You’re at the store/restaurant/park/cousin’s wedding. Your child melts down over (insert any reason here). You look up and see the faces of what feels like a hundred people judging every parenting decision you’ve made up to this point. You hear someone say, “uh oh” and it solidifies your suspicion. The meltdown you can handle, it’s not the first and it won’t be the last. The looks though, sink deep.
On the drive home as your now angel snoozes in the backseat, you wonder what you could have done differently. If there’s some book you should be ordering or child behavioral specialist blogger you should be following. Later, you vent to your significant other/sister/friend/shower wall. The “uh oh” plays over and over. You pull yourself out of it, remember that you are enough and a wonderful parent (at least until it keeps you up another hour that night). Then you take to social media, “Stop the mom shame!”
Hear, hear! I’m with you! Stop the mom shame! I have news though, it’s not the faces you saw or the quiet comments you heard that are the real culprit. It’s you. Because in truth, no one is judging you. They are judging themselves, and the only one judging you is you.
You just rolled your eyes at me and that’s okay, I can back this up and it’s actually a good thing! Strangers, mother-in-laws, playdate friends… those minds you cannot change. Yours however, is ready and willing to give you a break.
Let’s say everyone of those spectators were actually thinking something negative about you or your child. They’re still not judging either of you and I can prove it. First of all, there’s very little chance they were even thinking about something negative. When a child screams, yes, people are going to look. How weird and cold would it be if we all conditioned ourselves to turn away from someone in distress? Or smile? Thinking we can discern the thoughts of strangers by a quick glance while we ourselves are in a stressful state of mind and probably looking for judgement is quite the leap. I guarantee you that the most popular thoughts in that group consists of: “That poor person,” “I wish I knew how to help,” or “Thank gosh that’s not me right now.” From the time I found out I was going to be a mom, I can tell you that I was thinking, “Ok, how is this inspiring parent handling this and what can I learn from them.” Now that I have a toddler of my own it also includes, “Bless their heart and hallelujah that’s not my kid this time!” There’s no way my face says all that.
Now let’s say someone in our hypothetical audience is thinking more along the lines of “what an awful parent” or “what an awful child” or some variation of those two things. They’re still not judging you. They’re judging themselves. When we judge other people’s actions we are actually drawing from insecurities within ourselves. A completely secure and confident person would have no reason to judge negatively the actions of someone else (crimes and malicious intent aside). They would only respond with compassion and empathy. They would have a constant understanding that no two people have lived the same lives, so we can’t possibly say how another person should live theirs, let alone how they should react to a singular situation.
Since we are human, we are not completely secure and confident. We don’t always remember that. Instead, when we see someone struggle we try to protect ourselves by believing that couldn’t be us. WE would have made different decisions, so WE would never have the same thing happen to us. We purposely avoid putting ourselves in their shoes so we don’t have to accept the fact that their pain could have or maybe someday will be ours. So we judge. You do it. I do it. Strangers do it to us.
We’re protecting our own insecurities. When I see a news story of a child getting injured in anyway, my first reaction is to figure out what the parent did wrong and how I wouldn’t do that. It looks like I’m judging them, but I don’t know anything about them. I don’t know what was happening, what was going through their mind, what they did, what the child did, what happened to them at any point before that, anything. If I was completely secure in my parenting (an absolutely unattainable thing) I would see that story and empathize that it could happen to me. That I can make mistakes and that some things are out of my control. That’s terrifying though. I don’t want to think that. I want to think that I’m a better parent than them, so that would never happen to us and my children will be safe forever. It has absolutely nothing to do with the parents of the injured child and everything to do with me.
It’s the same in the store, the park, or the wedding. Even if someone has the audacity to say something “constructive” about our parenting it has nothing to do with us. They have insecurities around their own parenting or their childhood. They’re afraid that they didn’t always react perfectly or make all the best choices. They might be taking that out on us, but they are not judging us. When we take it personally, that’s our own insecurities at play. If they were confident, they wouldn’t have said anything. If we were confident, we wouldn’t care.
Recently I was running errands with my two-year-old on a balmy 30 degree December day in Minnesota. I scored the best street spot in front of a very busy parking lot free shop, steps away from the door. Even though it was well past nap time, my daughter and I were in great spirits. I literally needed to pick up one thing that cost $0.60 and I had called ahead to make sure they had it. We dashed in, leaving our coats and winter accessories in the car. As we were leaving, someone said to me, “She needs a hat.” I half smiled and said, “She has one.” I was honestly confused. She has no less than ten hats at home and two or three in the car. Why were they telling me to get my kid a hat? It probably took a whole minute for me to realize that they meant I needed to put one on her and thought I needed some aid in caring for my kid in the cold.
I don’t know why they said it. Maybe they grew up not always having a warm hat to wear. Maybe they didn’t spend as much time with their kids as they had wanted and feel they weren’t able to influence them to make good choices. Maybe they have a granddaughter in another state and worries that their daughter needs help. I know that they didn’t know if my daughter was cold or not, or how long we’d be outside. I know that they had no idea the lengths we go through to keep a hat on a baby born in a January snowstorm who seems to never get cold. They didn’t know her, me, or the temperature of her ears, yet they felt compelled to tell me what to do about it.
What actually shocked me about that whole interaction was myself. I didn’t lower my head and take it personally. I didn’t look at my daughter and feel like I was neglecting her. I didn’t play it over and over in my head and feel shame and anger. I had compassion for that stranger because they obviously didn’t have this two-year-old in their life right now and I am lucky enough to. In that moment I was confident in my no hat decision, so they couldn’t phase me. Did they annoy me? Sure, but that’s where it ended.
The next time (and there will be so many next times) you’re feeling judged, take a step back. Think about maybe why that person could be judging you that has nothing to do with you. Then think about why you are taking it personally that has nothing to do with them. This very much applies to the next time you judge someone else’s parenting decision. Maybe you wouldn’t be judging their choice of school if you were confident in yours. Maybe you wouldn’t be judging what that child was eating if you didn’t shame yourself for those dinosaur nuggets last night. As you do this it will get easier and you may find yourself automatically not worrying about those stares or comments. You’ll just naturally ease up on yourself and other parents.
We’ll never be 100% sure of all of our choices. This is especially true in parenting when the stakes feel incredibly high. Luckily, that’s a good thing that makes room to learn and grow with our children. However, it means that judgement will come up about other parents and ourselves, but they’re not rooted in truth. They’re pulled from new and old insecurities and forgetting that we can’t know what anyone else is going through. Recognizing that is what will soften the impact and let us get just a little more sleep at night.