Christine was uncharacteristically upset when she arrived for our appointment. She had just gotten off the phone with Marni, someone she had felt was a good friend.
“Marni asked me whether I was worried about Josie being too busy and not getting enough sleep now that she is on the swim team,” Christine explained, referring to her 13-year-old daughter.
Though the question may sound innocuous, it stung Christine, who sat across from me tearing up as she talked. This is because in this innocent sounding question, she perceived – I believe accurately – a scathing judgment on her parenting.
Christine and Marni had met at a breast-feeding support group when their girls were babies, and had formed a quick friendship. Christine explained that it felt as though she and Marni saw eye to eye on most parenting issues.
“As the girls got older, we both felt it was important to give them lots of unstructured time. I suppose we judged the other mothers who were always overscheduling their kids.”
“If I thought she were doing the right thing, I’d be doing it too.”
But when the girls hit adolescence, Christine could see that she and Marni were no longer on the same page as often. Believing that physical activity was important for mental and physical health, Christine and her husband encouraged Josie to get more involved in athletics – and Josie responded enthusiastically.
“Marni’s daughter Katie didn’t do sports – Marni still feels sort of self-righteous about not overscheduling her. But now that she’s a teenager, Katie just spends her free time on social media. She’s gaining weight and seems depressed.”
Christine admitted that she was aware she was feeling judgmental of Marni’s parenting choices, just as Marni was apparently judgmental of hers.
“I want good things for Marni and Katie. But I suppose if I am being honest with myself, I don’t think she is making the right decision. If I thought she were doing the right thing, I’d be doing it too.”
Out in the Open
Our parenting decisions reveal our beliefs and values in a more public way than many of us would wish. If we disagree with friends or family on managing finances, practicing religion, or politics, we can usually count on some degree of privacy about these issues. If differences do become obvious, social conventions dictate that we politely ignore these in most cases.
But somehow when we parent, the choices that we make often wind up being on display for all the world to see.
And this can be awkward.
Another mother in my practice named Jeannie had ample experience with this. Her six-year-old son Daniel had significant sensory issues and became easily overwrought. When in this state, he could not be easily soothed and had even become physical with other children.
Jeannie had worked out a method of dealing with her son’s “meltdowns” that was effective and compassionate. She would withdraw with Daniel to a quiet space to make it clear that hurting others wouldn’t be allowed, but she would let him scream and cry until he felt better. The very noisy nature of these outbursts usually drew sideways glances from other moms.
“I know what I’m doing is right for Daniel,” Jeannie told me. “But boy is it hard to know everyone is looking at me wondering why I don’t deal with me out of control kid!”
Looking for Validation
Parenting decisions invite judgment not only because of their visibility, but also because mothers so often look to each other for validation. What endeavor has higher stakes than raising our children? And where in life is the “right” way to do it less clear?
No wonder we look to each other to be reassured. And no wonder we have such strong feelings when we see someone doing things differently – it raises the specter that we have been doing it “wrong.”
Living our Truth
Christine’s task was to become comfortable with her own parenting decisions so that Marni’s covert criticisms didn’t affect her so much. Becoming at home with our own preferences, opinions, and choices is part of the life-long task of sorting out what really matters to us. Parenting provides plenty of opportunities for us to learn about our own values, and stand up for them – even in the face of other’s judgments.
Originally published on PsychCentral.com.