Shut Up, Judgy McJudgerson

Earlier this year on a rainy weekend day, my family and I went for a ferry ride. Actually, we went for 3 of them, because my kids love the ferry. First we drove to Tacoma and hopped the little ferry to Maury Island, then we drove to the Vashon ferry and rode it to Southworth, and then we drove to Kingston to catch a ferry to Edmonds. We stopped for food and at a bookstore along the way and it was a fun outing. As we were sitting in the ferry wait line in Tacoma, my son and I got out of the car for a minute to stretch our legs, and then he and I sat in the front passenger set for a little while, while we waited for the ferry to arrive. My husband took a photo of us and posted it on Facebook.

Now, what happened next says a lot about how Judgy McJudgersons come to think at their behavior is totally acceptable, and why it drives me COMPLETELY AND TOTALLY INSANE. It’s sorry for the shouting, but seriously, this behavior just makes me stabby. If anything about this story sounds like something you have done, please please please never ever do it again. Ever.

People began commenting on the photo about the fact that my son was sitting on my lap in the front seat of a car and neither of us were wearing a seat belt. The comments were along the lines of, “I hope the car wasn’t moving when you took that photo” and “why isn’t he in a booster in the back seat?” Well, DUH. Because I think boosters are for wimps, and so are seat belts, and also I send my kid to the store to buy me some smokes and a bottle of Jack every afternoon. (That’s called sarcasm right there.) Of course, the real reason is, the car was parked. In a long line, that wasn’t going to be moving until the ferry arrived and unloaded the arriving cars. Last I checked, when a car is parked, it’s socially acceptable to be sitting in it without a seatbelt on.

Because of my NICU experience, one of my triggers is when people make me feel like I am not a good parent. It makes me completely irrationally angry. I spent too many weeks where I wasn’t allowed to parent my kid at all because he was in an incubator on oxygen, and the feeling of having my independence and judgment as a parent questioned…well, it pretty much sends me over the edge. So when people suggest I am idiot enough to drive around with my kid not seatbelted in, that makes me nuts. It makes me feel like my autonomy and authority as a parent are being taken away. That said, I know a lot of moms without PTSD who feel the same way when someone questions their parenting choices or accuses them of being less than safe with their kids. They get angry and defensive. I mean, who DOES like to feel like they’re being accused of being a bad parent or endangering their kids?

Now, the Judgy McJudgersons of the world aren’t trying to make us feel that way, of course. They come from a place of good intentions–that is, they genuinely want what’s best for my kid. They want him to be safe and healthy. And that’s great and all, except, they use that good intention as an excuse to throw out everything they know about me as a person and as a parent, and let themselves assume I am doing something crazy dangerous with my kid.

I’m not talking here about your friends who are experts and so you ask for advice about stuff like which car seat is going to fit best into your tiny car or whether you’ve installed it properly. The difference is, you ASK an expert for advice, you seek that information out. A Judgy McJudgerson forces that information upon you. A Judgy McJudgerson assumes you do not know as much as them and makes it their job to educate you, whether you want or need them to or not.

I’ve spent a lot of time wondering what it could be about the Judgy McJudgersons that makes them act this way. And the best theory I can come up with is that they are scared. Scared shitless, in fact. Scared shitless that THEY aren’t good parents themselves. So they take every opportunity they get to show off their parenting expertise, be it car seats, the dangers of GMOs, the benefits of homeschooling, whatever. Whatever their “thing” is that they’re into being an expert on, they take every opportunity to tell everyone, from their friends to perfect strangers, the absolute best information about their thing. That it comes off as demeaning to the parents they are lecturing just doesn’t seem to cross their mind.

