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The Parenting Judgement Train

This morning while riding an empty train to work, I had a moment of revelation. While watching the empty train cars ahead of me turn and twist along the track, I couldn’t help but notice how my own carriage felt perfectly stationary. Despite being attached to the same train, I could only see motion in the cars ahead of me.

I couldn’t help but apply this analogy to motherhood, and how we tend to overlook our own failings but are quick to notice and judge others for theirs. What’s worse, you don’t even have to fail to be judged or criticized; you just need to be different.

I was first initiated into this world of holier than thou parenting when I was pregnant with my first child. I was sitting hunched over hugging a pillow across my bump, when I got ‘the look’ from a friend. Seeing me clueless, she went on to explain that I had adopted a bad posture and was probably ‘smothering’ my unborn child! I have since come to recognize that look, the most fertile grounds for it being supermarkets, playgrounds and airplanes.

Unbeknownst to us, when we become mothers we also birth some other undesirable things – guilt, judgment and fear among them. The lack of a village means, we constantly need others to validate our parenting views. If everyone is doing it, it must be right, parenting bandwagon effect.

There is something very communal about motherhood. Normal people who would otherwise respect social boundaries, feel compelled to that make unwanted and occasionally snide remarks and give unsolicited advice. It starts with the pregnancy when your growing belly suddenly becomes public property for all to touch and ‘pet’ when they like. These unwelcome gestures are also accompanied by constant judgement about your skills as a mother.

Forget about following your heart just follow the herd! Forget about finding your maternal instincts, find safety in numbers! Sadly, even doing all of this doesn’t guarantee you’ll be free of disapproval. It’s a bit like this situation below, with this man and woman and their donkey.

While friends, family and strangers on the road are the most common offenders, the Internet has taken these mommy battles to a completely new level. It usually starts with a controversial post by a mom on some sensitive topic. Most of it is simply clickbaiting. Once the collective gasp has died down, the rebuttals and open letters begin. Yes, #firstworldmommyproblems!

The most popular of these online face-offs was the “Dear Mom on the iPhone series” with a number of articles and rebuttals from different camps of sanctimommies; each viewpoint dripping with sarcasm and full of generalizations about other people’s lives. Interestingly, what bothered me most was how discriminatory this was to us Samsung mums! Another case in Singapore was that of a disgruntled man complaining about heavy stroller traffic in malls, and this witty response to it. This mum uses the same donkey analogy quite poignantly, along with other hilarious memes to make her point.

The TIME magazine controvercial cover and title ‘Are You Mom Enough?’ was spurned by half a dozen articles and blog posts. Ditto for the Wall Street Journal’s piece about French parents being superior. The moral high ground is getting seriously overcrowded!

The best way to vaccinate yourself from others criticisms is not to hold judgement about yourself. It would bother you less if someone were to make a remark about something you do with absolute conviction. Accepting ourselves as the perfect imperfect parents is the first step to getting off the judgement train.

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The Google Mom

While pregnant with my first one, I convinced myself that my belly rash was PEP (earlier called PUPPP). When I confronted my gynecologist with the symptoms and suggested the diagnosis, I was dismissed. “Oh, it’s just a rash” she said nonchalantly. I was indignant, how could she dismiss the hours I spent on the Internet self-diagnosing! Resolute on being vindicated, for my next consultation I took prints of research papers, pictures of symptoms and all sort of material to prove myself. Clearly my few hours on Google University were as good as her years in medical school. Faintly amused, she was still insisted that it was nothing to worry about. Of course, it was nothing but rash, but in my defense… Ah well, who am I kidding, I have no defense!

We are living in a world where there is more information than our brains are designed to process. A lot of it is just noise, but even sifting through this barrage of information to find relevant pieces takes up our bandwidth. As moms in this new digital age we have benefited immensely from our ability to connect to and feel a sense of camaraderie with an online tribe who is suffering from the same poop/puke filled days and sleepless nights. We use the Internet to get good deals on products, read reviews, get recommendations and to find humour even! But all this infobesity comes with a price. While the Internet helps in giving us new perspectives and insights, it can also concretise your biases by offering affirmations for any belief that you might hold. For some of us not gifted with a strong in-built mommy compass, this non-stop online chatter can sway our principles, make us feel inadequate and question ourselves as parents.

With my first child, I compulsively researched everything online. Starting from the weekly foetus growth photos to birth stories, baby poop, vaccinations, feeding, weaning, sleep issues, growth spurts, the list is endless! I came across a ton of material, sometimes conflicting. In this new age, it has become a trend to define your parenting style and build your Mom brand. There are extreme camps of AP/crunchy moms and the mainstream moms, and many different parenting styles in between. These days it’s common to have a Mom Statement, something you live by. Before the age of modern medicine, structured education and economic surplus, motherhood involved keeping the child healthy, providing basic learning and keeping him fed. Having moved beyond that, we are still struggling to really understand our roles. I digress.

