I’m one of those moms who reads a lot of parenting books. And with my first baby, I took many of those books as the end-all-be-all of parenting advice. I followed those things to…the…letter. Baby should eat, play, sleep in that order every two hours? Got it - and I’d put my babe down for a nap based on the clock instead of any signals she was giving. Absolutely no screens until at least two years old? Roger that. Grandma and grandpa on the opposite coast - no FaceTiming your first grandchild. Plain rice cereal at six months? Sorry little one, you’re only five months and 27 days old so I’m going to need you to pump the brakes on the whole grabbing at my spoonful of mashed potatoes thing. The parenting books I chose to follow were my ride-or-die guides and through them, I categorized every aspect of parenting into either the right or wrong way to do things. I was completely flabbergasted that anyone would diverge from the outcomes I had researched and deemed Right - yep, that’s Right with a capital ‘R’. Now granted, this is (perhaps an unfortunate) part of my personality. Have I mentioned that I’m sometimes described as rigid or stubborn or extremely difficult to compromise with by those who love me? Those are terms of endearment, right? (Insert my nervous laughter here.) But I must say, I’ve softened with experience and come to realize there is more than one right way to do this whole parenting thing. Hooray for me!
Turns out, raising kids can take many forms. Imagine that! Some babies breastfeed, others do bottles, others do formula. Some kiddos get a bath every night, others get one every week. Babies can face inward and outward in their carriers. Toilet training can begin at 18 months or three years. And it all works! And here’s the kicker - if I think doing something differently than you works better for me and my child, then cool. We’ll each do our own thing. I remember a line in Amy Poehler’s book Yes Please when she was talking about how women make comparisons among themselves. She adopted the idea of “Good for her! Not for me.” Just because I may choose to do something differently, that doesn’t make either way right or wrong - just different. So after I’d come to realize that I needed to relax my grip on the parenting manuals, I adopted good for her, not for me as my mothering mantra. It felt like such a positive way to view my own parenting as well as that of the other moms around me. We were all trying our best and finding what worked for us. Knowing that might look different for each mama was liberating and supportive - no need to pass judgment and no need to feel insecure about my own choices. (By the way, can we just take a moment…Amy Poehler, isn’t she the best?)
So go me! I had grown and become a better person! Just picture me back then on the playground surrounded by other mamas and their little ones…that mom’s letting her toddler shove dirt in his mouth because it may boost his immune system, and that mom just sanitized her kiddo’s hands for the fifth time because she'd heard a cold is going around. That mom is mixing a bottle of formula and that mom has almost completely removed her top to nurse. That mom has her toddler napping in his stroller while that mom just looked at her watch and is frantically packing up so they make it to the crib before nap time. Ladies, high-fives all around! We are all doing fine. I imagine I probably took another sip of my latte just then, sat back on the park bench and with a self-satisfied smile thought, so this is what successful parenting looks like - everyone doing their own thing and it’s ok. Way to go, moms, you do you and I’ll do me and it’s all good.
And then…coronavirus hit. Cue the screeching brakes and the train coming off the rails. Not just coming off the rails, but derailing and plowing through a glitter factory. A glitter factory right next to an industrial fan testing facility. And the train only stops when it crashes into a dumpster. A dumpster filled with dirty diapers. Which then catch on fire with one final little kaput of glitter. Fiery, poopy dumpster diapers burning with swirling glitter and train wreckage. That’s what it felt like. So yeah, things got bad. Real bad.
My free-wheeling parenting attitude went out the window with my stay-at-home-orders hygiene. Because all of a sudden, the choices another parent makes for her children may very well affect the health of my children and other family members. And what I’m doing with my own kids could affect the health of other families. My whole “whatever is working best for you is great'' attitude dissipated. Sure, I imagine we’ve all been a bit miffed when you’re chatting with another mom at a birthday party only to have her say they’re going to scoot away early to the pediatrician’s office because Grace woke up with pink eye. Come again? Isn’t that Grace over there rolling in a ball pit with the other toddlers? Excuse me just a minute while I Purell my child. But this is so much more serious. And with the higher stakes, I’ve found myself slipping into my old mom-shaming ways. Is that terrible of me? Or is it more terrible that sometimes I don’t think it’s terrible to pass a little judgment when I deem someone is playing it fast and loose in terms of coronavirus safety?
