Parenting blogs and the Narcissism of Small Differences

December 21, 2011

“One of the finest pieces of advice I’ve ever received about parenthood was this: never judge a parent whose children are older than yours.”

KJ Dell’antonia dropped this line into a Motherlode blog post this week about high school students and drinking, and I’m thinking of having it tattooed on my forehead backwards so that I see it every time I look in the mirror.  Although I might need to ask the tattoo artist to stop after the word “parent.”

Because judging is what I do.  I’m a judger, and always have been. Learning to put this tendency to use has been my challenge. Granted, I have improved over the years, for sure; while my crow’s feet have deepened, my knee-jerk judgments have morphed into something more like a broader perspective.

Nowhere is this slowly-evolving perspective more important than in my quest to become a better parent, and to interact collaboratively with all the other parents around me who are on the same exact quest.

I say this because lately I see that we parents have become awfully public in our judgments.  I (judgmentally) blame mommy bloggers — of whom I am one — for bringing what used to be over-the-backyard-fence gossip into the public sphere.  While a previous generation judged other people’s parenting in gossipy whispers on the telephone or behind their hands at the supermarket, we are doing it right out in the open.  Right in The New York Times, even.  Mostly in the comments section of nearly every article anybody writes about parenthood and posts on the internet.  And boy do we sound righteous.

Other parents are too strict, or too lenient.  They are too cold, or grossly overindulgent.  They let their kids watch too much television, or weirdly squirrel them away in homeschool and prevent them from socializing properly with other children.  (Full disclosure:  I have done every single one of these things myself.)  Those other parents don’t feed, dress, discipline, or speak to their kids properly.  And how do I know?  Because my kid is unhappy or ill-behaved whenever their kids are around.

I’ve had so many similar conversations in private, and while I am sure I have myself been an offender on many occasions, I hope I am not so shockingly harsh as some of the parents I have heard.

I have one thing to say about us and all our judgments:  Ugh.  Put on my moccasins for a day or two, and then let’s talk.

For you don’t know my child, and I don’t know everything about yours.  Together, we know next to nothing about that other person we are maligning. Because they are the same age in the same time and place, our kids have certain things in common, but each one is unique, and each is on his or her own developmental path.  Kids are in process, rather than a finished product. Yes, our kids interact in school, and I live with you in this society, but that’s the beauty, rather than the flaw, of a pluralistic society:

We’re always going to parent differently, just as differently as we do everything else.

I guess that’s why I have always read other people’s blogs about parenting: (my favorites are Lindsey’s, CK’s, Motherese, The Elmo Wallpaper, Got It, Ma! and Momalom) to see just how differently we are doing things, and to learn a thing or two. I suppose I can admit to enjoying watching the mud get slung in the comments section of Motherlode, in much the same way that some people like watching boxing on TV, but I don’t think the finger pointing really gets us where we need to go.

And while I said I “blame” the mommy bloggers and more public discourse about parenting, I am actually extremely grateful that parents who write have brought all the messiness of parenting into the light of day.

For perhaps because of all this conversation, we’re ready to take a turn away from judgment and towards the sort of understanding that moves us forward.  Towards perspective.  Perhaps even towards wisdom.

I take away from my daily visit to the internet to read about parenting a growing realization that we are all in this together.  Rather than embattled, isolated individual parents, we are a society seeking to support the growth of the next generation.

The more time I spend judging that parent who lets her kid drink formula from a bottle, or play too many video games, or wear that low-cut shirt, or speak rudely to my kid on the playground, the less I understand just how challenging this journey is for all of us.  Freud named this rush to judgment over the small issues: he called it “the narcissism of small differences,” and boy does it get in our way.

The more self-righteous I am as a parent, the less useful I become to my community, and also to my own child.

Perhaps our generation of parents is (nearly) ready to turn our judgments away from one another, and towards the problems that beset us all:  the larger problems of poverty, education, and the forces in our world that rob kids of their childhoods and force them to grow up more quickly than they should.

(An example here, which my very smart friend LC pointed out after I posted this piece:  focusing on bottle vs. breast or c-section vs. “natural” as “choices” about which to judge or feel guilty turns our attention away from all the political, economic, and advertising forces pushing women toward doing things that aren’t necessary or healthy for themselves or their children.)

Perhaps we are (almost) ready to see beyond our tiny differences and realize that other people’s children are just as important as our own.

Our generation of American parents have too long been soldiers in the trenches of “the mommy wars,” which pit breast-feeders against bottle-feeders, rather than worrying about the kids who don’t have enough to eat.  We’ve myopically focused our attention on the relatively smaller distinctions between households with mothers who “choose” to work or “choose” to stay home, rather than on the bigger problems faced by families in which the parents work too many jobs for too-tiny wages. Or have no jobs at all.

What would life look like for parents — and children — if we learned from our trivial differences, and focused our firepower on the questions that really matter for this whole generation of kids?  What if we stopped worrying about everybody else’s minor decisions, and were honest about just how challenging — and joyous — it is to parent the actual children for whom we are directly responsible?  What if we started to care about the stuff that really matters rather than just projecting our petty internal battles onto other people and their kids?

Enough, already, of the narcissism of small differences where our parenting is concerned.  It’s time to lay down arms — and judgments — in the Mommy Wars, and share our hard-won wisdom, rather than point our righteous fingers.

And with that, I officially step back down off my judging pedestal, and go back to what I do best:  struggling to parent my own two kids the best I have learned how:  in part through my own mistakes, and in part from learning from, rather than judging, the parents around me.

(thanks to DH for catching my spelling error in the title.  Oops.)

