Feeling weighed, measured, and found wanting

I did not stop to seriously consider the implications of my actions before stenciling a giant PATIENCE on Dominic’s cast.

Luang Prabang is a tourist town and it’s the tail end of the cool season here. There are thousands, literally thousands, of tourists in town. Not many of them, however, are walking around with babies, so our little trio already made an unlikely sight even before the accident. Now we’re a downright curiosity.

I watch people watching us when we’re out and about. First they see the stroller. They do a double take and search for the baby with a smile. Then they see the cast and their eyes go wide and a look of voyeuristic concern washes over their faces. Then they tilt their head sideways just a fraction as they take in the artwork adorning Dominic’s leg. Then their eyes jump up to my face.

The gaze seems confused and, sometimes, speculative.

But do you know, not a single person has asked me why on earth that word is on his leg? Plenty of people have asked me what happened to his leg, but no one has followed it up with, “so, uh, what’s the go with patience?”

I sometimes wonder if they know what I now know – that 70% of femur breaks in babies under 1 year old are the result of child abuse. I sometimes wonder if they suspect that the story about a fall down the stairs is just a convenient cover and that I needed a daily black and white reminder to reign in a vicious temper.

I would be willing to bet our first-born chi – OK, our dog – that the specter of feeling judged by strangers on these points has never entered Mike’s mind.

The difference between Mike and I in this regard was apparent long before Dominic’s accident.

Every time we go out walking with Dominic I need to build in several minutes to stop and exchange greetings with people who live on our street. There’s the friendly couple who own the small paper-supply shop and the unfriendly woman who blatantly rips us off at the fruit stand because we’re falang (foreigner) but who adores Dominic – he’s the only one of us she ever smiles at. There’s the disabled teenage boy who occasionally takes my hand when I walk past and gently kisses it. There’s the woman who sells donuts that ooze bright pink custard, and the one who sells organic vegetables from a blue tarp laid down on the sidewalk (sometimes she sells dead rats or cats, too, but let’s not go there). Then, of course, there’s anyone walking past who just wants to stop for a peek at the chubby white baby with coppery hair.

When I walk past with the stroller, none of these people hesitate to tell me when they think that Dominic is too hot or too cold, or that it might rain on us, or that he looks like he needs to sleep, or eat. When I was out with Mike one evening and the second person had stooped over my child, felt his fat little arm and then commented that it was cold and pulled up the wrap to cover him, Mike felt me tense.

“What’s the problem,” he asked as we continued on our way.

“Doesn’t it bother you?” I said. “All these people telling us that we’re getting it wrong? That we’re not taking good enough care of him?”

“What?” Mike said. “That’s not how I take it at all.”

“How do you take it then?” I said, wondering how else you could possibly take a phalanx of virtual strangers telling you that you haven’t dressed your child warmly enough.

“I take it as: ‘Wow, you have a beautiful little baby. We all love babies. Let’s find some common point of discussion whereby we can connect with you as parents and demonstrate that we’re paying attention to caring for the baby’s wellbeing,’” Mike said.

“That is a much nicer way to take it,” I said, not completely convinced.

“Do you really feel like people are telling you you’re not doing a good enough job as a mother?” Mike asked, amazed.

“Sometimes,” I admitted.

I wonder if this is only the beginning – whether I’m always going have to fight the instinct to take it personally whenever other people comment on what my child says and does. And I wonder where it comes from – what hidden deficit of self-esteem or deep-seated need for affirmation fuels this tendency to feel judged when others reach into the stroller and tug up my baby’s blanket.

I can tell you one thing though. If, heaven forbid, anything like this tumble down the stairs happens in the near future I won’t be adorning any casts with the words “gentleness” or “self-control”.

When have you felt judged as a parent? What helps you in those moments?

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36 responses to “Feeling weighed, measured, and found wanting

  1. All-the-time! Nath sent me an article recently (http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/life/when-parents-go-to-war-20120207-1r2ss.html) which talked about the competitive and judgmental-nature of parenting in todays world. It starts in pregnancy, escalates during birth and keeps mounting throughout parenting.
    Public-vs-private hospital.
    You get the point.