None of us would fit exactly into any of these defined molds of 21st century parenting. We all have unique styles of navigating this maze of motherhood with the help of our friends, our family, and our village. Technology is meant to make our lives easier, not complicate it further. With so much information just a finger swipe way, we have to show as much discretion in our use of it as our contribution to it. The Internet is also responsible for giving us a false sense of having the smarts, as I learned with the experience with my Gynae. The speed at which I can source information and become an ‘expert’ is limited only to speed of my internet access. What actually gets retained is a matter open for debate. While I still enjoy a variety on online content, stepping off the information hamster wheel, for me involved a balanced diet to combat Infobesity by cutting down on the junk food equivalent of needless time spent on Twitter, Pinterest and Houzz, limiting empty calories from FB pages and parenting forum boards. I do occasionally binge, but there’s always the digital detox program to counter that!

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Nuggets of Wisdom from my Village

Lets start this post with a very factual but seldom acknowledged statement ‘Parenting is a tough tough job!’ Despite the universality of this statement, I haven’t met a single parent who will pass on this warning to other expectant parents – “Just a heads up, you’re heading for a lifelong battle!” Of course we won’t say that, the more people suffering the merrier!

One of my favorite parenting books is Jennifer Senior’s ‘Modern Parenting: All Joy And No Fun’. It is not one of those usual books filled with pyschobabble parenting advice with little practical applicability. It’s a book for and about the parents; it describes the evolution of parenting, the modern affliction of helicopter parenting, the travails of raising our bundles of joy which seemed to have missed our parents generation, among other things. She talks about how the word “parent” came into common use as a verb only in the 1970s. Before that, parents just ‘were’, they didn’t ‘do’.

village[1]These days we just do. And mostly we are pretty lost as to what we are doing – we are guilt-ridden and we constantly second-guess our decisions. A lot of this is due to the lack of a village. The last few generations have missed out on extended family support, passing of wisdom down generations and stimulation for kids from various adult interactions and relationships with cousins, neighbors and the community in general.

Over the years, I’ve received some great parenting advice, practical advice from moms who have been there done that. I can’t thank these parents enough for these tidbits of information and passing on valuable knowledge to those of us who are a little behind the curve but on the same journey nevertheless. These awesome moms have been my village.

Recently, while discussing morning battles with a seasoned mother of three and a very dear friend, I received another nugget of gold. She suggested I wake up the kids in a very happy and excited manner, singing to them and creating a huge hullabaloo. For someone who wakes up sullen and groggy, staggering straight to the kitchen for a coffee shot in the morning, this was a challenge. I tried – every morning I woke the kids up as if it’s the happiest day of my life while every bone in my body screamed for coffee! Those 5 minutes spent cheerfully talking and giggling with the kids made the start to our day so much better.

Another mommy friend, who also happens to be a fantastic children’s book author told me about the ‘filling a bucket’ method to teach kids about empathy and caring for others. The book Have you Filled the Bucket Today? was a fantastic read even for my then 2-year old. It’s been a great tool for teaching the kids that screaming with hands flailing and body wriggling on the floor is not the only way to describe emotions!

I can’t remember who told me this, but this is something I often use with my kids – lying next to the kids when they are in their sleepy-but-can’t-sleep phase with my eyes closed and just breathing heavily and noisily. It works like magic, even for older kids. One more excellent bedtime advice, coming from a gorgeous mom who is colour consultant as well as a hypnotherapist, was to count down with the older kids, all the while softly talking to them how much you appreciate and love them after each count.

Sometimes I have learnt just by observing others. A very good friend who has since moved out of Singapore, was the perfect example of educaring – I doubt though that she was aware of the term. Magda Gerber’s educaring philosophy encourages parents to be observers and step back from active parenting. As a young first time mom, I remember in my enthusiasm I didn’t let a single teaching moment pass. I was always showing, helping, commenting and mostly just interfering. In the process I may have hindered his natural creative instincts by plastering my very adult outcome-focused manner on our activities. I stepped back a little with my second one, in some ways it was not a choice as there is only so much time you can give to an active toddler and a baby. It may just be a personality trait but my second one is much more self-directed and creative in his play.

Of course there’s always the different set of well meaning but pointless advice moms tend to receive. I appreciate it nevertheless, as what works for one may not necessarily for all.

This lovely community of moms, all in a similar boat as me – expats living away from families, a lot of them juggling work and kids and hubbies with stressful/travelling jobs – have been my lifeline. And now I’m ready to pass on the wisdom!