Parenting forces us to grow a backbone. With each step on the parenting journey we open ourselves up to criticism. It doesn’t really matter what your choices are–someone, somewhere is convinced that your decision is foolish and possibly harmful. And I think that most of us are OK with that. Some days, at least.
With each child, I passionately researched a new topic: breastfeeding, cosleeping, babywearing, clothdiapering, circumcision, vaccination, discipline, homebirth, homeschooling, whatever. I would get excited about what I was learning and share it far and wide. I was always aware that my choices were not generally in line with the mainstream of our culture, but opposition was just a chance to share more info with someone. If they judged me for my choices, I could shrug benevolently, confident in my decisions. (Alright, I am also a bit of an approval junkie, so I would try really, really hard to convince them. Sometimes I would get all torn up about it and go back and look at everything again, anxious to see what I might be missing. And some topics, like schooling and vaccination, I continue to evaluate, knowing that our choices might change in the future depending on our situation.)
It is so much harder, though, to know that my children are being judged for my choices. People who disagreed with me began to see my kids through a negative filter based on their opposition to my decisions. I quickly learned to keep my mouth shut about any of my own frustrations or doubts. I tried to never complain about a sleepless night or sibling arguments or how much I hated elimination diets while breastfeeding. I didn’t want to drip blood in front of sharks. That wasn’t enough, though. Even times when I was perfectly satisfied with my children’s behavior, it was still viewed darkly by some people.
At first, any deviation from their ideal was blamed on breastfeeding. I was told multiple times that everything from personality traits, social interactions, sleep habits and food allergies were because I breastfed. If they cried when we left them at the church nursery, they were seen as clingy, shy and spoiled because we would come back and get them or stay with them. Later, anything other than instant compliance with a smile was magnified because we didn’t spank, even when their behavior was age appropriate.
My mom once told me that their were times when she spanked or otherwise punished me because she knew that if people saw me as “getting away with it” they would dislike me and think I was a spoiled brat, but if they knew that she was “taking care of it” then they would be much more tolerant of my behavior and see me differently. She had a point, I admit. Punishing our kids creates sympathy, or at the very least satisfaction that justice has been served. That still isn’t reason to do it, but is important to understand. The pendulum principle is active in friendships as well as marriages. If someone perceives us as going to an extreme, they feel obligated to go to the opposite extreme just to bring some balance.
It is hard to respond gently to criticism about our own choices. It is a thousand times harder not to unleash our mama bear when that criticism is directed at our children. Even (especially?) when it is subtle. Knowing smirks, a shaking head, raised eyebrows. I know if I say anything, it will come across as petty and defensive, but the attitude still leaves stinging welts on my heart.
What’s a gentle mama to do?
It helps me to frame it as an opportunity to model respect for myself, my children, and the other person. I need to be courteous and kind, regardless of anyone else’s behavior, because that is simply the kind of person I aspire to be. I also need to protect my children and myself. Those are not mutually exclusive. If at all possible, I shield my children from any comments or negative behavior directed at them. They don’t need to feel attacked or responsible. Thankfully, most people know better than to say unkind things about children to their face. If they don’t (and it is horrifying at times to hear some of the rude comments on a child’s personality traits or appearance that they wouldn’t dream of saying to an adult), then I speak up that it is not OK to shame my child because they disagree with my choices. If I foresee a particular touchy issue (such as a curious toddler visiting a home full of delicate knickknacks), it may mean avoiding certain people or situations until I know that I am setting us all up for success.
On my own end, I try to make sure that I am being respectful and not shoving my views down anyone’s throat. I put a lot of energy into my opinions, and it is hard for me to just change the subject or give a neutral response, but I am learning. If it isn’t going to be a helpful conversation, it is better not to have it at all. If you decide that it is easier to take advantage of their assumptions (taking an upset child out of the room just to cool down, even if your friend assumes it is for a spanking or deflecting a question about sleeping through the night with “She sleeps great” even though the definition of “great” for her is an hour at a time), that is OK. You don’t have to evangelize.
I expected judgement for some of my choices, but I didn’t anticipate that some people would also judge my children negatively. I have found tremendous wisdom and encouragement in these posts on dealing with criticism. Ultimately, I am responsible for how I parent, but I cannot control every response to my choices. I can only control my own and trust that as we all grow and learn, many of these conflicts will disappear. Until then, I try to protect my children and know that everyone faces criticism sometimes. How we handle it is what matters.
Dulce is learning to walk in grace with her amazing husband and four wonderful kidlets. She is a perpetual provider of magic mami milk who practices gentle discipline, shares a family bed, homeschools, teaches Spanish, and blogs at Dulce de leche. Each day brings plenty of iced coffee and a fresh lesson in trusting her children, herself and the Love that surrounds and fills us. Sometimes it feels like livin’ a vida loca, but overall, life is incredibly sweet.