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Is the road to hell paved with good intentions or role fulfillment?

(This is a bit of a follow-up to the previous post Underwater Basket Case 101. Comments and other thoughts kept rolling out and making me think.)

What people think of me---of me and my children---matters to me. I am aware of, and concerned with, public opinion.

It comes from good intentions, you understand. Caring what others think is a good goal, and is the basis for respect and consideration. I just never learned healthy boundaries for it. So as I entered adulthood, I tried to find a happier medium. It's been a struggle.

Public feedback is a mixed bag, and very confusing. I'm not really clear what people's expectations are, or how I am supposed to respond to them. It doesn't come naturally to me---determining how much opinion and expectation ought to matter in a healthy way---so I have to consider it. I'm probably too conservative, expecting high need and harsh judgment. It's what I learned from and experienced.

Therefore, out in public, I tend to assume that people do not like my children, do not want them around, and will become highly annoyed and critical if they "misbehave" (read: act like normal). I like to think that other parents will understand---and sometimes they do---but other times, they might very well be my harshest critics.

I discussed this in detail in my last post, and also went on to wonder whether there really is a mommy war, or if it is the tail wagging the dog.

Media stories certainly add fuel to the fire of my concern about public judgment.

Is the public really paying that much attention to me?

One of my favorite bookmarked bloggers, Beck (Frog and Toad are Still Friends) recently wrote about the type of parents she and her husband are, and described our mindset pretty well, in her post Attached.

We aim to positively discipline our children so they know okay ways to behave, with their spirits intact.

Additionally, her post and the comments to it, as well as her follow-up post World of Danger, confirmed for me that other people do pay attention to my kids.

My concern, though, is that my awareness of this might be a hyper-awareness, and may be out of perspective.

Am I sacrificing my children on the altar of public perception? Setting them up to care a little too much what others think?

How I feel: I am on my children in public like white on rice. Nothing slips past me and I am constantly on guard, working to keep them in line. A collie herding sheep.

This is tiring. I feel exhausted.

It takes everything in me and then some to keep my kids from being the kids who hit people, are disruptive, create chaos and messes, and who are unbearable to be around.

I feel like a sort of minority. Other moms just don’t seem to have to work quite this hard. Kids are kids, sure, and when tired or hungry will be on edge, or off it with crying, tantrumming, or tough behavior. All kids can be tough at times, all kids need discipline, and no parenting job is easy. Sometimes though, I feel a little validated when other moms look at me and say about my children, ‘I don’t know how you do it.”

Or maybe the mom stuff is more intuitive to them, and that’s why it doesn’t look as hard as it feels to me.

Or maybe it’s both.

For example: At the grocery store, I see other children who ride quietly in the proper seat of the shopping cart, just looking around, passively happy.

My children don't want to ride in the cart. They want to touch, taste, see, smell, crawl under, climb up, swing on and more.

I want to encourage their curiosity and sense of exploration, but not at the expense of the world around me.

My perception: my children, sitting in the basket or skipping alongside, occasionally testing the boundary by grabbing a package off the shelf or hopping on the side of the cart for a ride, are acting really well, all things considered. They aren't shrieking, running up and down the aisles, or knocking the entire pile of apples off the produce shelf. We're doing well. Okay, this is okay!

Then, I get a look. It might be slanted eyes, or raised brows, or worse, a fast look away. It might be a comment, either directly to me, or a passive one directed to another adult or child, "Look at that naughty child, Johnny, I'll beat your bum blue if you act like THAT!" I hate the latter most of all.

Suddenly, my confidence wavers, dips, plunges. I pause, step out of my little world of just the three of us, doing okay, and look around. I feel a little light, then self-conscious---that feeling in your nightmare when you realize you are at school in your underwear---and I sense/imagine a buzz of negative thoughts about us.

I imagine they are thinking, "How can that mom let her kids ride on the outside of the cart! That's dangerous!" Possibly, but we do our best to be careful, and truly, it's not as dangerous as them running off.

"Does that mom ever shut up? Constant chatter to her kids, 'do this,' and 'that's not okay let's do this instead' and 'good choice' and on and on and on." Just riding herd, knowing me, knowing my kids, and doing our best to stay safe and considerate.

"Those kids are loud! How many more times can they sing the ABC song?" Trust me, so much better than the banshee tantrum that is possible.

I often feel like a bone between two dogs, one named Public Expectation and one named Children's Needs.

It's a struggle to balance the two, and they often seem to be in conflict. Somewhere in there, too, I have to consider my sanity.

I look at the well-behaved children, who sit so nicely in the seat while mom shops and pays attention to what she buys rather than riding herd on them every second, and I wonder, "What did she drug them with and where can I get some?"

No seriously, I wonder if she understands, or if she thinks we are maniacs.

I wonder why I care. And whether her approval would matter.

I think it would. I'm trying so hard to be good. More than anything, I want some sort of confirmation that it looks okay and therefore it is okay.

Believe it or not, it's not really all about me.

I don't want my kids to experience negativity from strangers, possibly due to them acting in a way that the person perceives as badly-disciplined (but that I might accept or have failed to manage positively).

I don't want our discipline choices to negatively affect them.

I just so want my children to be welcomed into the loving, accepting bosom of the world exactly as they are, for who they are...not in spite of that. And, from personal experience, I know it isn't that simple or unconditional, and to expect that, is a little unreasonable on my part.

I hope they find that loving acceptance at home. Goodness knows we try.

