I’ve been involved in a variety of politics, and there is none I’ve experienced as more visceral and cutting than the politics of parenting.
I was scrolling through my Facebook feed when I happened on a picture of a mother in the park, iPhone in hand, head down, apparently texting. In front of her two young children were swinging joyfully. What followed was a harsh commentary about this mother missing the best moments of her children’s lives because her iPhone was more important. She may feel she deserves a break because she’s done the laundry and made them lunch, but listen, the little boy is yelling, ‘mommy, look at me!’ and she ignores him. And so went the commentary about her various failings as a mother.
My immediate response was to project myself into the mom of the picture, but it was not with the guilt or shame this diatribe was meant to evoke in a parent. I thought, instead, of what judgment and condemnation there is for parents, and in particular for mothers, about their choices regarding raising their children, regardless of what those choices are.
“She went to work when he was still a baby; that’s disastrous for the attachment of the parent and child.” “She doesn’t work, what is she teaching her daughter about the role of women in the world?” “He’s already three and she’s still breastfeeding, what is she thinking!” “She didn’t breast feed him long enough, that’s why he gets sick so often.” “She doesn’t care about her family enough, do they ever see her? She’s so busy between her volunteer and work commitments.” “Look at how she helicopters over those kids at the park. Why doesn’t she just leave them alone?” “Look at how low her shirt is; she’s acting like she’s 18, not a grown woman with children.” “Look at how she’s dressed; she’s really let herself go so downhill since she had kids.”
Boys, men, and fathers are not immune to our criticism. We hold onto a whole other list of judgments and stereotypes for them that impact how we parent and teach boys specifically. But that deserves its own discussion.
What I really think is wrong about this diatribe is that the mother, as a dignified human being, has every right to look at her screen if she so chooses, instead of staring starry-eyed at her children. She might be working, texting, or mindlessly surfing. It really isn’t any of our business what she’s doing. Provided her kids are safe and well, she doesn’t have to respond to every “mommy!” call, and according to a mass of research on development, catering to children’s every whim and heeding their every call does them a disservice.
Children who have resiliency are self sufficient to a reasonable degree. They must have caregivers who are present and alert and provide clear boundaries, but who also know when it’s best to be present in silence and from a distance. Building resiliency means children must have the freedom to make mistakes, get hurt, get into trouble and find a way out of it, solve a dispute, and figure out something difficult.
Learning and development happen in that stretch between not quite getting it and getting it. And we, as caregivers, are simply thieves of learning when we rush in to fix everything in between.
Likewise, filling children’s every moment with play dates, sports, video games and TV, or even with us, their beloved and doting parents, does not allow for a very important development tool to emerge, and that is boredom. The unhappy child who is shuffling her feet around, hands shoved in her pockets and whining “I’m bored,” can easily be told by her busy mother or father, “Yes, I see, and what a wonderful opportunity for you to learn to develop your imagination. Now off you go to find something to do.”
Perhaps if the picture of this mom triggers in us some insecurity, or if we vehemently judge her as much as the author did, then it is a cue to look inwards. Because isn’t it what we are most afraid of seeing in ourselves that we judge most harshly in others? Maybe it is us who need to un-busy ourselves. To disconnect from our ever-present technology and to instead tune into life that is happening right here and now.
Maybe being present means reveling in our children’s moments when we choose. Or not. But just maybe, if we were tuned into our own lives we would stop finger pointing, gossiping, and worrying over what everyone else was doing in theirs. Because after all, if we’re over there living their lives, who’s right here, in this moment, living ours?
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