I think we can all agree on one thing when it comes to parenting: it's hard. When you become a parent your status of being changes from Comfortable Individual to Person in Charge of Another Being. It's kind of scary. And that's just the first hour or so. After that it's sleepless nights and endless bottles or aching breasts (or both!) and so much crying, all while you're trying to adjust to your fresh loss of individuality. Two-year-olds will be two-year-olds, simultaneously the most incredible and most exhausting creatures on the planet. Three-year-olds are pretty much the same, except with a bigger vocabulary and longer legs—so they're faster. Then there's the endless worry that comes with being a parent. Are they getting enough green vegetables? Are they going to be ready for kindergarten? Do they need glasses? Are their teeth getting brushed enough? Are they safe? Are they healthy? Are they succeeding? Am I doing this right? And that worry just goes on forever.
According to my own mother, parenting these days is just no fun. Moms worry too much nowadays. We stress about every little thing until parenting—which is hard enough to begin with—is just robbed of all it's natural joy. I think she's absolutely right, and I can see why it has become that way.
We are living in an age of Judgement, especially among parenting social circles. Admitting that there are some really terrible and abusive family situations, and leaving those to their own realm, it seems to me that parents are not safe from criticism these days, no matter what methods they use, philosophies they live by, no matter how much they think they are doing the right thing for their children. And if a mistake is made, no matter how small—LOOK OUT.
Parents look at other parents and they pick out all the ways their peers are doing it wrong. All the way they are damaging their kids, all the ways they aren't giving their all... just thinking about all the different ways parents criticize each other makes my head spin. But a big thing lately seems to be reporting those parents they deem “unworthy.” A child seen playing basketball in his backyard is deemed in danger because his parents aren't home. Any child farther than an arm's reach from his parents is being sorely neglected. Children in general are no longer allowed to do things like ride their bikes or walk to school or camps because of the incredible danger that those activities pose to the kids.
What? Are we serious? How has it come to this? I find it hard to believe the world is really that much more dangerous than it was thirty years ago, when my generation and all those before me were allowed to roam free. It's talked about a lot on the internet these days, how it doesn't seem like that long ago that the parents of today were kids with a lot more freedom and individuality. We were allowed to do things independently, learn from our mistakes, problem solve, find out who we were and who we wanted to be, without a parent constantly holding our hand. I would prefer to give my girls the same upbringing, but it seems like that is pretty frowned upon these days.
Earlier this spring we moved back to our old house right across the street from the public library. Anja and Greta are now 8 and 7 years old, and the posted age to be allowed unsupervised in the library youth department is 6. I had always imagined them walking over to the library on their own, and as adults having great memories of doing so.
How foolish of me!
I talked to one of the youth librarians who told me the rules about kids in the library, and I told her where we lived and that they were going to start walking over on their own sometimes because I felt like they were old enough to do so. Independently, I made the rule that they were never to go without the other, that they were just to check out books and come back home, not hang out there for long spans of time, and that they were to be on their best behavior, remember their manners, look out for each other, etc. Typical parental rules that really are only stated as a technicality because I should hope they would do all this on their own without being told. The first day I let them go they were SO EXCITED. They packed our library bag with books to return, and set off. Now let me be clear here: I could see them until the moment they entered the library. The building is across the street, the entrance is less than a block down. I sat on the porch and watched until I saw they had safely made it into the building. And then I sat on the porch, watching the door, waiting for them to come out. I was nervous. I knew they would be fine, I knew they would be perfectly behaved, I knew they would find their books, check out, come home, just as I had told them to do. I knew nobody would snatch them because I was WATCHING THE DOOR, and I knew they couldn't possibly get lost because they go to the library almost every day and know their way around. What was I so afraid of then? Well, I'll tell you: I was afraid of judgement. Honestly, I was afraid someone would call the police. I was afraid I would be labeled negligent. I was afraid that allowing my school aged children to go to the library alone would somehow lead to all of my children being taken away from me.