And in honesty, that's the public feedback I really want: wow, those kids are so confident, sure of themselves, you can tell they feel loved

How does parenting feel to you? How do others’ opinions matter to you, or do they? Do you alter your parenting out in public?

copyright 2007 Julie Pippert

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Beck said…
Oh, it's not just you, believe me. I'm so worn out when my husband gets home from work that I'm in frustrated tears many, many days. My kids are great at behaving in PUBLIC, but that doesn't always translate to wonderful at-home behaviour.
Unknown said…
One of things I like least about my parenting is that public perception matters to me, deep down inside. On the surface, I don't want it to, but I can never get completely free of it.

For example: Both of my kids are reticent with new people. Shoot, a lot of the time they are reticent with people they've known for awhile. If you try to get a response from them, they clam up, look away, refuse to answer, etc. My head and heart tell me that this is okay. I shouldn't force them to make nice, at least while they are younger.

Now, I have already experimented with number 1 and my theory holds out. At 14, he is quite capable of responding to someone's hello or questions. You may not get much more than that out of him, but you will get something. He grew out of it. I watched him grow out of it.

But. But, but, but... I am still mortified when my daughter behaves self-consciously. And my mortification stems from my desire to be thought of as a good parent. The problem with this is that I am letting myself care about a standard I don't even agree with.

I try not to let those feelings interfere with my parenting decisions. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I fail.
Julie Pippert said…
Beck, I hear you. My kids are often great *with other people* which tells me I am accomplishing something.

Mary-Lue, can our children be cut from the same mold? My oldest is also very reticent. She's doing better, sometimes even saying, "I'm shy, and Mom says it's okay." Other times if I encourage her, she'll respond a bit. This is huge progress, even if most of the time she just stares, averts her eyes, or ducks behind me.

I 100% relate to every single word you wrote. Your kids...just like my oldest. Feel the same way.

I do *know* that some people think it is rude when she is silent, they will say things lke, "Use your good manners, you need to talk to people when they talk to you." It eats me up, but on this one, I won't budge. I'll defend her.

Yes 100%.

Although, sometimes, I do care about the standard.

Still yes, I try to evaluate.

I succeed, I fail. I learn. We move on.

Thanks so much for your reply. Each thing you say, you know, I get that you truly understand.
Her Bad Mother said…
Oh, wow. Can I just say ditto? 'Like a collie herding sheep' - me, too (tho' I'm only herding one.) Even as people coo about WB's cuteness, I'm ever on alert to reactions to the hollering, to the running, to the childness of it all. EXHAUSTING.
Mom101 said…
This is absolutely fantastic Julie - thanks for pointing me towards it. Your description of the altar of public perception is just spot-on. To some degree I think it's societal. My mother, agree with her or not, always says that Americans hate kids. Obviously she doesn't mean they hate kids, but compare it with people from other cultures who smile at them, put babies' feet in their mouths, touch them...and not even their own kids. It's as if kids are just guests in an adult world and it leads to the kind of looking-over-your-shoulder parenting that we both discussed.

Girlplustwo said…
oh wow. such a good post. i, too, find myself alternating between how M is percieved (a reflection on me, right! ego! hello!) and wanting that perception to be good and then simultaneously wanting her to have a ball in the world as much as possible.

i suppose if anything, i want her to care about how she behaves out of caring for others. if she hits, that hurts someone's feelings, etc. but yes, we work on the positive, celebrating hugely the good and talking through the bad. and you know, so far, it works.

nicely done, julie friend.
Julie Pippert said…
HBM, yes, absolutely, ever on the alert. The childness of it all...that's it exactly.

Mom101...Your mom makes a point worth pondering.

After my recent trial by Internet where people felt free to use words like "breeder" in the same way one might say "rapist" I got to wondering about the *freedom* we feel here to hate, especially hating children.

I understand deciding to not become a parent, or becoming irritated by a child's behavior in certain situations, and so forth. What I wonder about is when it became okay to openly hate and be completely intolerant of children---and what good that does.

I certainly run across many people in the US who just adore children. So many times in restaurants, the store, the library etc. people walk up and do do silly things to make my kids smile, or say "They are so precious at that age." So there is love here too.

But the ones who don't love, or don't like, feel free to be really, sometimes, quite vicious in their turpitude.

I agree with you. At heart I think it is this lingering Victorian mentality that children have a place (which isn't in front of adult eyes) and ought to be kept in it...seen and not heard.

I know not everyone thinks my kids are as cute as I do, but I also don't think their mere presence in public requires (or asks) that.

Jen, ego! LOL! Indeed. You said it well...that's what I am aiming for: behaves out of caring for others.

That's like a little lightbulb. Good measuring stick.

Gwen said…
You know what I've realized in the last few days, with all the mommy's drinking again brouhaha and your posts echoing around in my head (because it's empty, see? hee!) is that for some reason, I am mostly immune to the judgments of others. I don't really care how people perceive my children or my parenting in relation to my children and I don't start from the assumption that I'm a bad mother, like someone commented on HBM's blog today. It's not that I'm not aware of both the fawners and the haters of children (I think Liz has a point about Americans hating kids; but then this is country that produces groups of people slavishly dedicated to hating Rachael Ray--why bother?--so I don't know that our hatred of children means anything profound; it's just one more way to disapprove of someone else); I don't overlook the judgment. I mean, I am not sailing through life in a Pollyanna bubble of joy. I just. don't. care. Which, based on everything I know about myself, seems nearly impossible. And I can't figure out how I got this way, besides years of therapy, a healthy dose of self-criticism and probably some genetic fairy dust, so I can't pass on my secret potion to anyone else.

But I have to say, since it's been a long time coming, it's a lovely place to be. Also, it definitely colors the way I view the so called "Mommy Wars."

Of course, it also helps that *my* children are perfect. ;)

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