’t love your children enough. Stay at home and you don’t love yourself. Feed your children vitamins, kale and organic meat. If they prefer hotdogs, clearly you are to blame. Only lazy parents use the television as a babysitter. And don’t even get started about circumcision, ear piercing or vaccines.
There are few significant, or even insignificant, decisions we make as parents that don’t draw the attention and evaluation of others. Of course, no one can judge you unless you let them, but we do little as a society to make mothers feel confident in their skills and choices. We are our own worst enemies, too. I’m ashamed to admit I’ve been more than eager to condemn other mothers for their choices. And I know it says more about me and my own insecurity than it does about them.
I’m sure if I took a moment to talk to my neighbour about the challenges of raising four kids, I would understand why she’s a frequent visitor to the drive-thru. And the mother out shopping for milk and bread late at night with a crying baby could probably use a friendly smile from me instead of a critical glance. How have I allowed myself to become the very mother I hate meeting at play dates? It’s hypocrisy at its worst.
Perhaps I judge other mothers to make myself feel better. Sure her child slept through the night, but at least I stuck to breastfeeding. And maybe her baby had better motor skills, but at least I don’t feed my child processed food every meal. All I accomplish in such evaluations is making everyone feel worse.
In truth, I’ve yet to meet a mother who doesn’t adore her child and isn’t trying her best. I’ve seen more than a few reduced to tears, admitting a decision to formula feed or use full-time day care as if it were akin to beating their child. We’ve set the standards high for parents (as they should be), yet failed to provide the support families need to be the best they can be. Is it any wonder so many mothers feel like colossal failures?
I used to say, only somewhat jokingly, that I was worried I was raising a serial killer. It seemed no matter what I did, Will was always miserable. I could only conclude every decision I made was incorrect and that I should only await my nomination to the mothers’ hall of shame. I didn’t need the judgment of others, I was already my most vocal critic.
More than two years into motherhood, my perspective has slowly changed. I’m more confident in my own parenting and no longer worry my son will spend his life in jail or therapy. Increasingly, I feel empathy for other mothers as I realize just how challenging it is to raise a healthy and happy human being.
I’ve started this year with a resolution to judge less and understand more. It won’t be easy. To judge is to be human. Often it happens without conscious thought. But if I can second guess every parenting decision I make, surely I can do the same thing when it comes to forming opinions of others.
Less judgment doesn’t mean lowering our standards, however. There are good reasons we strive to be ideal parents and that shouldn’t change. But let’s help each other improve as parents, instead of tearing each other down. I’m betting our children will be better for it.