When I tell people the bruises and lacerations covering my daughter’s body are from a golf cart accident their reactions vary. Some say, “kids will be kids, who doesn’t have a golf cart story?” and others present me with raised eyebrows and clumsily, half-heartedly, try to reassure me that I’m not a bad or neglectful parent.
Here’s what happened: my daughter was riding in a golf cart driven by her older sister when “something happened” and next thing she knew she was lying in a ditch, bleeding. Daddy patched her up and dried her tears and I watched, via Facetime, as she cried softly while peeling back the bandages to show me her wounds.
I felt awful because I wasn’t there to comfort her and tell her I was sorry for not keeping her safe. I knew the kids were riding around in golf carts and I knew my 11-year old shouldn’t be driving (but probably would once she was out of my sight), and I knew it was only a matter of time before someone got hurt. So I can’t see this a random accident, an unfortunate occurrence, because I let my kids do something I knew could end badly. As a parent, that’s on me. Yes they were being idiots, but they’re eight and 11, idiocy is their default position. I knew this and I didn’t protect them.
We did have the requisite conversations about speed and safety and hanging on and being careful but they obviously didn’t stick. And why would they? Who doesn’t feel drunk with power their first time in control of a motorized vehicle? The first time I got behind the wheel of a golf cart I might as well have been Tom Cruise in Top Gun because the need for speed was upon me.
So much has been written about mom shaming and the judgement we heap on others, especially when it comes to parenting. But what’s interesting and mildly infuriating to me is the judgement that comes in hindsight; the assumptions, calculations and assessments we make about another parent’s level of negligence based solely on our own values and beliefs about what’s “right.”
A recent New York Times article by author Kim Brooks* likens mom-shaming to a form of harassment. Brooks’ article quotes a University of California study led by cognitive scientist Dr. Barbara Sarnecka that presented subjects with scenarios of unattended children so study participants could estimate how much danger the child was in.
Sometimes they were told the child was left because of extreme circumstances that were no fault of the child’s guardian (ie. he or she was hit by a car). Sometimes they were told the child was left unsupervised so the parent could work. And sometimes the make-believe scenario involved a parent who’d left her child so she could do something indulgent for herself, like rendezvous with a lover.
Not surprisingly, researchers found that participants assessed the child’s risk of harm based on how “morally offensive they found the parent’s reason for leaving.”
Dr. Sarnecka’s study found that subjects were far less judgmental of fathers who left their children unattended. Of this, Brooks writes: “This finding makes plain something we all know but aren’t supposed to say: A father who is distracted by his interests and obligations in the adult world is being, well, a father; a mother who does the same is failing her children.”
Brooks was herself charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor after leaving her four-year old son in a locked car for five minutes on a cool, cloudy day while she ran an errand. To help process and understand her own experience, Brooks sought out women across multiple socio-economic lines who’d also been accused of negligence for their parenting choices.
In her article, Brooks’ concludes: “We’re contemptuous of “lazy” poor mothers. We’re contemptuous of “distracted” working mothers. We’re contemptuous of “selfish” rich mothers. We’re contemptuous of mothers who have no choice but to work, but also of mothers who don’t need to work and still fail to fulfill an impossible ideal of selfless motherhood.”
This assessment won’t surprise anyone who’s had their choices questioned and found wanting. But is mom-shaming a form of harassment? Is the rabid, foam at the mouth, hell hath no fury judgement heaped upon women (often retroactively) just an annoying part of parenting, or something darker?
Brooks writes: “When a person intimidates, insults or demeans a woman on the street for the way she is dressed, or on social media for the way she speaks out, it’s harassment. But when a mother is intimidated, insulted or demeaned because of her parenting choices, we call it concern or, at worst, nosiness. A mother, apparently, cannot be harassed. A mother can only be corrected.”
I try to prepare my kids for what could happen (without scaring the pants off them) and teach them how to be safe in multiple situations. But then I kind of just let them go so they can test and discover limits relatively independently (ie. find out if I’m full of crap or not). If that sets me up for judgement then so be it. I don’t know how to, and I wouldn’t want to, parent any other way.
But to paraphrase Brené Brown, world-renowned shame researcher and author, if you’re not in the arena with me, putting yourself out there, trying and failing alongside me, then I am wholly uninterested in your opinion.
Perhaps if we look at mom-shaming as a form of harassment, if we view it as something that’s not just morally wrong, but threatening, as opposed to just inconvenient, we’ll take it more seriously.
Harassment is what happens when we abuse our power (perceived or otherwise) over someone; when we believe we can influence them using pressure or intimidation. As a word, a verb, “harassment” has more gravitas than it did a year ago. Understanding what “harassment” is, what it means and where it comes from has helped us comprehend that certain actions aren’t just undesirable, but harmful.
Given this context, when we hear about yet another instance of mom-shaming we should consider whether or not harassment is an accurate description of what’s going on and, more importantly, what we’re going to do about it.
*Kim Brooks’ first book of nonfiction, titled “Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear” , was published on August 21, 2018.