And the reason they feel scared shitless? You guessed it, the Cult of Perfect Motherhood. It makes all of us feel like we aren’t good enough. And then we feel the need to show the world we ARE good enough, by Judgy McJudgersoning all our friends and their parenting choices. I will not lie, I have done it. Truth time: we are all Judgy McJudgersons sometime. I have looked at a photo of a mom and kid doing something and thought “oh my gosh, that looks dangerous…I wonder if she’s read that article about blah blah blah…” But now that I’ve escaped from the cult, I say to myself, “SHUT UP JUDGY MCJUDGERSON” and I keep it to myself. Because that mom is a friend of mine, and she is doing what she thinks is best for her kid, and I am not going to judge her. Just like I don’t want her judging me.

So, next time you see a photo of a kid in a car who isn’t wearing a seat belt, just take a step back from the computer and ask yourself, “Is my friend really that much of a moron, or is it possible that there is a reasonable explanation for why that kid doesn’t have a seatbelt on? How will this person feel when I publicly shame them? Am I being a Judgy McJudgerson right now?” And then wait five minutes before you comment.

How I Escaped the Cult

Like most moms, I was once in the Cult of Perfect Motherhood. What’s that, you say? Are you shocked to learn I was not born a radical mom who throws off the bonds of society and embraces her failures? Please, girl. It took a lot of shit to get me to where I am now. I started out like a lot of moms, just swimming in that Perfect Motherhood myth until my fingers got all pruney. It was back when I was pregnant with my first born, The Boy. I was one of those people who spent hours, days, weeks, agonizing over what stroller to buy. I researched and read reviews and test drove them at Babies’R’Us. Of course, I was registered at BrU, and man, did I register for a lot of crap. I mean, a LOT of crap. I was sure I needed all of it in order to be a good parent. I mean, having a baby is a lot of work, right? I was going to need a LOT of gadgets to help me get the parenting work done. Like a bottle warmer, and a sleep positioner, and that mega stroller that the infant car seat snaps onto that also converts into a bassinet.

Then everything went haywire. The Boy was born 3 months premature, because my water randomly broke in the middle of an otherwise normal healthy pregnancy. 6 years later, we still don’t know why it happened. I would give anything for it not to have happened, because the NICU is a horrible place. I am not going to go into detail right this minute, but let’s just say, watching your baby laying in an incubator covered in wires and tubes and not being allowed to hold him? Yeah, that’s indescribably horrible. It’s every bit as horrible as you imagine it might be, times a million. My husband and I have PTSD from it, and we have both needed therapy because of the NICU experience.

But as horrible as the NICU was, and as much as I would never wish that experience on anyone, not even my worst enemy, I have to admit that it taught me some things about parenthood that have been valuable to me. I have heard a lot of cancer survivors say that as awful as cancer is, it was also a gift, because it made them value their time on earth more and gave them permission to quit that shitty job or try that thing they’ve been too scared to try. Well, the NICU is like that, except the gift it gave me is the knowledge that I have no control over a lot of what happens to my children. I can do my best and read every book and carefully control every food I eat when pregnant and get great prenatal care, and still something can go horribly wrong for no understandable reason whatsoever. It comes down to this: shit happens, and it doesn’t make you a bad mother. My NICU friends are all good moms. Every one of them. They didn’t bring this awful thing on themselves, it just happened. (Not that I felt like that about myself during the NICU, I had tons of guilt. But therapy helped. A lot.)

Another thing the NICU taught me is that babies don’t need half the crap they sell for babies. I mean, The Boy had tons of medical equipment in the NICU, but when it came to actual baby stuff? He had zillions of receiving blankets, diapers, bottles, and some clothes. He had a pacifier he didn’t want to use. That’s basically it. We warmed his bottles in hot water from the sink in a coffee cup. There was no contraption in the NICU to warm it. Sleep positioner? Rolled up blankets work just as well, and once he was out of the NICU, he didn’t need them anyway. Hell, they didn’t even use baby wipes. They used soft paper towels that you run some water over and wring out. I mean, if a preemie, the neediest of babies, can thrive and grow and triple in weight without a bottle warmer, every kid can get by without one. And if they can get by without one, then why the hell was I agonizing for hours on end about which bottle warmer was THE right one? Why was I spending all my energy on that crap? My husband and I took practically everything off our baby registry when we realized we didn’t need it.