Kathryn December 21, 2011 at 7:37 am

This is excellent. And, other than a few of the blogs you mention above (and yours), I’ve stopped trying to keep ip with mommy blogs. I’ve even mostly stopped reading Motherlode. Not because I feel comparatively guilty about my parenting, but because it’s exhausting. (Especially the Motherlode comments section!) But also because when I judge I do feel counterproductive. My kids can barely string sentences together — I know I have a lot to learn, and no news o preemptively judge.

Kate December 21, 2011 at 8:26 am

Well put, Launa. And it needed to be said. I eventually figured out that our children are our best parenting teachers (which sounds trite perhaps because it is so true, and so many generations of mothers have discovered this for themselves). I thought I had it all figured out, and was prepared to preach the word–breastfeeding, attachment parenting, what have you. But it turns out that children are diverse and resilient–who knew?

Launa December 21, 2011 at 11:51 am

Children — like parents, like humans in general — turn out to be diverse and resilient. I love the multitude of stories I have learned while searching for my own answers.

GailNHB December 21, 2011 at 9:24 am

Well done, Launa.

I’ve come to recognize and confess how often I change lanes in this parenting race (if I can use that analogy for a moment) going from no television to tv all day, from organic vegetable juices to Doritos, from co-sleeping to wishing they lived in another house. Like many, I often point a demeaning and judgmental finger at other parents for their “choices.” But when I stop flapping my angry lips and allow my heart and mind to do their work, I am almost quickly reminded that this isn’t a race at all, or any type of competition for that matter, that we are in this life thing together, and that there is still so much to learn on this journey of parenting our offspring and parenting ourselves as well.

Thanks again for bringing so many of these blogs, debates, and habits of judging into perspective.

T. December 21, 2011 at 10:46 am

I just deleted Motherlode from my favorites this week because I just felt like the ugliness of the comments was becoming toxic. It’s too bad because I actually find myself more interested in some of the topics in this new incarnation with KJ Dell’antonia, but it seems to me that the comments section has taken a turn for the worse.

I struggle with the issue of judgement, too. We need to make judgements, they are not inherently bad. But there is a tendency to imbue our judgements with our own insecurities, to allow our responses to others to be overly emotional, perhaps out of a need to justify our own decisions to ourselves. It makes we wonder why we’re all so seemingly insecure.

I’m trying to make a point to either be okay with my own choices, or if I can’t, make new ones. I’m finding if I am at ease with myself, I am much less critical of others. The trick is to keep examining my own life, which is not always the easiest road to travel.

Great, thoughtful piece, as always.

Sarah December 21, 2011 at 11:05 am

This is so fabulous, Launa. And I’m glad I had a few minutes to pop over and read today.

“For perhaps because of all this conversation, we’re ready to take a turn away from judgment and towards the sort of understanding that moves us forward. Towards perspective. Perhaps even towards wisdom.”

Perspective, and your formula (loved that!), are exactly what we should be reaching for. I am proud to say (although the word “proud” seems strange here) that I feel like I’ve been able to put all those judgments aside over the past year. It’s taken a lot of work, a lot of soul-searching, a lot of conscious effort, but I can say that I don’t even let the wheels churn anymore. Sure, things still come flying out of my mouth–observations that I didn’t expect to share that come out sounding exactly like judgments–but I always backtrack and add in that “whatever works for that family just works, so it’s all good.”

I completely agree how awkward it is that we’ve brought everything into the public sphere. We share thoughts and emotions about raising our kids that raise the eyebrows of other mothers out there. It’s one of the reasons I have nearly stopped blogging. I’ve gotten uncomfortable with the notion that everything in our lives is blog fodder. Where is the line? I’m still working on that.

But like you said, there is good in it, too. There is so much support. There are many reasons to read a blog and nod your head and walk away from the computer feeling a little less heavy because “Hey, she’s going through that, too, and I never looked at it like that, and, by golly, she’s right. Life goes on. I’ll be okay. My kids will be okay.” (Or something like that.)

This is such a wonderful post, Launa. And I thank you for your candor. It takes a lot to admit that you are judgmental, or have been, or are recovering. I think we all are built that way. As mothers to small children (and more specifically, our first child) we think we know everything there is to know and right/wrong are so black/white. But then your children grow older and older and you realize how messy it all is. This is what has happened to me. My 9-year-old teaches me everyday that parenting is more about the lessons and morals I share and not how much TV I allow, or whether or not I served cereal for dinner….again!

I could go on. But this is your post. And it’s brilliant. Bravo!

Launa December 21, 2011 at 11:52 am

I bet this is even more true for the community of moms of three (and more) on Momalom. I think those parents of many kids do in fact start to get perspective faster than the rest of us — as well as getting exhausted.

Lindsey December 21, 2011 at 1:22 pm

Bravo. I absolutely utterly concur and find myself nodding (sitting on HWM’s couch!) ferociously. I will note that I find my own judgementalness ebbing, at least a bit, as my kids get older and I come face to face with “decisions” I had previously not imagined would even enter my sphere of reference. Thanks for reminding us that there’s far more that unites us than separates us, and that we have a whole lot more in common than we do apart. xoxo

CK December 23, 2011 at 10:15 pm

You are so right, Launa. I did a lot of silent judging as a new mom and in looking over those early years, I never judged backward at women experiencing what I’d just gone through. I judged forward, where I had zero understanding, zero perspective, and zero right. (Not that I had the right to judge at all.) And judging hurts everyone involved because all it does in the end is isolate people.

I love the quote you noted at the top of this post. I wish I’d read that as a new mom. Not that it would’ve registered…

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