Partly because I have a very sweet husband, and partly because that very sweet husband owed me just a little for recently attending a week-long conference in Ghana, I got to have a Moms’ Night Out last week. This involved dinner (at the new Thai restaurant in town! Yes, Middlebury now has a Thai restaurant!) with 7 other lovely moms. During the course of this dinner, one of the other moms mentioned that her sister had criticized her for raising her children in Vermont, because this choice meant that her children would be “culturally deprived.”
Of course, my first reaction was: What a HORRIBLE, narrow minded, judgmental thing to say!
But upon further reflection, I realized that the sister might be right. If I understand her definition of “culture” correctly, then you can certainly make the case that I — and by extension my children — am culturally deprived. Whether it’s due to living in a small town in Vermont or to having 3 small children, some evidence in favor of my cultural deprivation:
-It’s a huge deal that we finally have one Thai restaurant in town.
-I am aware that the Academy Award nominations came out recently. I do not know which movies were nominated, but I can assure you that I have not seen them.
-I have been to the theater once since we moved here, and it was to see a video version of a National Theatre of London production.
This realization sent me into a tailspin of self-justification to this sister, whom I’ve never even met. “Okay Miss Fancy Pants,” I said to the invisible sister, “maybe your kids will grow up knowing how to recognize a de Kooning painting and attending the symphony and eating Spanish mackerel tataki. BUT will they know what it’s like to look up at the sky and see all the stars? To spend summer picking berries? To swim in a freshwater lake? To visit the dairy farm that their milk comes from? To know what to do if you meet a bear? To spend hours playing in the snow and then come in and spend hours doing nothing by the fire? Isn’t THAT ‘culture,’ too?!?”
And then, just the other night at a Super Bowl party, as I scooped up Campbell who was screaming because I’d denied her a second cup of juice, a kindly looking older man said to me, “I had six kids. And you know what word wasn’t in their vocabulary? ‘No.’ All I had to do was look at them. But kids these days are different; they get away with murder.”
So I nodded and smiled and said, “Uh-huh,” and removed Campbell from the premises. But all the way home I was seething: “Okay Mr. Cranky Pants, I’m pretty sure that exhausted two-year-olds have always thrown fits. And while we’re at it, let’s see those kids of yours. Happy? Well adjusted? What’s their relationship with you like? AND while we’re still at it, how about we check in with your WIFE and see what see has to say about your discipline policy!”
Ugh. In both of these cases, I’d allowed myself yet again to get caught up in the Great Parental Judgement Game.
Of course, most of life is a Judgement Game. Most of us aren’t born as whole, secure, fully actualized people, so we fill up our empty spaces with stuff (knowledge, jobs, relationships, actual stuff) and then we look around and measure our stuff against other people’s stuff to see how we’re doing. The Judgement Game doesn’t stop when you have kids — unless, unlike me, you waited until you were a fully actualized person to have kids — it just grows to encompass your kids.
Which is problematic, because kids by nature are very flawed little people. Yes, I’ll say it again: kids are all flawed, even incompetent, little human beings. They’re supposed to be, which is why they aren’t leaving you for Harvard Law at 4 hours old. They’re born unable to feed themselves, poop in the proper receptacles, or hold their heads up. Things gradually improve, but there’s a reason why the legal age of adulthood is 18 (and, as far as I’m concerned, I’d like to consider moving the legal age to 40, because I frankly don’t feel much like an adult even now). If I’m not mistaken, the whole point of parenting is to raise these little messes into passably self-sufficient adults.
Think about that: we take these flawed little folks in our lives, and our tendency is to add them to our “stuff” category, to let them reflect our own self-worth back to us. We measure them against the other flawed little people out there, and we use the results to justify our own flawed parenting against that of other flawed parents, and thus begins the Great Parental Judgement Game.
I am as guilty of this as anybody. Or maybe I’m the only one guilty of this, and you have no idea what I’m talking about. Either way, I’m getting tired of it. Here’s why:
-Comparing my parenting choices/style/decisions (call it what you will) against those of other parents gives me too much credit for having control. Speaking only for myself, when I think about my life and my parenting, I find that most decisions weren’t really decisions at all. I didn’t embark on “adult” life or on parenting with a clearly mapped-out course; things just happened and I responded. “Choosing” to raise my kids in Vermont? We do love it here, but that “choice” had more to do with an available job offer for Erick. And I can tell you that, no matter how many parenting advice books I may read (and I’ve stopped reading them altogether, because why waste what precious little reading time I have on that?), when it comes to day-to-day life I will always revert to what comes naturally. Sometimes that means losing my temper and yelling, and then I feel bad, but in the end I’m pretty sure that it’s better for my kids to have a real person for a mother rather than a parental advice book.
-Parenting as competitive self-justification is not fair to my kids. It’s not fair because I can’t expect them to be perfect — they’re kids. It’s not fair because it makes me focus more on my audience than on the needs of my kids. If I’m playing the Parental Judgement Game, then I’m constantly looking around at other parents to judge how they’re doing, and I’m also constantly worried about how they’re judging me. Do you find that you become a totally different parent in public than at home? Some of this is appropriate, because in public there are other people to consider from a manners standpoint, but I often worry too much about how I come off to other parents. Too strict? Too loose? My kids don’t need this kind of insecurity, and neither do I. Which brings me to: it’s not fair to my kids for me to expect perfection from myself. We bandy around the reassurance that “there’s no such thing as a perfect parent,” but it seems to me that we all still keep trying to reach that illusive goal. Really, though, what is a perfect parent? No two children are alike, no two parents are alike, and we’re all a fantastic mess of beauty and muck. Even if I were to somehow become that “perfect parent,” what would that mean for my kids? What would they have left to strive for, if not to do things better than I did? What would they have to overcome? How would I ever get them to leave the house?
-Finally, this Parental Judgement Game isn’t fair to any of us. I honestly believe that nobody sets out to be a bad parent. Certainly there is a small handful of parents who may deserve that title, but I’m fairly sure that’s because they are too broken for their good intentions to win out over their pain. The rest of us are just trying to do the best we can with the kids we were given and whatever skills and handicaps we have. And generally it all works out okay. Generally your kids reach age 18 able to feed themselves, poop appropriately, and hold their heads up. Call it success or call it a blessing — same thing, as far as I’m concerned. So maybe we (I) could stop playing judgement games with ourselves and with our kids, and just show each other a little grace.
I recently put up a sign in our kitchen (found online, attributed to Plato but I can’t confirm that) that says: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Ain’t that the truth? And I’m pretty sure that it’s not the person with the most culture who wins.
NOTE: I realize that recent posts have been a little less news-y and “we went here and did that,” and a bit more reflective. I blame the winter; it’s either this or take to drinking. You may just have to get used to it, or perhaps the shallower posts will resume in the spring.