LiteraryMama contributor and New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Lauck (who has an essay in all three of my upcoming anthologies, It’s a Boy, Literary Mama, and It’s a Girl) posed a question for her blog readers about the kind of situation many of us have experienced: making a judgment call about another person’s parenting. On a flight, she witnessed another mother basically losing it with her toddler. The question was, what should she do about it? Should she leave it alone, or should she say something?
Judging is easy. Why else would talent shows like American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance and whatever the hell that ballroom dancing with celebrities show was (and all the other reality shows where voting and literal judgment determines who stays and who goes) be so popular? You get the rush of being a critic, sitting there on your couch, pointing out who’s off-pitch or whose turn-out sucked or deciding who should be voted off the island. But judging well is hard. From the outside looking in, it’s easy to decide a mother is doing things all wrong, to feel a bit superior as she struggles in a situation you know for sure you would handle much better.
But who among us would want to be judged by our worst parenting moments? Even those of us who can feel confident that we’re pretty good mothers have had those dark moments of saying something we knew we shouldn’t have said, handling something the exact opposite way we would have handled it on a better day, making a situation harder than it would have been had we a clearer head, more time, less stress — pick your poison. Fourteen-hour days with young children can be detrimental to your thinking process.
Jennifer describes the scene she witnessed on the plane and asks readers what they would do in her situation, then, in a separate entry, finishes the story and shares what she decided to do.
We all make judgment calls every day about our own parenting and others’. And we all bring our own past to bear on our present parenting — some mothers might be more sensitive to any semblance of maternal neglect due to childhood experiences with a self-absorbed or unavailable parent; some might be more hyper-aware of issues of enmeshment due to growing up with a hovering, correcting parent. Our personal family histories and experiences inform us as parents, and as judgers of other parents. The difficult task is judging wisely, being able to assess a situation and come to a conclusion that is not somehow entirely wrapped up in blame, defensiveness, or self-protection.
A mother I know told me years ago that she had come up with something that helped her deal with her extremely difficult children (who have now thankfully moved beyond that difficult phase): she told me that when things were tough and she was ready to lose it with her kids, she pretended that there was someone else watching her watching her and judging her actions. This, she said, helped her parent better, thinking of a stranger being present to dispassionately observe her. I think it’s a good technique, to take you out of the moment where you’re maybe crossing into territory your saner self would never want you to go. But the truth is, we don’t have to pretend: people are watching us as we mother, and their observations aren’t always as dispassionate as we might like.