But the most important thing I learned from the NICU is, make friends with the other moms. Let me say that again, because it is really important, I am not kidding you guys LISTEN RIGHT NOW I MEAN IT: make friends with other moms. Because, parenting is hard, and having people you can confide in about how hard it is and what you’re feeling? That is priceless. You NEED people who get what you’re going through and who are going to be able to give you a hug when you’ve had a shitty day as a parent and boost your confidence and help you see you aren’t alone. You need that on the day your kid has to take a trip to the ER because he took a header over the front of his ride-on toy into the TV stand (yep, that happened)–you need someone to say, “Wow, it took 18 months for him to have to visit an ER? You must be doing an awesome job, because my kid fell off the slide and broke his arm waaaaaay younger than that. Scary as shit, wasn’t it? Don’t worry, they get less clumsy as they get older, I hear.” You need someone to empathize and help you realize that you aren’t a horrible person just because something awful happened to your kid. You and they are good people, trying their hardest, and that is the best any of us can do as parents. When you don’t have those people in your life, the Cult of Perfect Motherhood can swallow you whole.

I wouldn’t wish the NICU on my worst enemy. But I am glad that I learned things from that experience, things that have helped me be a happier, better mother.

The Cult of Perfect Motherhood

It never ceases to amaze me when a mom friend says to me “I feel like a horrible mother.” Because, I don’t have any mom friends who beat their kids. None of my mom friends are meth addicts. And as far as I can tell, none of their kids appear to be on the road to becoming violent meth addicts themselves. So, when they say “I feel like a horrible mother” I usually say, “Really? Why? Because you seem like an awesome mom to me!” And then they usually lower their voice, as if they are going to confess some dark and terrible secret…but they say banal things like, “I let my kid eat McDonalds for dinner three times this week.” Or “My kid got into my arts and crafts supplies and colored all over her face and now she looks like an Oompa Loompa.” Or, “I snapped and yelled at my kid when he broke something today after I told him ten times not to play with it.”

And it made me wonder, when did petty crap like that start to make you a bad mother? Why do so many moms believe that only “horrible parents” are too busy to make a healthy meal every night? When did it become “horrible parenting” to have a kid who likes markers and messes? Who says that only “horrible parents” yell at their kids when they do something we told them not to?

And, why are we all so afraid of what the other moms will think of us? Why do we see them as judges, instead of as sisters?

I have come to call this phenomenon the Cult of Perfect Motherhood. It seems to be based on the idea that there is a perfect way to parent, and that if we do not live that perfect parenthood every day, we are failures and our children are doomed to become sociopaths. And what surprises me is how many moms I know seem to be drowning in the Cult. They read every parenting book there is, worried that if they miss that one piece if parenting advice, it’ll keep their kid from being a success. They read every car seat review, agonizing over which car seat is THE right one to keep their child as safe as possible. They sign their child up for every available enrichment class, from dance to Spanish lessons to basketball to chess club, because they don’t want their kid to end up at the less prestigious college because his résumé isn’t well rounded.

But most of all, they worry all the time that they aren’t doing it right. And they worry that something is wrong with them because they are unhappy, while all the other moms seem to be elated and loving every minute of motherhood.

Here’s the truth: nobody is happy all the time. Nobody likes cleaning up their kid’s vomit. Everybody’s kid throws a tantrum sometimes. Nobody’s house looks like that photo from Pinterest. Everybody looks forward to when the kids are finally in bed for the night and they can have five minutes to themselves. None of these things makes you a horrible parent. There is no such thing as a Perfect Mother.

That’s what this thing I am writing here is about. It’s about killing the Cult of Perfect Motherhood, and teaching ourselves to strive to be good parents without hating ourselves for not being perfect. It’s about an end to guilt and shame over things that are not shameful and that we shouldn’t feel guilty about. And, it’s about supporting each other instead of judging each other, because we all live in glass houses. We ALL live in glass houses. And maybe, just maybe, if we stop spending our energy shitting on ourselves and each other, we can use that energy for something more productive instead.