It was an innocuous warning, given kindly and with good intention to me in the early days of my pregnancy: "Everyone has an opinion," I heard. "From the stuff you eat while you're pregnant, to the way you choose to deliver your child, to the stuff your child eats after you deliver it, motherhood is all full of judgement. Just do your thing and try not to let it get to you."
So I looked for it and there it was: judgement. Everywhere. Like a crappy Instagram filter on real life, it tinted each conversation I had, bumped up the grain and added a sad, dark vignette around an otherwise beautiful, brightly colored picture. I began to feel self-conscious about sharing too much with others, about letting them in on my parenting strategies and choices - was I imagining that raised eyebrow? That condescending tone? I became defensive. I was doing the best I could. Why was everyone else so heavily invested in my business?
The mothers around me took up arms against this epidemic as well in the form of well-crafted Facebook statuses, blog posts, and shared YouTube videos, echoing my thoughts indignantly: "We're all on the same team!" they cried. "Stop judging me!"
One such post caught my eye on my Facebook feed the other day and I clicked, because who doesn't like some righteous anger with their morning coffee?
The post was written by a young mom who had recently come back from a tropical vacation with her husband (sans children, who were spending the week with their grandparents). While on the beach, she'd begun talking to another mother who was there with her whole family, children and all.
The meeting started out alright but soured quickly when the mother who'd chosen to bring her girls along on the trip said to the mother who'd left her girls at home: "Wow, I could never do that."
The conversation fizzled and died in a pool of its own awkwardness, right there on the beach. The author of the post said that she walked away feeling belittled and condemned. She felt like she had been deemed a Terrible Mother for wanting to "get away" from her children. She felt like that other mother was on a bit of a high horse, feeling superior for bringing her girls along. She felt like that other mother was judgmental and rude.
And the comments section thrummed with sympathy and vexation and chagrin; I heard the sound of ten thousand clicking tongues and the faraway rustling of shaking heads.
I gave the thing a reread. I felt like I must have missed something, some maniacal eyebrow furling or some kind of under-the-breath admonition - something. There wasn't any of that, though, just those words: "I could never do that."
It dawned on me then that I was reading the conversation from the perspective of the 'other' mom. I completely identified with her. At this point in my life, at this point in being a parent, I can't imagine leaving my son overnight with someone else. I don't judge those that can, I even envy them, I'm just extremely anxious about it (I'm extremely anxious about everything) and know I would spend the whole time worrying and not enjoying myself.
I know, I know, I'm working on it.
But my point is, simply, that if I had been on the beach that day with my kid and I ran into a couple who were there child-free while their kids played safely and happily at their grandparents' house, I might have said the same thing to them. I'd've said it wistfully, and enviously, and curiously. I'd have said it with a tiny bit of hope that one day I could learn their secret. Like a kid talking to a magician, all wide-eyed and stymied.
And I'd probably have expected them to receive it as I gave it: a compliment. No judgement included. At all.
But I think that when we talk, the words we speak are not the only things we say. Because I think that when we listen, the words we hear are filtered through a million layers of (often needless) guilt, our own judgments, false perceptions, weird ideas we have about what's expected of us, and even, often, the assumption that others think the worst of us. The assumption that they're judging us, even if they're not. And the thing about searching, whether it's for your car keys or for judgement, is that you'll usually find whatever exactly it is you're looking for.
The other mother said, "I could never do that." Maybe she was judging. Maybe there was meanness underneath that statement, and Author Mom was hearing it exactly as it was intended. Or maybe the other mom was in awe, mystified and even encouraged that one day she'd be in a place where she could get away on a romantic trip with just her husband like they'd done in their pre-kid days. Maybe she was struggling with a little jealousy and couldn't keep the edge off of her voice.
How is anyone to know?
I guess what stuck with me in all of this was the need to make sure that I'm never the one hearing words that aren't actually being said or imagining nuances that aren't there at all. I need to learn to assume the best of other people and trust that they'll do the same for me. I need to stop dwelling on what she might have meant when she said that, or what she was probably thinking when she looked at me that way in passing and just listen and see without all my filters on. And then, whether others are judging me or not, my blood pressure can stay right where it is, I can continue on, unaffected, and the whole thing will end with a gracious smile.
Yes, we moms need to stop judging each other. But first? Maybe we should stop assuming that others are judging us.
Written by Elena Krause.