While I was out running errands one day, my son, who had been stuck in his pram for far longer than I knew he could handle without a meltdown, well, had a meltdown. He summoned up his best “let’s make it sound like you’re torturing me” scream and all of a sudden, I had multiple people whip their heads around to cast disapproving looks my way. I ignored it and continued on, but it was admittedly still something that left me feeling in that moment that I was doing a subpar job.
To me, I was an already frazzled mum who needed to get a lengthy to-do list ticked off, and my one- year-old son was understandably a little over it and needed to communicate this the only way he knew how. To everyone else, I was just a mum who couldn’t control her child. And that’s the thing with seeing parents at their “worst”. Judgement is being cast upon such a tiny snapshot of their day, a fleeting moment in time. You don’t know what came before that moment, or what’s to come after it.
But those moments can stick with a parent. Having asked a number of parents, they were all able to easily recall a moment when they’ve felt judged. A friend relayed a time when she was carrying her newborn son in a pouch as she waited to cross the road, laden down with shopping bags. A passer by in a car promptly yelled out the window to tell her to “support her baby’s head.” A comment which was entirely unnecessary as she had an insert in the carrier which was doing just that, but it was an unsettling exchange for a new mum trying to navigate an already vulnerable time. There are also friends who have received looks when their child has a tantrum in a public place, or some can feel dispersions being cast as soon as they whip out a device to help keep their child entertained.
It’s seems however that being on the receiving end of said judgements doesn’t seem to make a parent immune from doing the same. It’s something I’m sure most parents would admit to having done at one time or another, myself included. Whether it’s wondering why a parent isn’t watching their child at the playground and is instead on their phone, or seeing a kid having a sugary treat first thing in the morning and internally cringing at the sight, it’s those little moments of supposedly less than ideal parenting which somehow leads to a summation that a parent is not doing their job. And it’s unfair. In reality, we’re basing that judgement call on a sliver of what their life as a parent is like.
And it’s all so unhelpful to the experience of parenthood. The majority of parents are simply trying to do parenting the best way they know how. And that’s all any of us could hope for. The fact of the matter is, you’re judged as a parent even before a baby enters the picture and it only gets harder the deeper you go into the experience. It’s already such an emotionally, mentally and physically demanding gig – feeling like you’re being judged makes it even harder.
The reality too is that no parent is perfect. But it’s so easy to behave otherwise when it comes to what we see of other parents, even when we know exactly what they’re going through. I can only assume that because being a parent is such a visceral experience, something that gets to the core of your being, that it’s almost impossible to avoid knee-jerk, snap judgements when presented with a scenario that perhaps doesn’t compute in our internal “good” parenting handbook.
Having been on the receiving end of parental disapproval, and also being guilty of doing the same, I know it doesn’t help me to become a better parent, nor does it help someone else in their parenting experience. So, I’m choosing empathy and kindness instead. Because I’m remembering those times when in amongst the sea of disapproving glances, I saw someone give me a knowing look and a wry smile as if to say “I know exactly what you’re going through, you’ve got this”. That’s the kind of unspoken support that a parent needs, and it’s something that can make all the difference on a particularly tough day (especially when your toddler throws the mother of all meltdowns!). They say it takes a village to raise a child, so perhaps we can all consider ourselves a part of each other’s village. And given how challenging kids can be, there’s no harm having more people in our corner.