    It gets to the point that there are some friends and family Nathan and I now do not discuss children with. We might smile and nod when something comes up but we keep our parenting style/approach to ourselves. For example, we will never have a conversation with Nathan’s family about sleep training, CIO or Ferber.

    There are also all those little comments as well though – just like you mention here. Usually unsolicited, nearly always unwelcome and 100% of the time make me feel like I am not doing a great job.
    “Do you have Noah on a multi-vitamin? No?! You should.”
    “Why doesn’t Noah have on a hat? You are not in New York anymore. This is the Australian sun.”
    “You should take Noah to my chiropractor to help his immune system.” “Why haven’t you turned your 1year old to forward-facing in his car seat? He must be so squashed and bored!”
    It goes on.

    And then there are the unwanted comparisons – made by others about me and my sister-in-law, or their daughter, or their daughter-in-law, or there sister…

    And laterly, it has been the comments and looks from strangers when Noah has been sporting a black eye and a broken nose. What fun!

    Where does it come from indeed. I am sick of it though.

    • I just wanted to clarify that I am not hoping to raise my kids in isolation – with no input or advice sought from others. In fact I often ring my Mum or MIL or sister for advice about something relating to my boys. And maybe they don’t always give me the advice I was hoping for, but I invited their input and so I welcome their point of view. In fact, one of the driving reasons for our recent repatriation to Australia, was so that my boys would enjoy their extended family and having them involved in their childhood.
      But it is the competition that is so often lurking in the shadows about specific parenting topics that I am sick of – and I am not to say that I am blameless either.
      Lisa – you obviously hit on a hot topic with this post!

      • Gosh, that was an interesting article, thanks. (And I know I’m not the only one who thinks so – a bunch of people have followed that link in the last couple of days). Yes, this is a hot button issue, and trying to figure out how to find that right balance between isolation and drowning in unsolicited advice and other people’s opinions can be very hard, I reckon! Also, I tend to think parents who judge other parents are so out of line … except when it comes to issues I hold very strong opinions on (like vaccinations) and then I must confess I do the tutting. Hello, hypocrisy.

        And on another front entirely, sorry to hear about Noah’s nose!!

  2. All of what Bree said! And it got even harder for the week Evie had the black eye. More than once I had to restrain myself from pointing out I was not responsible for the injury (just did again there). Big hugs. You’re a great Mum.

  3. I think the feeling judged is more a Mom thing, guys don’t worry about judgement as much. I also think it gets easier with each kid, because you become more confident about your parenting! Parenting is one of those things that everyone has their own personal style for!

  4. I mean, as if we’re not already judging our own parenting 24-7! I’m my own biggest critic. The last thing I need is someone criticizing me. It should be interesting to see if my sensitivity goes down with baby boy #2. Somehow I doubt it. I can’t say I handle criticism very well. Not one to shy away when confronted, I usually I make a comment back that I regret. I’m not the best person I know.

    • Hope the last bit of this pregnancy is going well. And, no, I can’t imagine you being particularly retiring in the face of criticism :). I admire that strength, even though I know/suspect it gets you into trouble sometimes.

  5. Get it. My oldest is profoundly deaf and some in the Deaf community can be really militant. Please note the difference between the small “d” and the capital, because it is very meaningful. I had total strangers come right up and try to sign with Christopher when he was just a baby, completely ignoring me. “He doesn’t sign yet,” I would say politely and would be ignored. I soon decided to dispatch politeness and Deaf activists learned that my baby wasn’t an object over which to prove a point.

    Regarding Dominic, I’m surprised more people don’t grab him and start chewing on his gorgeous bod. It is good I don’t live in Laos.

    • I have a friend who’s deaf (lower case d) so I have some small idea of the heated debate within that community. Good for you for standing up for the wee one when he was too small to stop himself being used as a pawn in a debate, though.

      As for Dominic. The local kids have tried to feed him rice and potato chips and the like since he was just a wee baby and we have to step in and stop them. They always look at us as if we’re crazy :).

  6. For what it’s worth, I love that you wrote PATIENCE on his cast 🙂

    I surprised myself when I became a parent, by how UNconfident and UNsettled I was when it came to mothering my child. I’m no wallflower; by nature I am quite confident in my own abilities, I know my own opinions and can back them up, so I surprised myself when I was not the same way as a mother – at first.

