On Saturday mornings, the Fort Greene farmers market lines the side of Fort Greene Park. The location is ideal, as families can pick up the weekly groceries and then take the kids to the playground just inside the park. Or in our case, my husband takes my son to the playground, while I pick up the vegetables, meat, half & half, and enough strawberries and rhubarb to satisfy my addiction for all things strawberry-rhubarb for the following week.
As I walked through the market this morning with my sister, we were once again talking about a thing that we often talk about, how women do this funny thing where we either judge the bejeezus out of each other or we accuse other women for judging the bejeezus out of us. Once we become parents this trait goes into hyperdrive to such an extent that all that has to happen is that another mother shows up with artfully arranged organic snacks in a stainless steel container and we feel judged because we have decided that with our snacks – the standard peanut butter and jelly sandwich (made of course with organic peanut butter and jelly but no one knows this since we left the jars where they belong in the refrigerator at home) in a plastic container that may very well contain BPA (or not, we just don't know because we've had them so long we can't remember if we bought them before and after BPA starting making the headlines) – we fall short. Or in some way, we feel invalidated, just because someone else does things differently. It's a leap of mental energy – mental energy that we very much need for other more important tasks, but nonetheless we use it anyway and carelessly – to accuse the other person of judging us or making us feel judged simply because they do something different.
My sister and I talked about this leap that happens, about how there are times we don't understand it, how it happens, how just because we do something differently than someone else, someone else feels judged by us. Yet, I concede that the places I judge myself the harshest are the places it doesn't take much at all for me to feel judged. The other person doesn't even have to say a word.
I've been on both sides of this coin. I've had mothers come up to me and admit that they feel intimidated by me because I write parenting articles and posts on how to be the perfect parent, or that because I write, I must have it all figured out. I've corrected them, to say that I have written no such thing about knowing how to be a perfect parent, that I actually write how I'd like to see the word “perfect” dropped from the English language or at the very least redefined to mean that as perfect parents, we lose it and then apologize and forgive ourselves and start over, just so our kids know that it's okay to make mistakes, to try, fail, and try again or that's okay for my kids to see that I too have emotions, or that I get frustrated or angry – and that I understand my anger and frustration impacts them and can even scare them. I correct them and say that generally the times I do things “wrong” are what I write about, and the times I do things “wrong” actually teach my children how to be resourceful like how to handle things when we end up on a subway ride without a toy to play with or in the park without snacks or a spare diaper or the baby's spare outfit.
Saturday morning, after my sister and I walked through the market and entered the playground where my son and husband were playing, I tried to figure out how I could put my market bag down without all of its contents spilling out. I had my 11-month old in her carrier and didn't want to have to bend over to pick up escaping apples or potatoes. One of my friends came running over. She was cute in her usual hip Bohemian Fort Greene mom way. She was especially energetic and happy. I instantly assessed that to be so hip and energetic, she must be very well rested and that it must be smooth sailing at her house with her two children, while at my house, we were lucky to get all four of us dressed to stumble out the door.
And so I said, “Oh, you're one of those smart, quick-witted mothers, one of those mothers with the answers...”
She said, “Are you kidding? Here you are wearing heels and a baby and carrying a bag full of vegetables. It's like a vision of perfection.”
I started to explain that I wasn't really wearing heels, that I was actually wearing heels made by the clog people so that they felt like clogs, but then I realized it was besides the point. I had just done that very thing my sister and I were just talking about; I had looked at someone else and instantly judged myself. It was like a bad habit left over from puberty, but worse, because I was still doing it and doing it without even thinking about it, almost as if it was an unconscious hard wired brain pattern, the kind of wiring that has you breathe without realizing it.
It wasn't even a thirty second interaction. We didn't discuss the usual hot topics that can cause parents to get weird, or their feathers ruffled, the topics like diet and snacks, discipline, TV watching, schools, or god forbid, vaccinations. It wasn't one of those conversations where I felt baited, like when a friend asked what we were going to do about my son's Pre-K in the fall. When I answered that we were going to try homeschooling, she immediately began defending her decision to send her son to school, and what a great school they had found for him. Even when I said, “That's great. We haven't found that – or we haven't found it close to our home or for less than $28,000.” She continued to defend her decision and her son's school. Even when I said, “Different families need different things.” She still defended. I left feeling weird and wondering why she had asked in the first place.
I have noticed since I've gotten caught in the judgment back and forth often enough and often without even meaning to or doing anything, that now, unless I'm with my closest friends (or friends that I know while we may do things differently, we know that we're all slightly neurotic about different things, and we're very good at respecting each other's neurosis) I no longer fall into the judgment trap because I don't casually disclose our various choices, or if I do, it's not without thought, or briefly explaining why we've done what we've done as an attempt to simply say, this is what works for us. Like that we no longer let our son watch TV because it made him violent and caused temper tantrums and I simply was unwilling to do it anymore. We don't do sugar because it also makes him nutty, not to mention, even with a lack of sugar (and juice, milk, bottles, candy, soda, or dried fruit), he has a mouth full of cavities that has the dentist stumped. I don't talk about vaccinations because that's a potential heated argument I have no desire to get into. When a friend asks for advice, I deflect with “Well, we're a little untraditional, but what we've found is...”
After talking with my sister and the brief interaction with my friend, I realized once again how comparing myself to others is just a reflex of my mind. It's not something I have to stay focused on. And, while I didn't know it in puberty, I know now that often others are also comparing themselves without even meaning to.
Recently, in an email with some beloved friends (versus some random online moms group), one mother asked, “How do the rest of you do it? Get snacks made? Get out of the house? Get time to yourself and get work done?” The discussion that followed was reassuring for all of us, as we all thought the rest of us had it all pulled together. Instead, we found that many of us often wear the same thing days in a row or that our children do, or that people pack snacks the night before, or drop the laundry off for someone else to do, or cook soup on Sunday so the week starts off with a few nights of leftovers. Some of us admitted that we throw parties just so we have to clean or that we've pulled the majority of our children's toys just so we don't have to continually pick up the pieces. I admitted that if you actually came over to our house, you'd discover that with two kids, two adults, two cats, a large dog and six chickens in the backyard, our home more resembles a circus than a peaceful sanctuary. Yet it's a circus that works for us, which is what I now remind myself when I notice that I'm feeling judged or inadequate.