Friday, June 17, 2016

Parent Blaming, Parent Shaming

I can't get Lane's family out of my mind.

On Thanksgiving Day last year, when Ingrid was about 18 months old, we were at my parents' house to celebrate. My parents have a playroom above their garage, a really nice space, and leading you up there from the garage is a long, straight, green, wooden staircase. Pretty long, pretty straight, and uncarpeted. On that day, as we waited for dinner to be ready and other family members to arrive, Ingrid and I were sitting at the top of the stairs together. We weren't exactly playing, we were just kind of being together there, talking, laughing, being silly. I was at the very top and she was on the step below me, and I had this flash of thought, something like, this isn't right, she could fall backwards, and almost immediately, that is what happened. She was laughing, she tipped back, and I couldn't catch her; she tumbled, end-over-end from the top of the stairs to the bottom, right in front of me.

She was fine—thankfully-- but she could have been seriously, seriously hurt. An accident that ended up resulting in some bumps to the head and an afternoon of being especially clingy and shaken up (she and I both,) could have easily broken her neck. Or given her a fatal head injury. You hear so often of little kids bumping their heads and never waking up. It's a terrifying thought!

I think of that incident all the time, mostly because I was right there with her, undistracted, and just couldn't catch her. Even though everything turned out fine, I still feel so much guilt over it. I felt like such a terrible mother. To be actively engaged with my child, and still allow her to fall all the way down an entire flight of stairs. What kind of useless, rotten, unloving mother allows that to happen? I imagine what the headlines would say if it had turned out differently, and unfortunately, I also think about what people would say after reading such a headline. “Unfit to parent”... “negligent” “Stupid” “How about a Parenting 101 Class” …

Those are direct quotes from comments I've read following the two recent events involving toddlers and wild animals. And things like that just make me boil.

One comment I read stated that the mother of the child who fell into the gorilla enclosure was on her phone, and that to be on the phone while with your child is negligence.

Um... pardon?

For anyone who is a parent and has dealt harsh words toward the families directly involved in these incidences, shame on you. SHAME ON YOU. If you are a parent, you ought to know better than to judge and attack another parent publicly, plain and simple. These stories aren't dealing with awful actions of awful people, they are dealing with accidents. Accidents that could have happened to anyone.

And for the people without children who feel the need to comment on the parenting styles and actions of others, let me just say this: please stop. I understand that everything seems crystal clear from an objective view. I can see that looking at a situation in which you think a parent has acted wrongly, you want to give your own two cents worth of advice and promise yourself that you won't do that when you're a parent. I understand this because I was once (just like everyone else in the world) not a parent. It wasn't even very long ago that I was not a parent. But until you are a parent, you can't understand what it's like to be a parent, and that is the truth. You just can't.

I also understand (like, really understand—it was my favorite pre-mommy role!) the whole aunt thing. I have been there! You love your nieces/nephews as if they were your own, you would give your life for them, you watch them as closely as you would your own children, your heart bursts with pride and love for them. You feel a love for them that is so intense you think this must be what it's like to love your own child. And from a love perspective, yes. I do think it's possible to love other children just as much as your own. I absolutely think that's true. But that still doesn't make you a parent.

A parent can be walking with a child and be fully engrossed in that moment, completely focused on her child and the time they are having together. But it's likely that the parent has other parental things distracting her at the same time. You look down at your child's chubby hand in yours and think, “I have to remember to cut his fingernails tonight.” You see his feet walking along and think, “those shoes aren't going to last a few more months, I'd better write a pair into the budget.” And then you might start wondering about the fit of the shoes on your other children's feet. They smile at you and you calculate when your last dentist visit was. They brush the hair away from their eyes and you mentally schedule a haircut. They turn up their nose at cottage cheese, their previously noted “favorite food” and in your brain write a grocery list that has “NO COTTAGE CHEESE” with stars by it, for the next time you go to the grocery. They ask if you'll go swimming tomorrow and you think, “shoot! I forgot to wash the sandy swimsuits!” And those are just surface-level distractions. Then there are deeper ones such as “how are current situations in our family affecting my children” and “is my child being bullied/a bully at school,” or “were those hives after that peanut butter sandwich a warning sign of a life-threatening allergy, or just a fluke?” and the type of thoughts and worries that consume you. Any time a parent is with her children, it's so much more than just that moment. They have a zillion different thoughts racing through their head at once, and that is only one tiny piece of the complicated puzzle of parenthood.