    Although I knew before I had my first that I could never truly be prepared, I was struck when she arrived by how I couldn’t answer the seemingly simple questions that I had assumed every mother would be able to – “Is she hungry?” I don’t know! “Is she cold?” I’ve no idea! “Is she teething?” How the hell am I meant to know that?! And what must this person think of me – a mother who doesn’t know what her own child’s needs are?!

    If I didn’t even know for sure when she was in pain or cold, how would I ever be able to raise a toddler? A preschooler? A teenager?!! “Someone put her back in!” I thought. “She’ll be better off!”

    But then time happened. She got older; she turned one, then two, and now I have another baby, and again I can’t tell instantly what exactly all his immediate needs might be… but confidence has returned anyway. It came in time.

    Give yourself some time to perfect the smile-and-nod; it’s perfect for dealing with unsolicited “help” 😉

    • You’re right about the smile and nod. That’s what I usually do. You’re also right about the never ending waterfall of decisions that need to be made and the constant feeling of not really knowing what you’re doing. I can already see that it does get easier with time – part learning I suspect and part just shrugging and figuring out how to move forward in the face of mothering uncertainty.

  7. I’ll admit, I wonder often if I’m getting it right. My daughter is a teenager and it’s getting scarier. “Did I prepare her for the world?” “Will she stay true to who she is?” Then I remember that I continually seek God’s wisdom and direction in raising His child; that He has entrusted to my husband and I. I am thankful to my sister for reminding me of this when I start to panic.

  8. As somebody married to a mother of 7 years, can I suggest that re: mother’s guilt, you knuckle down for the long-haul…

    (also I LOVE the inference that the ‘Patience’ on Dominic’s cast is addressed to you as a reminder… made me laugh… 🙂 )

  9. My poor kids, I’m always saying stuff about the kids to them, like, “Shouldn’t she have a sweater on?” or “Did she eat enough at dinner?” or, “Wow, she looks exhausted, poor thing, needs to get to bed earlier.” And you know what, they are so patient with me, it’s not a reflection on them at all, they are both terrific moms, it’s just the crazy grammie instinct in me that is so much more neurotic than the mommy instinct was (probably because I WAS the one in control then) and I was a pretty crazy mom, so you can imagine what my girl have to endure. They are the best. Don’t take it personally, you’re doing great!

    • Thanks, Bobbie. You’re an amazing grandmother, I’m sure. And somehow it’s easier when it’s your own mum, I reckon. Well, easier for me anyway. Easier to listen without feeling judged when it makes sense and just roll your eyes and smile the rest of the time 🙂

  10. I think it’s sad that people need to be so defensive. I’m not a mother (thank goodness for that blessing!) but you know the saying, “it takes a village to raise a child”??? Well….! It kinda does. The thing is people have become so self-confident (or maybe not!), so independent, so competent that they think that if someone offers another idea or opinion that it’s personal criticism and intended to belittle you. It’s really sad that we seek our guidance privately – on the internet, or in mother’s groups or from books or whatever – but if someone in your community who shares the life you live with your offspring gets involved by offering their own pieces of advice (sage or perhaps idiotic, unsolicited, unwarranted or against your own beliefs), we feel attacked. Yet when we see incidents of moral decline and deprivation, when kids don’t listen to parents, teachers, police etc we blame ‘society’ and forget all those times we said, ‘Gee, I wish Mrs Jones would mind her own business.’

    • I think there’s a lot of truth in this, and on the whole I think having and raising kids is much easier/better when done in community, surrounded by people who know and love you and can share their own experiences. I also, however, think it can be hard not to get defensive and/or feel judged at times when people (anyone – people who know you well like your mum, or people who know you by sight like the people in our neighborhood, or people who don’t know you at all) freely offer their opinions regarding how you’ve dressed your children, what you’re feeding them, etc. Most mothers I know don’t make many of these decisions casually, and when you continuously get bombarded by people (especially people you don’t know well) basically telling you they disagree with you (even if they’re doing it in the spirit of loving your child and being concerned for them) it can be hard to take.

