Photo: Patryce Bak/Getty Images
I am not a natural mom. I was somehow surprised by my pregnancy — despite the fact that I’m a lesbian — and even after a year and change, I still feel clobbered by the relentlessness of parenthood. Despite this, despite knowing that the task of raising children is unimaginably hard, I still occasionally catch myself criticizing other women as they parent. I indulge in judgment reflexively because it scratches an animal itch, and because someone keeps sending their nanny to do their shifts for our playgroup co-op.
Judgment is a unifying force. We each endure it and impose it: on Seamless orders, Amazon purchases, and mothers. Especially mothers. A friend once confessed to me that the only real parental fear she’d experienced was mothering in public. Though she and her kid are both thriving and happy, she knew it wouldn’t be long before someone found a reason to wag a finger or raise an eyebrow across the playground. It’s a rite of passage for moms.
It’s no surprise that we take particular delight in judging mothers, who are women with power. As a country, and maybe as a species, we still look for men at the top of every power structure. Motherhood frustrates that expectation. To complicate things still further, witnessing motherhood reminds spectators of their own mothers — their successes, their failures, and the chasm of unmet needs and small slights that so many of us carry from childhood. No wonder we consider female parenthood fair game for public comment, like the weather or the subway.
Of course, motherhood is impossible to perfect. Some days, it feels like doing a triathlon with bears chasing you while holding in your pee. Congratulations are in order if you and the kid are merely alive at 7 p.m., albeit both tear-stained and stinky. Knowing this first-hand, it’s no surprise that my heart has softened since my son was born. I have a big marching-band Fuck You for anyone who says it’s not cool to leave your 3-month-old strapped into a bouncer on the bathroom floor while you shower. Lately, I even leap to the defense of those much-maligned women who nurse children old enough to ask for it. Like so many choices women make, breastfeeding has a razor-thin margin of cultural acceptability: Don’t do it and you’re selfish; do it for too long and you’re a creep. Not to mention the fact that judging toddler nursing is a particularly lavish hypocrisy.
My scope of vision has also expanded in the last 16 months. A few years ago, I watched a 3-year-old on a subway platform exclaiming gleefully at the lights in the tunnel while his mom stared at her phone stone-faced. She’s gonna regret that, I thought, feeling sad for the kid. In ten years nothing will impress him, and if it does, he’s not gonna tell her about it. Now that my son is a toddler, I replay the scene with the mother in the lead role. Had the kid just flailed around and punched her in the face, his tiny fist landing squarely on her eye? Had he refused to eat at daycare, then cried when he threw the only snack in her purse onto the floor of the train? I feel sad for the kid. But I also feel sad for his mother.
That’s the thing — so much of what we interpret as questionable mothering is actually female self-care. A toddler’s Tampico-and-M&M dinner on the R train might buy a girl a few much-needed minutes of silence to respond to work emails and avoid getting fired. The 5-year-old with a pacifier and a tablet blaring cartoons is leaving his mom alone so she can finish her homework and get her degree. And of course, racism and classism — mine included — fuels a lot of our judgments. Love and humor and generosity of spirit look different in different families.
Still, I catch myself judging. Like breathing, I’m only aware of it when I stop and consciously focus. The messages issue up whether I want them to or not: Leggings aren’t pants. Milk should be pasteurized. You’re letting him watch that?! Some of it, arguably, is useful. We can all learn from each other’s mistakes. And the judgments that I point in my own direction, as I offer my kid a biscuit or a boob to keep him from crying, or cue up another “educational” video on YouTube, aren’t totally unfounded. But at the end of a long day, when I’ve been too busy to notice there’s a human turd on my carpet, I begin to let them go. I’m alive, he’s alive. We’ve made each other smile. That’s enough.