What to do when people judge your parenting

The other weekend I took my almost-two-year-old to the neighborhood coffee shop for lunch. I ordered a piece of veggie quiche, because while I didn’t necessarily want quiche, I did want to implement Parenting Trick #192, If It’s on Your Plate, Your Child Will 100% Want to Eat It. It worked—because it works every time—and I sat my son in the chair next to me while he ate. I gave myself a mental high five for my awesome parenting and sipped my coffee while enjoying my well-behaved child. Then I did what every good parent does when they’re feeling cocky: I took out my phone to document my parenting success.

As I snapped a picture, through the camera lens I watched my son fall off his chair. We’re not talking about a slow, subtle slide to the floor. This was a WWF-worthy tumble, arms flailing, taking the ceramic plate full of quiche with him. As I stared down at him lying in a pile of quiche and shards of broken plate, I thought, Oh shit, I look like a bad mom because my son is on the floor crying and I’m holding my phone. Not, Oh God is there blood? (there wasn’t), or Did he bump his head? (he didn’t).

He was fine. Less than five minutes later he’d fully recovered and was enjoying a replacement piece of quiche. I, however, was not fine. As we sat there eating, this time with him safely on my lap, my face burned with embarrassment. It didn’t help that the older woman sitting next to us was staring at me and shaking her head, or that couple in the corner were whispering and pointing in my direction. The chorus of silent judgment grew so loud that it drowned out any enjoyment of our now-peaceful lunch. I grabbed my son and left his quiche half-finished on the table before someone could call social services.

Outside strapping him into the stroller, I felt sick to my stomach. I couldn’t believe my first thought after he fell hadn’t been about his well-being, but about what people thought of me. I couldn’t believe it, because I thought I was finally done worrying about what everyone thought of me. See, for me the desire to be liked has governed more major life choices than I’d like to admit, from the jobs and schools I chose to how long I stayed in relationships. At some point, though, I woke up to the fact that trying to please everyone else was holding me back from enjoying my life. It took some work, including lots of hours of therapy and in the self-help section of Barnes & Noble, but I learned to be confident in my choices and to accept that fact that I not everyone is going to like me.

Then I became a mom. Motherhood is like receiving a beautifully wrapped gift, and before you can even open it everyone around you is commenting on what’s inside and what you should do with it. One person is sure it’s a fine crystal vase that should carefully dusted each day and stored on a shelf where nothing bad can happen to it. Another is certain it’s a puppy that should sleep in your bed forever and never leave your side under any circumstances. Still another is positive it’s a rosebush, which is finicky and needs to be tended to correctly in order to thrive—and also you should definitely get two or three more rose bushes because wouldn’t it be fun to have a whole garden?

The opinions come at you from all angles. Sometimes it’s an ambush from a stranger, like the woman in Target who didn’t just see your child inhale an entire bag of Goldfish and so gives you a dirty “Feed your child already” look when he’s crying for a snack (again). Sometimes it’s friendly fire, like the well-meaning friend, who, unsolicited, emails you her five-page sleep training schedule.

My point is, like machine gun fire, other people’s opinions of your parenting are impossible to dodge. You can choose to hunker down where you are, or you can get up every day and go out into the world armed with the confidence that you’re doing the best you can in that moment. You can smile, or glare, or whatever works for you to let someone know they don’t have the power to make you feel bad. That you are the sole judge of your choices.

And sure, sometimes they won’t be the best choices. Maybe you’ll let your almost-two-year-old eat quiche off an extremely breakable plate while sitting in a slippery chair that he’s definitely going to fall off of. You’ll learn, though, and the next time you’ll do better. Honestly, screwing things up is the only way I’ve ever learned to be better, and that goes double for motherhood. We keep learning, and we keep showing up. The rest will figure itself out.

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