  11. I know all too well how you feel Lisa. When we lived in Mexico, I always got comments on how my babies weren’t dressed warm enough when the weather was perfectly fine to me and I didn’t hear any complaints from my two babies who were happily enjoying the fresh air on a blanket under the trees. Or people would even comment on how such young babies shouldn’t be outside at all! I’ll admit that I probably let them explore eating grass, touching dirt, dig around for insects etc. more than I’ve experienced other moms in my lifetime allow their babies, but I tried to hold on to the gut instincts I had as a mother and the intellect I had as an educated person, that told me that sunshine and fresh air was what they needed, that exposure to dirt and pollen and even certain bacteria early on would help their immune system and help prevent allergies. I also thought about the advice I received from a friend of mine who had twins a year ahead of me when she said, “Only YOU will know your children best.”

    • Yes, the “they’re not warm enough” one does mystify me a bit, I will admit. On the other hand after some of the stories about parasites and other people’s babies here that I’ve heard I’ll probably be the crazy foreign woman who *doesn’t* let her child eat dirt.

  12. I fight off comparison and self judgement about my mothering all the time, particularly since I’m one of only a few working outside the home moms in my church. It got to be its worst this past summer when my three year old wasn’t doing so well with his potty training and his Sunday school teacher began telling me how every other kid in the class was out of pull-ups and why wasn’t my son? Push come to shove, what ever it was we did in response prompted him into giving himself a condition of on-going constipation which, six months later and a week away from his fourth birthday, we are still fighting with our new best friend Miralax. And, no, he’s not potty trained. LET THE JUDGEMENT RAIN DOWN LIKE RIVERS. It’s very real judgement, too, because it plays into where I can put him in day care or pre-school and has completely thrown next year’s plans up in the air in all kinds of uncomfortable ways. I really like your husband’s take on everyone’s comments, though. I do think it works that way a lot of the time, especially with little ones, and even if it doesn’t, if one can filter it that way, what does it matter? It’s not like everyone else’s opinions can physically follow me into my home and haunt me unless I let them. I just wish I wouldn’t ever let them. And I wish my son could learn where to put his material waste products on a regular basis. Come quickly to our rescue, Lord Jesus.

    • Let it be said that not a single drop in that river of judgement comes from Laos. That sounds like a real struggle. Sorry, hey.

      • He put his poo-poo in the potty last night! That is too much information for you! Now I’m over sharing on the internet! Who has the pity now?!?!? (You do. Your son has a cast. My son has control issues. You win the pity.)

    • Totally with you on the potty training thing. I have two girls (5 & 3) who are still not totally potty trained and both have had/still have the whole fear-leading to-constipation thing! It’s great fun, especially since two of my sister-in-laws have potty trained their kids before they were one. I’ve learned though that there are so many things that I can’t control and sometimes I just need to let go. So sometimes I can just shrug and smile as people brag about their babies being completely potty trained in two days and other times, well let’s just say I’ve become very good at the smile and nod while inwardly screaming!

  13. I would bet mommy judgment (which we all get) is even harder when you’re different culturally. It bothered me no end when I lived in Brazil and I stood out like a sore thumb in American clothes–I haven’t felt that interested in what I was wearing since middle school (or since then, really). And I’ve noticed when I’m with our Burmese refugee artisans, they pick at and move my kids around in a way that shows they love them, but that sometimes seem to me like they’re correcting me. My friend’s in northern Thailand and she’s said the same thing–it’s the constant commentary about how their family is different or how they do things differently that can be wearing. For what it’s worth, I think you’re doing a fantastic job! I’ve enjoyed getting to know your blog from the parenting carnival!

    • Thanks Jessica, and I think that’s a good point about how the cross cultural differences might make everything harder. I bet there’s a whole lexicon of things that people in our own society comment on that may not catch me as off-guard as this constant stream of comments about whether or not D is dressed warmly enough.

  14. All the time. Mostly by myself… xx A

    • Yes, my loudest critic. Well, Mike would say I’m my own loudest critic most of the time (with some notable exceptions in areas where I think he wishes I’d criticize myself more).

  15. Read this and thought you’d appreciate it, too, particularly the part that reads “Even if a stranger manages to touch on an insecurity hot spot, we still have the ability to recognize the insecurity, address it and change it.” Hope the link comes through…


  16. Pingback: Awkward: A guest post by Leah Tioxon | Lisa McKay Writing

  17. Pingback: Awkward: A guest post by Leah Tioxon | LisaMcKayWriting

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