To the Parents I Knew Four Years Ago: I'm Sorry
I have come to realize many things since having three children. For example, I now know that I can read "We're Going on a Bear Hunt" seven times in a row without going insane. No matter what people say, throw-up is throw-up and I don't care if it is my daughter who is throwing up but her throw-up makes me want to throw up. I am a really fast diaper changer. And it's true: love does not split, but grows with additional children.
But perhaps one of the biggest realizations I've made as a relatively new parent (my daughter turns 4 in March, my twin boys turn 2 in May) is how incredibly judgmental I was pre-children.
You, the woman at Kohl's who pushed a cart with your screaming toddler draped on the rack underneath it, ignoring her as she scraped her feet on the floor because she couldn't have the toy she wanted: I judged you.
Girlfriend with children who had Nick Jr. on the entire time I visited: I judged you.
Parent at the park who did not pack an organic, free-range, all-food-groups-represented, no-dessert lunch complete with sandwiches cut in cute little shapes, who instead fed your children chicken nuggets, cold French fries and (gasp) chocolate milk? I judged you.
Not out loud, of course. But internally, I was smug. I thought things like I would never have children who would behave in such a manner in public. Or, Doesn't she know the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV until the age of 2? Or, How can he possibly be feeding his children that crap? Has he not read any of Michael Pollan's books?
And what's worse, now that I'm a parent, I realize internal smugness isn't so internal. As a parent, I know when I'm being judged. I can sense it, even when nothing is being said out loud. It's in the look. The double-take. The whisper to the companion they're with.
It's hard not to care about what other people think. But still, that quiet judgment can sting, especially on days when my nerves are shot and my children are in the worst moods -- a combination that often leads to a situation judge-worthy by many.
But now, as a parent, I do things judge-worthy even when my children are being good. Last Thursday is a perfect example: My son had a physical therapy appointment a good half-hour drive away. On the way back from the appointment both of my boys fell asleep -- we had eaten lunch out, complete with Oreo cookies and Popsicles for dessert, (judge!) after the appointment and it was close to their naptime. Of course they fell asleep. My daughter, however, who has long given up naps (!), was still awake.
When I pulled into my driveway, I had two choices: Wake up the boys and deal with their short tempers having only slept for 25 minutes, or sit in the van with them while they slept, bribing my daughter with apps on my iPod and promises of candy once inside if she would just sit and be quiet for a half hour longer (!). I chose option B without blinking. And I left the car running (!) the entire time.
When the boys woke up, they were furious because of the cricks in their necks -- thanks to the car seats we bought without good head support to the side simply because they were cheaper (!). My daughter was at her wit's end with being trapped in a car seat in a car that wasn't going anywhere just because I wanted some peace and quiet (!). I took everyone inside, plopped them on the couch, got out some gummy candy and turned on "Little Bear." Two episodes. (!!)
Pre-children: I was going to cloth diaper.
Post-children: I did with my daughter, sort of, but not with my twins.
Pre-children: No TV until age of 2 and then only 30 minutes a day.
Pre-children: Only organic, healthy, homemade food.
Post-children: My kids love Wendy's.
Pre-children: Public tantrums are unacceptable.
Post-children: Removal of the child is only sometimes doable; predicting when a tantrum is going to strike is often impossible.
Pre-children: Complaints about childrearing and its hardships annoyed me (this was your choice, no?) and saddened me (parenthood is supposed to be a wonderful thing!).
Post-children: Parenthood isn't wonderful 100 percent of the time.
My day-to-day routine isn't what I envisioned it would be four years ago. Some of the things I imagine I'm judged on now are minor, others, a little more major. But mostly they are simple faults and I now know that they don't make me a bad parent. Sometimes I leave dirty diapers on the changing table. My children's socks don't always match. I forget to brush my daughter's hair. I use TV as a way to take a breather. I utilize the fast-food drive-thru. I bribe. I'm sometimes too easy. I'm sometimes too hard. I sometimes make the wrong decision, give the wrong punishment, ask too much, ask too little. But within all these minor and major faults is a singular truth: Most days, I'm doing the best I can. And I honestly believe that's a truth that can be applied to most parents: Most days, we're all doing the best we can.
Because here's another realization I've made as a parent: Everyone's situation is different. There is a story behind every action and inaction. Every parent has his or her own style. Every child has his or her own temperament. What might be a stellar day for my family has been a downright awful day for another -- perhaps the parent's job is in danger, their parent is sick or they just had an argument with their spouse. Perhaps the child is failing math or being bullied at school, or the toddler hasn't slept for two weeks. This can explain the short-temper in the grocery store or the harsher-than-necessary punishment, or the lack of care when it comes to sweets or TV or a late bedtime. We don't know, can't know, someone's entire story.
That said, I believe there are absolutes in parenting so yes, sometimes, I still judge. (And I realize that the irony of this piece is that in writing about not judging others, I'm now judging those who judge.) I know that, for some, it's impossible to provide their children with life's basic necessities: food, clothing and shelter. But I believe we, as parents, must try. I believe we must do what we can to protect our children from harm. I believe we should always love our children, even when, especially when, we don't like their actions, we disagree with their decisions or we're just having a difficult day with them.
But everything else is minor. Everything else doesn't matter. There are children who are abused, who go to bed hungry, who have never known love, and four years ago I was judging the toddler who watched an hour of "Sesame Street"?
I feel bad about my pre-children smugness. I feel bad about the sting I may have, unknowingly, made another feel. I feel bad -- and laugh out loud at the thought -- that I, at one time, before I had children, believed I knew better. Parenting is difficult enough -- there's no reason we should judge one another, not for the things that don't matter, anyway, and not for the things we see a snippet of rather than knowing the full story.
So to the parents I knew four years ago, I'm sorry. I know better now.