Judge not!

There’s a great scene in Paula Bomer’s novel Nine Months when the main character, Sonia, is grilled by a friend about her choice in preschool.

Sonia: “Tom and Mike go to Open Arms Nursery. That little place down Atlantic.” [Her friend reacts with a look of alarm.] “My theory is, it’s preschool. It doesn’t matter so much. As long as they’re having fun.”

Clara: “Fun? Preschool is a very important time. It’s not about fun. It’s about developing the skills that will carry your child through the rest of his or her life.”

The right way, the wrong way

What is it about parents judging other parents? I have to say, I was a little blindsided by the general atmosphere of judgment that manifested after having my first child. I’d heard about how it takes a village to raise a child and I’d naively expected more of a “we’re all in this together!” attitude from other parents. Au contraire!

Once during a mom-and-baby class another woman pulled out a bottle of formula for her hungry daughter. “Does anyone else use Enfamil?” she asked. “It doesn’t always seem to mix so well…”

She was met with silence and a sidelong glance from one nursing mother to another. “Did she even try to breastfeed?” I heard one of the moms mutter to another in the lobby after class.

When it comes to judgment from other people, virtually every parenting decision is up for grabs—breastfeeding, circumcision, vaccinations, sleep training, and daycare, to name just a few—and that just applies to the baby years.

The impact often goes deeper than a pointed glance at the playground. “I lost one of my best friends because we disagreed about vaccinations,” said “Kelly,” mother of two in south Minneapolis.

Cold comfort

Although I’ve been judged for a variety of things, such as my physical activity during pregnancy (“You’re still riding a bike at eight months? Is that even safe?”), and the fact that I supplemented breastfeeding with formula (I was “encouraging mediocrity in parenting” by writing about it publically), I will admit it—I judge other parents, too. I think most of us probably do. But no one likes being judged for their decisions, parenting or otherwise. So why do we keep doing it? What function does this serve?

“I think it serves an ethical function,” said Kerry M. Mokalla, a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW), who practices in Minneapolis. “People judge others who they think have crossed a line or ‘broken the rules’—plus, it can make them feel better about themselves.”

Jenny Adams Salmela, LICSW, a psychotherapist who practices in Minneapolis, points out the “decision fatigue” that many parents face and how this can pit parents against each other. “Research has shown that when we have to compare options, we become more confident in our decisions—which can lead to judgment of those who choose differently,” she said. “With the range of options, books, videos, and lifestyles today it’s not surprising that people who adopt a specific parenting style would want to push this on others as the one correct choice. I think it is somewhat natural to want others to make the same choices you do if you have strong beliefs. But is this helpful to others? No.”          

How to deal

So what can you do when you’re feeling judged? Salmela points out the importance of being kind to yourself while being kind to others, as well. “When I am feeling judged, I remind myself that I am an intelligent, capable person who loves my children and that I am making the best possible decisions for them in my power,” she said. “I remind myself that being a good enough parent, providing love, support. and safety—but still making mistakes—is all that is necessary for a child to thrive.”

Mokalla emphasizes the importance of building a strong support network. “Surround yourself with people who support you,” she said. “Start to learn who your allies are.”

And while Salmela and Mokalla (mothers to two and three children, respectively) are both professionals who counsel others on ways to handle judgment, neither are immune to the raised eyebrows and the harsh words of others. “Whenever I allow myself to ‘marinate’ in judgment I practice breathing to physically and mentally center and be kind to myself,” said Salmela. “I try to laugh about how ironic it is that we parents can judge each other so harshly and yet need support from one another so much, and ultimately I try to let it go while reminding myself how it feels so that I don’t carry it forward.”

Shannon Keough lives in Minneapolis with her husband, 
Nick, and daughter, Lydia. Send questions or comments 
[email protected].

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