My secret shame

I’ve read a few articles recently about the so-called “mummy wars”. Most of them were of the “why can’t we be grown ups and stop judging each other” variety. Parental judgements are everywhere you look. Stay at home mums judging mums who go out to work. Mums who work criticizing mums who stay at home. Mums who breastfeed judging bottle-feeders, and mums who bottle feed getting up in arms about breastfeeding. Co-sleepers lording it over controlled cryers. The “raise ’em tough” brigade sneering at attachment parents.

The take home message is “my way is perfect, yours is horrendous. Unless your way happens to be my way, in which case full speed ahead and damn the torpedos, Sister, ‘cos we rock!”

People like to judge each other. It’s a fairly basic human tendency. But we judge others most harshly, I think, when we are unsure of ourselves – and few things make a person more insecure than becoming a parent.

Am I feeding her enough? Is he sleeping enough? Should I respond faster when she cries? Am I making him weak by cuddling him to sleep? Should I be stricter with her? Am I being too stern with him? Is this the right childcare/kinder/school? Is there something catastrophically wrong with her diet? Does he eat too much junk? Is she active enough? Does he have ADHD? Is she being challenged at school? Is he overworked? Should I help more with her homework? Should I help less? Should I play more with them? Should I let them take more chances? Am I putting them too much at risk?

Parenting can be a vast litany of self-doubt, fear and confusion. There is so much definite, assertive advice out there. Co-sleeping could be fatal. Not co-sleeping could be fatal. Breast is best, but you mustn’t eat chocolate or drink orange juice, never mind drugs and alcohol. The myriad of ways in which we are putting our children at risk is pounded at us through a risk-happy, danger-driven media many, many times every day. And we want to do the very best we possibly can for our children. Is it any wonder we doubt ourselves?

Every parent who does things the same way we do reinforces our belief that we are doing the right thing, and shushes those little voices that say we are making a terrible, terrible mistake. And every parent who makes different choices can be a vivid and potent threat to our certainty. An alarming reminder of what someone else thinks is best. And what if they are right?

The loudest voices are often the most uncertain – as if shouting louder will reassure us that we are right. So it is with those pesky parental judgements. The more aggressively we assert that someone else’s way is wrong, the more easily we can shout down those nagging doubts. We still the voices in our own heads by planting them in the heads of others.

It’s alarmingly effective. Today a lovely new friend was telling me of her travails with kids who don’t take the word “bedtime” overly seriously, and I found myself surprisingly reluctant to confess that I sit with my girls until they are asleep. This friend is one of the world’s least judgmental people, and I was entirely confident that she would not be the slightest bit perturbed by my guilty little secret, but the problem is I wasn’t afraid of her reaction – I was frantically trying to ignore my own shame. Which is really very sad.

Here I am, making a choice which brings my daughters comfort, gives us a lovely peaceful closeness at the end of the day, and generally only takes 5 or 10 minutes, and I am so caught up in all the judging and the vociferous advice that I find myself ashamed to admit that I do it. In truth, bedtime has often been a struggle in the past, as we persisted with my strange belief that I was obliged to get my kids to go to sleep on their own. It was only once we “caved” and decided to sit with them at bedtime – alternating, so that one night it’s me, the next night it’s their dad – that bedtime became a peaceful and reconnecting time for us.

In reality, of course, we didn’t “cave” at all. We just did what felt right – and I wish we’d done it earlier. It would have saved a lot of trauma. But I had very fixed ideas about how I was going to parent, and it took me a long time to get past that and see into my own heart.

Our harshest judges are inside our own heads. I think we judge others in a futile attempt to drown out those doubting voices. So next time you feel as though some other parent is judging you, spare a sympathetic thought for them. They are probably terrified that you might be right.

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4 thoughts on “My secret shame

  1. Joe

    I treat my two kids entirely different from each other. eg one gets instant attention if they make any sound at night, the other (if I go in at all) gets told to take a deep breath and go back to sleep.

    In each case, it feels like what they need.

    Somehow I suspect there’s no “right” answer.

    Two other thoughts spring to mind…

    When I was a younger man, babies used to burst out crying when I walked into a room. Even ones I’d never met before. (No, really, it’s true.) Somewhere along the way I decided that just wouldn’t do, and spent several years actively getting around kids so that I would get more comfortable. (I strongly believe said babies were reacting to my emotional discomfort around babies.) One time I volunteered to mind my friends’ two kids for a weekend, and when asked later if it was ok I said “no problems … and this way I get to experiment on your kids before I have to deal with my own” … and I was only slightly kidding.

    Anyway … I think most of us in our e-society could use a lot more practical human time around kids before we get our own. It’s certainly been a big help for me, and while I’m adamant about how I’ll deal with my own kids I’m very very relaxed about what other people think of it, or that what other people do with their kids will (mostly) work out ok in the end.

    The other thought … is that scholarly journals into pregnancy and early childhood risks deal in whole populations. A medical professional sees thousands of the public in their career, and doesn’t want to see cases like that again … even if those were one-in-ten-thousand. Whereas the counter-consequences of avoiding that may be more subtle, or more detrimental, but at least don’t show up in the case history.

    I don’t have to worry about whole populations. I don’t have to worry on epidemiological scales. I only have to have a rational approach to risk for two kids… and teach them not to fear marching into the world and grasping life with both hands.

    1. lindamciver

      I totally agree, Joe. Both on treating kids according to their needs rather than aiming for “perfect equality”, and on getting more practice. Too many of us wind up with kids without having any practical experience of kids up to that point. It’s a part of the breakdown of community – many extended families barely know each other these days. I was lucky to get to experiment on my nephews and a niece before I had my kids, and it made a huge difference to me, even though I parent quite differently to my beliefs back then.

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