Through my friend and fellow blogger Kristin’s website What She Said, I recently discovered a wonderful blog called Things I Can’t Say. Things I Can’t Say author Shell, writes honest, accessible, and witty posts about motherhood and other topics but I really love her Pour Your Heart Out Wednesdays, where she invites fellow bloggers to share their inner struggles with courage and the conviction of cold hard print. It is liberating, and in that vein, I share my most recent struggles with judging others and being judged.
Self-righteousness is probably one of my more challenging faults. I quickly assess and analyze a person or situation and while many times I can reserve judgment, when I do pound the gavel, it is with some force and conviction. Having a background in Psychology probably contributes to this tendency, as I seek to explain and understand an individual’s current predicament or behavior through theoretical constructs. While I also balance my self-righteousness with empathy and compassion, sometimes, I give in to my baser, nastier self, because it just feels so darn good to think I am better than…
I find this particular failing especially challenging when it comes to women judging women. There seems to be something inherent in the female-female relationship that provokes women to categorize and fault-find. Perhaps it is an evolutionary instinct where we want to be the dominant female in order to protect and preserve our bloodlines. Whatever it is, the effects can be wicked.
Mothers seem particularly susceptible to being both target and judge regarding parenting abilities and philosophies. I’ve been giving this topic a great deal of thought lately, especially, as a young mother who has been both the victim and perpetrator of these psychic attacks. On the receiving end of a judgment attack, I have felt undermined, angry, hurt, and misunderstood. When I put myself in the position of judging another mother, my initial feelings range from glee to smug self-satisfaction, until they give way to self doubt sprinkled with flecks of guilt. Sometimes even gratitude and thankfulness for my own strengths or successes are thin veneers for saying “I’m so glad I do it my way.” If I’m being honest with myself, which I attempt to be, I know that my rejection of another’s parenting style is often laden with this underlying theme, “They are mothering in a way which I have rejected because I find it inferior, distasteful, or just plain wrong.” If I have rejected a parenting philosophy or practice because it does not fit for me or my daughter, I can sustain a gracious live and let live sort of feeling. But if I have a serious issue with the practice or even with the person, I can sit so high on my parenting pedestal that even a completely constructed Tower of Babel couldn’t possibly reach me.
While most of this judging is an internal process, I can’t help wondering the divisive effect it has both in the immediate interpersonal relationship and in a larger societal context. Even when words aren’t spoken, tone, body language and facial expressions give away more than we intend. Judgment masquerading as advice giving can reveal our secret self righteousness. We have all felt the discomfort of trying to determine whether a person is being friendly and helpful or insidiously and passive aggressively critical. And having been on both sides of this experience creates doubt where perhaps there should be trust in the intentions of others. Doubt leads to caution and to subtle fractures in a relationship that could otherwise be nurtured. Overt statements of judgment can at least be discussed and defended; you at least allow the other person a chance to explain their perspective or practice. But for sensitive souls, these overt judgments can be cruel and excessively stress-filled. Trust can be damaged, and moms seeking support through the challenges of parenthood can clam up for fear of appearing weak or inadequate. For a group already confronting the possibility of post-partum emotional issues, emotional isolation can have devastating consequences.
I’ve danced around this issue with some young mothers, and delved into discussions with those I’m closest. From the beginning of pregnancy, mothers are bombarded with advice about everything from diet and exercise, to emotional preparation for parenthood, to nursing v. bottle feeding, to co-sleeping v. sleeptraining, to discipline. Pretty much every mother I know has some story about an obnoxious advice-giver who left a bad taste. In the more complicated cases, family or friends can be so domineering or opinionated, that the young mother can come to doubt her own decision-making or competence. It is not enough that parents in the information age have to sort through the blast of often conflicting parenting theories on child care, but then they have to belabor the point with everyone from a stranger at the grocery store to work colleagues and even family. It can leave one feeling inadequate, confused, and flailing or failing.
This is what we do to each other when we judge. But where do you draw the line at judging? I have watched parents abusively yell, hit, or yank at their kids in the grocery store or mall parking lot and I certainly had an opinion about those situations. I have heard parents, in this day and age, still advocating for spanking as a disciplinary measure. I have perceived parents to make choices that selfishly support their best interests rather than the interests of their child. And then there are the floods of medical and psychological experts ready and waiting with studies and statistics to help you provide proof for your perspective, leverage for your leanings. Is it really possible to be judgment free? Especially for moms who care not only about the children of our wombs or our homes, but the children in our communities?
Perhaps I’ll never eradicate my judging tendencies. What I can strive to do is this: I can question my motives for judging and whenever possible, give the other parent the benefit of the doubt. After all, we only see snapshots of other parent’s lives and every child has different needs. I know I have a protective mother hen instinct that wants to envelop every child with motherly love, but even when my own children are grown, I’ll never be sure that I’ve done completely right by them. I certainly do not have the right to interfere with another mother, even silently, when the stakes are relatively low. We all muddle through, some of us really try to do our best, and perhaps all us gals could use a little trust and support rather than self-righteous, pride serving sanctimony. After all, I’m doing battle with myself one day at a time, and that front requires all the energy I can spare.