It was one of those mom days where nothing was going right. My son was a ball of flying fists from the moment he woke up, fighting every attempt to change his diaper, put on clothes, or brush his teeth. After he finally agreed, we ate and drove to the store, where he fought getting into the cart, only cooperating when I allowed him to sit the main compartment instead of the seat. I didn’t know it, but I was about to need a phrase I now rely on: “Instead of starting ridiculous conversations with moms you don’t know, just help us and our kids.”
Like a lot of folks in our society, I struggle with anxiety. I manage it well, especially with the help of a good therapist and self-care practices that help me keep my stress — and my reactions to that stress — in check. However, it’s hard sometimes, especially now that I’m a mom and I’m constantly responsible for people who matter to me more than anything. Especially now that one of those people is a toddler, whose physical capabilities and curiosity far exceed his sense of self-preservation.
As we rolled through Costco, he suddenly stood up in the cart, instantly reminding me why I don’t typically let him ride there. After struggling to keep calm through his aggressive behavior all morning, I could feel my grip on the day loosening, my heart racing and my hands shaking as I saw him slowly leaning forward, clearly considering whether or not to climb out. My breath was stuck in my chest. I froze, stopping myself and the cart so I could collect myself and put him in the ring sling I still keep on my shoulder, just in case. Just then, a passing stranger scolded: “Ugh! Do something! One wrong move and he could fall out and smash his head!”
I turned away from my son to look at this stranger, inches from my shoulder, practically barking in my face. I still hadn’t breathed.
“I’ve got it,” I hissed, wishing I’d had the ability to say so much more.
Let’s do better. Let’s remember that we don’t know what other people are going through, or why they’re making the choices they make.
Thanks, passing stranger, I thought as I inhaled and stepped forward to wrap up my little boy. It's actually never occurred to me that his head could smash all over this hard, concrete floor. That's not a possibility I've ever contemplated over and over again, sometimes to the point of not being able to sleep or breathe. Indeed, you just caught me on my very first day on Earth, and I'm completely unfamiliar with the concept of gravity. I'm not taking a breath to steady my hands so I don't drop him. Nope, I don’t care at all, and am paying no attention whatsoever. Apparently, you care more about him than I do, Stranger. You’re more invested in him than I, who created him from scratch, birthed him, nursed him and have cared for him for the last 21 months — 30 if you include pregnancy. Thanks, too, for positioning yourself just close enough to judge and give me instructions, but too far away to actually step in and catch him if it turns out I'm too incapacitated to get him myself.
Something that has continually frustrated me since becoming a mom, are the number of people who feel it is their place to tell moms what to do with our bodies, our lives, and our kids, yet who do absolutely nothing to directly help our children, whom they’d claim to care so much about. People frequently assume moms are putting our kids in danger when we’re really not (or imagine we’re putting them in more danger than we are), and then behave in ways that actually put kids at more risk than they were before.
For instance, when my son was misbehaving in the shopping cart, distracting me from him in order to tell me to do something could have cost me valuable reaction time that I would have needed to catch him if he did actually fall or try to climb out. If this stranger thought my son was in immediate danger, why not just run forward to where he could catch my son, instead of stopping to order me around? What’s more important in this scenario: taking the opportunity to scold me for a stress-induced lapse in judgment, or keeping the child safe?
All the care, socialization, teaching, and vigilance that used to fall to the community as a whole is now placed squarely on the shoulders of one or two people, with everyone else retracting all but one pointing, judgmental finger of what should be a helping hand.
Similar scenarios play out multiple times a day, every day. In the process of trying and failing to juggle a million different competing demands — many of which we wouldn’t be burdened with at all in any other time or place — moms make a choice about which ball to temporarily drop so they can keep functioning. And sometimes, a passerby decides that her choice was wrong, and they seize on the opportunity to judge her, instead of just stepping up to be part of her village.
I’m so freaking sick of it.
It’s admirable that so many people care so much about kids, even those who aren’t their own. That instinct is an important one, but one that has been horribly corrupted in our you’re-on-your own society. Our village — the community of people who look out for each other and the kids in their care — has been replaced by the idea that individual parents, and moms especially, should be held solely responsible for children. Yet people still hang onto the idea that they should be able to intervene, albeit in words only, to stop bad things from happening to children.
Instead of stepping up and helping, bystanders call the authorities, or even lie in wait to film themselves berating moms rather than just keeping a watchful eye in case danger approaches. All the care, socialization, teaching, and vigilance that used to fall to the community as a whole is now placed squarely on the shoulders of one or two people, with everyone else retracting all but one pointing, judgmental finger of what should be a helping hand.
Let’s do better. Let’s remember that we don’t know what other people are going through, or why they’re making the choices they make. When we see a mom doing something we wouldn’t, we should stop and recognize that doesn’t mean her choice is bad. And if it is bad, we should recognize that she’s doing the best she can. If her best isn't cutting it in the moment — something that happens to all of us from time to time — just step up to be the safety net that catches her or her kids if they fall.
If a kid is about to get hurt, go pull them out of harm’s way and return them to their parent, instead of sniping about how “people these days never watch their kids,” or do what you think they should. If you think they should be more closely supervised, keep an eye out for them in case something happens. If a kid is being difficult, but is otherwise not hurting anyone, either try to be a friendly face who defuses the situation, or just keep moving.
Otherwise, just admit that what you really care about isn’t helping kids, but taking advantage of an opportunity to make yourself feel superior at a beleaguered mother’s expense.