Thursday, June 3, 2010

most likely you go your way and i'll go mine

“How could you do that to your children?”

This comment was made by a friend after I told her that I had taken my kids, who were 2 and 4 at the time, hiking at Sleeping Giant on a “frigid” 34-degree day. The phrasing was not only judgmental, it was borderline accusatory: there was the implication that I had subjected my children to some form of torture, a dreary trudge up some cold and lonely peak, rather than a winter ramble up a 1.2-mile carriage road. In reality, they were barely aware of the cold, bundled as they were in layers of thermal cotton and fleece, and though I confess that Lexi’s toes were cold at the end, everyone survived, and DCF did not come and pack my kids up and send them off to a better home.

While my friend’s comment did not quite cause me to second-guess my (obviously questionable) judgment (when I worked with children in Anchorage, we went outside every day, and often the temps were below zero), I was bothered, and have continued to be bothered, by the amount of unsolicited comments and “free advice” doled out so liberally by other mothers, even those who call themselves friends. We insist that our children understand diversity and recognize that there are different value systems within a particular society, yet when it comes to parenting, we toss out the filters, and even go so far as to suggest that a perfectly competent mother who clearly cares for her children has somehow committed an act of neglect or abuse by adhering to a moral or philosophical code that is outside the mainstream.

As someone who treats most minor ailments and illnesses with natural remedies, I’m used to this sort of judgment, and even understand it, to a certain degree. When our kids are suffering, we want to alleviate their pain, and so why wouldn’t we give Tylenol, or antibiotics, if they’re available? What kind of sadist would deprive her children of the right to over-the-counter medicine?

This is a logical argument, and I usually try to explain that some afflictions, like ear infections, often heal themselves, and can’t be treated effectively by antibiotics because they are viral, rather than bacterial. Or that natural remedies often strengthen the body’s ability to heal itself. And I don’t judge parents who do choose a more orthodox course in treating illness; as I said, it’s logical, and rational. But so is my method, I think. And I do give Tylenol, too—or did, before the recent recall.

The medical issue aside, I’ve come to the conclusion that the “judgment tic” is less about concern for the allegedly abused or neglected child than it is about insecurity: we are all, to some extent, insecure about the choices we make, and this puts us on the defensive when it comes to parenting issues. Breastmilk or formula? Cloth or disposable? Camp or no camp? More activities or fewer? Scheduled playdates or spontaneous play?

I have another friend a great parent, who believes wholeheartedly in “kindergarten enrichment,” as many parents do. Here in Cheshire, we have half-day kindergarten, and many parents feel this is insufficient, and so they supplement with afternoon preschool or some other scheduled program. To be fair, many parents choose this option because they are in need of child care, and kindergartners are bussed from school to their program, allowing the parent to work a full day.

I am fortunate enough to have a schedule that allows me to pick Lexi up from pre-school at 11:30, and then to get Dylan off the bus at noon. I say “fortunate,” but this is also a choice for me. For me. I’ll emphasize the personal nature of the choice, because let’s face it, people, we all have different approaches to mothering, and, news flash, with few exceptions, they are equally effective. I’ve tried staying at home full-time; I missed being in the classroom. So my schedule works for me: I teach part-time, I’m home most of the time. Some women are fantastic stay-at-home moms: I’ll use my dear friend Kristen as an example. She bakes all of her bread (and most of her cereal), she does cool crafts, her kids are outdoors in every season. One day last year, she was babysitting her friend’s two kids, in addition to caring for her own three (the oldest of the children in this episode was 5 at the time). She took all 5 hiking IN THE RAIN (no need to call DCF; it was spring). Dylan, Alexa and I met her at Brooksvale Park for lunch, and all of us had lunch under a tree while the rain came down. The kids were covered in mud, and they loved it. A year later, Lexi still says, “Remember that day we were dancing in the rain?” And I should mention that Kristen still finds plenty of time to feed her brain, get involved in the community, and take time out for herself.

Would this be the perfect scenario for everyone? NO. Kristen’s patience far outweighs mine, and I know this, which is why I work three mornings a week. Some women have worked long and hard at establishing their careers; should they be exempt from motherhood because they put in longer hours than I do? I have friends who work full time and who know that they are better moms because of this.

Back to kindergarten enrichment. The friend mentioned above asked me, at the beginning of the school year, where I planned to send Dylan in the afternoons. I said I did not need to send him anywhere, because I would be home. “I know,” she responded, “ but it’s not about child care, it’s about giving them all the education they can get.” I said that Dylan wouldn’t be idle; we read, play games, hike. Oh, and there’s the p-word: PLAY.

My friend conceded that I do manage to do a lot with my kids. But then came the backhand: “And I know that you’re someone who, if you find that Dylan is falling behind—and he might, because the kindergarten teachers have to teach to the majority, and the majority of kids are in enrichment—you’ll send him to an after-school program.”

Other parents have echoed this concern about what “idle time” in the afternoons might mean: “We’re not educators. Johnny is too old to be sitting on the couch all day.” Why is Johnny sitting on the couch? Does every ounce of our kids’ “education” have to come from professionals? And don’t even get me started on the fact that privileging “enrichment” programs perpetuates an elitism within the public school system.

Motherhood is likely the most ass-kicking job any of us have ever had, so why do we make the “workplace” so competitive? Why are we so quick to dish out judgment rather than support? I’d have to wager that, our human shortcomings aside, most of us, at any given moment, are trying to be the best possible parents we can be. We make choices based on our values, and unless your values include drinking an entire bottle of wine every day at noon while your kids play violent video games, most of our kids are probably going to turn out okay, even pretty well, some even spectacular. So, come on, people, let’s lay off, listen, and most important, let’s take it easy on each other. ‘Kay?