When parenting a toddler or preschooler, almost every action can turn into a battle of wills. You must tread carefully if you want to live your day with the fewest tears possible. This is not a reflection of parent or child on a personal level, it's just wiring. You might move to put shoes on your two year old, only to discover that the toddler had wanted to be independent in that moment and has extremely strong feelings about putting those shoes on herself. You are in a hurry. Do you shove the shoes on her feet and endure the screaming during the car ride? Or do you swallow the few agonizing minutes that it takes her to do it herself and promise yourself to leave more wiggle room in the schedule next time? You are walking along a shallow edge of a lagoon at a family resort in the Happiest Place on Earth and your toddler wants to walk in the water instead of on the sand. Do you make him avoid the water, or do you assume that his shoes will be dry by morning and it's no big deal? Your toddler has been strapped in a stroller for hours upon hours as you navigate through huge, energetic crowds and now he wants to stretch his legs before bedtime and for just awhile not be holding your hand and as it's finally cleared out enough that you can walk near enough to see him and know he's not lost, you give him that little bit of space, therefore honoring his emerging independence.

Another comment I read was, “I know they must be traumatized, but...”

Stop right there.

Do you think they're traumatized? Maybe just a little? Maybe they've had one or two bad dreams since this happened a few days ago. Maybe they are feeling a little low. Their fancy vacay got spoiled. Gosh. But if they had only paid attention to those NO SWIMMING signs, like GOOD PARENTS would have, their son would still be alive, right? It's THEIR FAULT because they didn't have him on a tight enough leash, they were being NEGLIGENT in letting him be a few feet away from them. Right? 

When you say things like, “I know they must be traumatized, but...” you are essentially saying, “too bad for them, they deserved it.” And when I see something like that, I have no words.

I couldn't believe it when I started reading negative, shaming comments about the parents of Lane. I just couldn't believe it. A family watches its baby get killed by an alligator AT FREAKING DISNEY WORLD and people are like, “well, there were posted “no swimming” signs, what did you expect? Maybe you should consider having the snip-snip, you are CLEARLY not fit to be parents.” What kind of humans are we!?? How can we be so filled with such hatred toward the parents of our world?!? People who are doing the best they can, who are walking an extremely difficult, thin line between give and take, all day every day, balancing multiple lives on one hand, and when an accident happens that results in earth shattering tragedy we point fingers and say, “your fault.”

Anyone reading this who has directed unkind words toward parents who have experienced tragedy, I hope you'll think twice the next time a story like this comes up in the news. I hope you'll try to see the flip side of the coin with more compassion and understanding. I hope that you won't be so quick to blame, because you don't know the details—none of us anonymous internet names know the intimate details of the lives of those immediately affected—and if you are not a parent yet, or never were a parent, it can be difficult to understand what goes into being a parent.

And if you are reading this and you ARE a parent and have directed unkind words toward fellow parents who have experienced a tragedy that you have not, I beg you to put yourself in their shoes. No childhood is exempt from accident. Think of times you have experienced an accident in your family and how much worse it could have been, should fate have decided it to be. Imagine a time when you were not as attentive as you could have been, and something happened, or didn't happen, but could have.

Just yesterday, we went swimming. As we were walking across the parking lot and around the side of the bathhouse building to the pool entrance, I was holding my 8 year old's hand and listening to her tell me about something. Without realizing, we had started walking faster and suddenly, my two year old was no longer beside me. I panicked-- “Where's Ingrid?!” Turning around, I saw that she was just a few feet behind us, plodding along slowly, singing a little song. (Very Winnie-the-Pooh-ish.) But my heart was racing. She could have been snatched! She could have turned around and walked back to the busy parking lot! She could have gotten lost or hurt! She didn't. Thank goodness. Was I being a bad parent? Was I being stupid? Was I being negligent? No. I was dividing my attention between duties, which is what moms do constantly, and I just accidentally started walking too fast. For parents, every moment of every day is a balancing act of living, breathing obligations and all the non-living obligations that go with them. It's Crazytown! Whether you have one child, or twelve, you never seem to have enough hands, eyes, organized thought channels. It's very difficult.

And when something really terrible happens to a child--to a family--out of the blue, and faceless, cowardly people criticize and spew hatred from behind their computers screens.... what good could that possibly do? Change the past? Change the future? Those comments change nothing. They just hurt.

If you are a person who has made unkind remarks about parents who have experienced a tragedy, just keep this in mind: That family has to go home. They have to see the little car shaped toddler bed. They have to put away the toy Thomas trains that had been left out. They have to wash the sippy cups that came home from vacation without their owners. They have to stare into a closet full of size 2T clothes and wonder what ever to do with them. They have to look at all the little stuffed animal friends lined up on the empty bed, the blankets, the favorite storybooks, the tiny shoes, the sticker chart on the refrigerator with his name written hopefully at the top. All this they have to see, without their baby.

Please. Before you speak, think about that.  

(Ingrid, age 2)


  1. I wish everyone in the world could read this! Thank you, Annie, for saying what many of us want to say.....but so much better than we could say it.

  2. My 9-month-old daughter fell off our rather high bed a month ago and it shook me so badly in just the same way. She's fine, we're all fine -- but I still have to stop myself from thinking what could have happened. The thoughtless comments are why I can't do Facebook anymore -- I really think social media has made us forget to think before we speak. Thank you for writing this!