Ok, moms. We need to talk about the way we treat each other. Because I’ve kind of had enough and I’m guessing many of you have, too.
Yesterday I was in Whole Foods with my son and there was a bit of a ruckus. We had finished our shopping and were wandering over to the bakery case to see what looked delicious. Because that’s what we do. Because CUPCAKES.
As we passed the mini-coffee shop, which was crowded with a thick knot of people waiting to order their coffees, I saw a mom struggling with a crying girl, who looked to be about three or four years old. She simultaneously kept an eye on a boy of maybe a few years older who was nearby, eating a treat of some kind. My heart went out to this mom, as it always does to moms in those situations. I could see the panic on her face, and I felt her anxiety in my own gut.
We’ve all had those moments, Moms, haven’t we? No matter how old or young your child is, we’ve all experienced those in-public moments where your child behaves in a cringe-worthy way. Typically, the children are acting out in age-appropriate ways–a three year old throwing a tantrum when the answer to ANYTHING is “no,” a teenager rolling his eyes and mouthing off–but how do the onlookers in the store/restaurant/bowling alley/doctor’s office/car dealership/WHEREVER respond? Do they think, “that’s just a kid being a kid” or “that poor mom–she’s doing her best!”? I hope so.
But the truth is, so many times, they think the worst. So many times, their silent judgment is palpable. I have felt that silent judgment, and most acutely I have felt it from other women. Other moms.
Ladies, pardon my frankness, but what the ever-loving hell are we doing to each other with this judgment?
Let me go back to Whole Foods.
We passed the mom with her daughter and started ogling some particularly tantalizing cupcakes. A moment later, over the din of the busy store, I heard an angry voice start to rise. Like most of the other people in the area, my son and I turned toward the near-shouting.
“Don’t you tell me how I should be handling my children! I’m a single mom, and working my ass off, doing my best! How dare you talk to me that way?”
It was the mom I had seen before, trying to hold onto her slippery, squirming daughter while confronting another woman.
I have no idea what this woman said to the mom. I didn’t see her face, only saw the back of her head, her long, reddish hair, and the man standing next to her. She must have replied to the mom, but quietly, because I didn’t hear what she said. I saw the mom’s eyebrows go up in surprise and her eyes widen. Her voice got even louder; she was shouting now:
“My son dropped a napkin on the floor! He’s a little boy! You’re talking to me this way because my son dropped a napkin on the floor and I didn’t pick it up!”
By this point, the entire area of the grocery store was frozen, staring at the confrontation…except for a few unconvincing souls who pretended they were oblivious and tried to keep up the appearance of shopping. A Whole Foods employee swooped in and hovered between the two women, saying something like, “Let’s just calm down, everyone.”
The red-headed woman must have said something else to the mom. If she was already close to losing it, whatever the woman said pushed her over the edge. “HOW DARE YOU TALK TO ME THAT WAY, YOU F***ING B**CH? HOW DARE YOU–”
At this point the husband stepped in front of his wife and told the mom she shouldn’t speak to his wife that way. The mom and the husband began to argue at that point, until the Whole Foods employee stepped in and asked everyone to calm down and requested the mom step away from the scene.
You guys, I felt so much compassion for this mom. I have been her, and I’m sure you have, too. I could see it in her eyes. She was at the end of her rope, all alone in raising her children and all alone in this sea of judgmental faces in Whole Foods. And SHE was the one being asked to leave, a pariah with her two children. My heart broke for her, especially as the crowd of people around her looked away, pointedly avoiding eye contact with the shunned woman.
Yes, she got carried away. Maybe many of the people in the store–maybe you, reading this–think she went too far by swearing at the woman.
Maybe she did. But to me, that’s not the point.
The point is that this mom, doing her best with two small children on what was clearly not their best public outing, faced unfair judgment from another woman, and she lost it. She snapped, and I don’t blame her, not one bit.
In fact, I have to say I was a little bit in awe of her. I can’t tell you how many times I have wanted to react in a similar way when I have been judged by others when my children chose the worst of moments to misbehave, as children do…but I never quite had the spunk to do it.
In that moment, I could see how alone this woman felt. As she started to turn away with her two children in tow, I walked over to her, touched her on the arm and said, “You’re doing a good job, Mom.”
The relief and gratitude in her eyes was evident. “Thank you,” she replied.
I’m not going to lie. I was really nervous to do that, to speak out and stand with that mom in a moment when she was clearly being cast out and vilified by the people around. My voice shook a little, but I made sure it was loud enough for the others around to hear.
Because moms, I’ve had enough, and I’m not going to look away and be quiet anymore.
I’ve had enough of us tearing each other down. I’ve had enough of us being expected by society to keep our kids quiet, and to be quiet ourselves. I’ve had enough of being judged for saying no to my kids and disciplining them, even when it means they yell and scream in a store. I’ve had enough of women’s stares and whispers, silently and not-so-silently criticizing another mother’s choices.