Doesn't that seem a little extreme?
It should seem extreme, but it turns out it's not so far fetched at all. Since then, I have heard of many, many stories of well-meaning parents having their children taken away from them because they were “left alone” or rather, allowed to be alone. Children older than my own. Children even better prepared than mine were, with a cell phone and house keys. Somewhat recently, a friend of mine had the police called to her house by some passersby because her baby was crying inside—crying because she put him down while she was getting dressed. I know her to be an excellent mom, the farthest thing from negligent you can imagine. But in the eyes of the world, putting your shirt on is next to abuse, if your baby makes a racket about it.
Such a big day of going to the library by themselves for the first time seemed worth the commemoration of a social media post. It was interesting, the responses I received. Most applauded—for the girls being so grown up and independent, for me allowing them to stretch their wings. But some didn't. Some offered to go with them if I couldn't. Some advised against letting them go alone because it was dangerous. In general, the response I got was a mixed bag. I thought the negativity was unfortunate, though I didn't take it personally, but it spoke volumes about the parenting norms of the day.
And the parenting norms these days instill fear and judgement.
One of the reasons I was so desperate to move out of the city three years ago was fear. I was anxious all the time, afraid of the police showing up at my door during any one of the many fits from my babies, toddlers and preschoolers through the six years and three children we had in this house. Many, many times, instead of addressing a toddler tantrum with comfort and redirection, I reacted with anxiety and fear, doing everything I could to quiet the tantrum as fast as possible, before anyone noticed. My fear made me parent in ways I didn't agree with. I have often found myself even shushing their happy screaming in the backyard, for no reason other than I don't want someone to think they are in trouble and send “help.” It's one of my greatest fears that someone might suspect me of negligence and snatch my kids, and I feel that the fear is not unfounded; the more I read the news, the more I see that it happens way too often without good reason.
Now that we are back in this house, my anxiety has spiked again for all these same reasons. While my life can often look like a collection of serene Instagram photos (and sometimes it is,) it's often all four girls screaming at each other at the same time. Sometimes it's loud and unpleasant and I'm sure that everyone on the block can hear them. But I deal with it the best I can, aiming for gentle but not permissive parenting. I succeed sometimes. Sometimes I don't. But you know what? Whether I succeed in my parenting style or not, I will be judged by others no matter what I do. Because we don't just judge other parents when we feel they are endangering their children—we judge them for everything.
Gentle parenting is criticized for being permissive. Having strict boundaries and disciplinary followup is criticized for being too rigid. Bottle feeding is criticized for being unnatural. Breastfeeding is criticized for being sexual. Homebirths are unsafe. Hospital births are intrusive. Natural birth is overrated. Cesareans aren't birthy enough. You can't win.
On the one hand, I guess it's nice to know that I'm a failure no matter what. I can march forward with confidence, knowing that the path I'm choosing is best for me and that nobody else will think so. On the flip side, however, there's that relentless nervous feeling I'm constantly battling, worrying who is judging me and if the judger is someone who will take action, or mind their own business in the end.
Parenting is tough. From start to finish it's so hard, but so rewarding. I wish we could stop stealing the rewarding aspect from one another and show more support to our peers in the field. It's not a competition. Yes, we all have different viewpoints. That's what makes us individuals. That's what gives flavor to the world. It's special. And raising unique individuals as unique individuals is what will continue to keep the world an exciting place, where not everyone thinks alike, where everyone has experienced different things, or experienced the same things differently. I worry that by taking the joy of adventure and individuality out of our childrearing, we are covering up the variety of our future generations. Let's let go a little bit. Let's let our kids spread their wings a little wider, fly a little farther from the nest. Let's assume healthy risk in parenting—and view others' healthy risks without judgement—so that we can help our little people to grow into really great big people. Let's support our kids and our peers in the raising of an awesome future. Our kids are destined to be the grownups of the world someday, the ones running this place, so we truly are all in this together. Let's do better.