Choices went from the individual to the more public health oriented. And I need a guidebook, a hard and fast manual on how to raise my kids during a pandemic. Well, not just any pandemic. I need a manual on how to raise my kids during the 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic - specific answers for each and every specific situation is what I need. Problem is, one doesn’t exist. And with the novelty of the situation in which our scientists and researchers are discovering and learning as we go, it’s understandable that we don’t have What to Expect When You’re Expecting A Pandemic or Parenting with Love and Logic and Coronavirus. (Copyrights pending.) We don’t have years of data collated and examined from which to draw conclusions. So it’s tough to know what feels right when there’s no clear black and white on how we handle this. It’s all a big grey muddle of “risk mitigation” and that allows for a lot of personal interpretation and wiggle room on how families respond and the actions they take. Which used to be fine! (Remember, I was all “good for her, not for me”?) But with global health in the picture…I’m less accepting than I once was of choices that don’t align with my own.
I mean, putting aside the obvious - masking and social distancing and washing hands - what do I do with every other aspect of life around our children? And I’m not talking about the stuff we all know is off the table like hosting a massive indoor, mask-less buffet when you’ve got a dry cough and are awaiting your Covid test results. (Don’t do that, ok?) But there is a lot of grey along that spectrum between black and white of what is ok to do. It’s hard to know what middle ground I feel comfortable mingling in. Like, should I still be wiping down all my groceries with disinfecting wipes? Is it ok to check out library books? Can I take the kids for haircuts? Should I postpone their well-checks until cases subside in our area? Can we visit the grandparents? Can we hug the grandparents if we see them? Is it ok to take a flight for vacation? How safe is it to eat inside a restaurant with the family? Is it ok to go to an outdoor birthday party? Is it ok to hire a babysitter? Do I let the kids go back to in-person school and daycare? Do I set up a preschool learning pod? Can I just climb back into bed, pull the blinds, and binge watch Schitt’s Creek until this all ends??? *Sigh*
I have some sense of where my comfort level lies with a lot of my family’s decisions regarding what we do and don’t do during the pandemic. But I don’t know that what I’m doing is 100% right. Ironically, my insecurity in my own decisions opens the door for judgment of what other moms are doing. I suppose that’s where a lot of judgement stems from - the insecurity we feel about our own choices. Black and white rules are comforting because they are absolute. It’s the all that grey between that gets confusing.
So, what do we do here? It’s messy. I’m trying to resolve feelings of insecurity in how I’m handling the pandemic with my kids - what choices I make in terms of how my family behaves and the actions we take. Compile that self-doubt with the inadequacy that is easy to feel right now (the house is hardly ever clean, we’ve had junky takeout too much, I’m distracted at work, I can’t gauge how my kids are doing socially and academically, and I’ve been so wrapped up in keeping my own little household afloat that I’ve neglected my parents, friends, and others who could maybe use some help right about now). It’s a lot. And the collective fatigue settling in isn’t helpful for our bandwidth of tolerance and kindness.
But here’s my plan. I remember a time before I had kids when I was waiting to checkout at Target behind a young mother. It was about 10:00 at night and this woman was paying while her toddler daughter was barefoot and propped on the counter methodically eating the green M&Ms out of a family-sized bag that had clearly been plucked off the shelf because she’d asked for it. Now, it’s way past this kid’s bedtime, she’s not even completely dressed, and she’s chomping away at a dentist-cringing bag of candy. Right then, I judged the heck outta that mom’s parenting. (Keep in mind, I was a perfect parent before I ever had kids.) Though it took a few years and some growing up and probably having kids of my own didn’t hurt, I look back on that instance now and think that mom must have been having a difficult day and probably would’ve benefited from some empathy instead of judgment. We seldom get the whole picture from a snippet of life witnessed at a late-night checkout counter. Same as we may not get the whole picture through an Instagram or Facebook post or even a single interaction in the real world. So I’m going to try (within reason) to be a little more empathetic to those other moms doing their best out there. There are still some situations I think are wrong in the face of a worldwide pandemic, but maybe understanding and empathy are important right now, too.
So try to be kind right now - to me, to your friends, to your neighbors, to yourself. There’s a little insecurity for all of us in this and jumping to harsh judgments isn’t going to open any dialogues or offer any opportunities for learning and gaining understanding. Let’s see if we can work through this difficult time together without the added pressure of shaming our fellow mamas.