Now look, no one is talking about abuse here, so let’s just not have anyone read this and think, “Well, if someone is abusing their kid, I will criticize them and call the police!” DUH.
I’m talking about parenting choices. I’m talking about seeing a woman in a store, struggling with her two kids and then criticizing her because her little boy dropped a napkin on the floor and she did not immediately either 1) make him pick it up or 2) pick it up herself because she was just a tiny bit busy with her other child at that moment.
Hey, here’s an idea: instead of looking at that struggling parent and thinking, “Sheesh, she is really letting her kids run wild; she is a terrible mother!” how about looking at her and thinking, “Look at that mom. She is really having a tough time. Maybe I can help.”
Maybe, just maybe, instead of offering a criticism and a judgment, that other woman could have just, oh, I don’t know, BENT OVER AND PICKED UP THE DANGED NAPKIN HERSELF. You know, just to be a good person. Just because she saw this mother needed help.
I’ve had a couple of times when I needed help myself, and all I got was judgment and criticism. One time, especially.
My son was two, maybe three, so this was about 10 years ago. I was 29 or 30, in Target with him, wearing a baseball cap so I probably looked to be in my early or mid-twenties.
He wanted a particular Thomas the Train, and the answer was no. It’s the age-old story, am I right? Toddler demands toy, mom says no, toddler melts down entirely.
So I told my son in age-appropriate language that his tantrum was not ok, he was in time-out and I would speak to him when he was done crying. I gave hime some space but of course I stayed nearby, within sight of him at the end of the row.
It was hard. I know you know it was hard. I knew people nearby–who were pointedly NOT making eye contact–were judging me, thinking “Why is that awful mom just letting her little boy cry like that?” I could feel the hot anxiety in my chest, rising up, willing me to relent and just get him the toy so he would shut up.
And then it happened. A woman approached me, someone probably just a couple of years older than me, but it was clear she thought I was a very young mother. She had That Look on her face. The “I-Know-You’re-Trying-But-You’re-Doing-It-Wrong-And-I’m-So-Much-Better-At-It-Than-You” look.
“I know it’s hard,” she began. I was tense, so full of stress in that moment, but hoping that maybe she would say something encouraging despite That Look.
“But it’s even harder for everyone around here to listen to your little boy cry. You shouldn’t just leave him like that to cry, you know. It’s very unpleasant.”
Ohhhhh, the thoughts that went through my mind as my face, I’m sure, registered shock and disbelief. Thoughts of telling her that I could show her what unpleasant was if she didn’t shut up. This was the moment I remembered when I saw that mom in Whole Foods and understood why she completely lost it. Because I wanted to lose it. It took every ounce of my personal restraint not to yell in her sanctimonious face.
Instead of screaming obscenities, I responded in a shaky, clipped tone. “My little boy is crying because I wouldn’t buy him a Thomas the Train. I am trying not to raise a spoiled brat and if you don’t like his crying, maybe you should move to another aisle. And take your parenting advice with you.” *
(*This is a general paraphrase. It’s been ten years. I remember so clearly how I felt, and what my voice sounded like coming out of my mouth, all nervous and shaky, but the exact words are a little foggy. Chances are, it wasn’t as eloquent as how I wrote it here, but you get the general idea.)
She just shook her head at me sadly, like I was a silly little teen mom or something, and walked away. Instead of making a connection, mom-to-mom, or woman-to-woman, because she may or may not have been a mom, instead of offering an encouraging word, she chose to tear me down. I cried on the drive home from Target that day.
It hurts to be cast out in that way, especially by another woman, even more so by another mom. Because we’re all just trying to do our best, follow our own parenting beliefs, and IT IS HARD. Parenting, mothering, is hard every single day. Why don’t we choose unity and encouragement over judgment, criticism and isolation? It would make mothering at least a little bit easier.
As mothers, we all make different choices. Here’s a news flash: all of our choices are valid, Moms. You may breastfeed, she may not. You may let your baby cry it out, she may not. You may give your eight-year-old an iPhone, she may not. You may be a stay at home mom, she may not. You may let your thirteen year old daughter dye her hair purple, she may not. You might have bought the Thomas the Train for your three year old, I did not.
ALL THESE CHOICES ARE VALID. Some are mine, some are yours, some are hers. None is better than the other. They just ARE.
Let’s all join together and say ENOUGH. Enough judgment. Enough criticism. Enough tearing each other down.
Instead, let’s have more compassion for each other as women, as moms. Let’s share the difficult experience of mothering with each other, whether we’re friends or strangers, and support each other, even when our choices differ. Even when we make mistakes, because we all do at some point.
When you see a struggling mom, reach out to her with a smile, or a nod of your head to let her know you get it. Even if you are nervous like me, walk over to her and say, “You’re doing a good job, Mom.”
And the next time you find yourself in that situation, anxious and struggling, not sure if you’re doing the right thing, not sure if you’ll face criticism or judgment, imagine feeling my hand on your arm, and hearing my possibly-shaky-but-loud-enough voice telling you, “You’re doing a good job, Mom.”
Because you are.