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You Don't Get to Say I'm a Terrible Mother

Even Van Gogh knew---as these gorgeous paintings of Mother Roulin with Her Baby show---that sometimes it's about what's best for the whole family, which involves compromise, and sometimes it's about what's best for the kids. Note the way the mother and baby share prominence in the first portrait and the way the mother fades in the second.

In my title, I am quoting Elizabeth Edwards, wife of presidential candidate John Edwards, in her reply to Rebecca Eisenberg's harsh criticism (now edited to reveal a change of mind/heart) of taking their kids on the campaign trail. (You can find some of the original invective quoted on Time Swampland writer Karen Tumulty's blog.)

This all came from a New York Times article that described---to my way of thinking and personal experience---what sounds pretty normal, for most parents and kids, but particularly ones in extraordinary circumstances like a parent running for President of the United States. The "logistics" included things such as

* A two year old who strips off her diaper (Senator Christopher Dodd's daughter, Christina).

* A seven year old who says, "I don' wanna..." (John Edwards' son, Jack)

* A nine month old with an ear infection (Fred Thomson's son, Samuel)

These things can happen, whether a child is at home in a regular routine or on the campaign trail with parents.

Jodi Kantor (the Times reporter who wrote the story) strings along these facts and presents candidates on both ends of the spectrum: Barack Obama wants his children to stay in their routine and Edwards takes his children everywhere, while the rest of the candidates fall somewhere in between.

The current candidates and their family situation is unique, as Kantor writes

No fewer than five presidential contenders — Mr. Edwards, Senators Christopher J. Dodd, Sam Brownback and Barack Obama, and the almost-candidate Fred D. Thompson — have children under 10, a circumstance historians say has no recent precedent.

It is a case of campaign demographics colliding with larger ones: some contenders are running for president at relatively young ages, while others — like many voters — are having children later in life.

That leaves politicians agonizing over how often to leave their children, who should care for them and how much to shield them from the spotlight. Each candidate calls family a top priority, but that can mean different things.

All of the parents have mitigating reasons for their different choices, and I think that ought to be respected, which is something Eisenberg opted not to do in the case of Edwards family.

She opted for snark and invective, which, as even she admits, is a snazzy way of grabbing attention.

Eisenberg said

Worst of all, you are forcing your young children, who should be in school to ride in buses and talk to the press when they obviously don't want to. This election is NOT ABOUT THEM. They deserve some peace, not time with nannies and campaign-trail daycare providers, since, as the Times article describes, you don't have time to see them when you are busy campaigning too.

However, even Kantor couldn't keep judgment out of the article

The two children barely listened. They scampered away from speeches as fast as their parents would allow, to vending machines and arcade games and swimming expeditions, a campaign bus stocked with Oreos and DVDs, and for a glorious half hour, a trampoline next door to a speaking event.

And they treated an interviewer the way politicians surely wish they could at times, refusing at first to remove their iPod earphones for a discussion of life on the trail.

Shocking. Children who prefer candy vending machines, trampolines and iPods to a grownup asking loads of loaded questions. I can't imagine.

Picture this.

Mom and Dad in flooring store trying to take advantage of Labor Day weekend sale. Children flipping through wood samples, and constantly running to candy vending machines.

Yes, that was us, yesterday. And we are not even running for office! Our children act that way anyway sometimes!

During the week, my children attend school and preschool so I can get my work done. I count this as time and money well-spent for us. They love school, and get a lot out of the challenges, learning and socialization. I get a lot out of doing my own thing for a few hours three times a week, at least.

So my kids "endure" caregivers other than me with regularity and frequency. And I'm not even running for office!

That's why this piece of criticism from Eisenberg surprised me

I am truly, seriously, sorry that you are sick and that you are dying. But let this be your parting gift to the world: give your children some actual QUALITY time with you, which they are not having on the bus or in senatorial-aide-nannycare. Help give your children a next new Democratic president, who is NOT going to be your husband.

OH NO! Are we railing on the mom who doesn't need to but chooses to work and puts her kids in childcare, again?

Even more surprising and confusing about this point of view is that Eisenberg's own biography at Silicon Valley Moms blog says she is a practicing lawyer and start-up executive. That must take a few hours here and there, at least.

I believe, despite our separation during the week while I do my thing and the kids go to their schools, that my kids and I have a lot of quality time. Sometimes it's what I call "creative quality time" or "making the most of what we've got" such as using car time for talking, or starting bed time a little earlier so we can chat and read books. Quality time isn't limited to Hallmark commercial-like moments. They don't have to happen inside your house, or some particular location. You learn to take your moments when you can, where you can, how you can. And they are sandwiched between a lot of distractions and challenges.

Playing the dying card is callous. Although I don't have breast cancer, I am dealing with a serious health issue. But when whymommy asked if we would do anything different if we knew we might not be here next week, next month, or next year, I answered no. Because I'm just carrying on as normally as I can, doing my best. I can't live "every day as if it might be my last." I'd burn out pretty quickly in that case. How intense that is, to live each day as if it might be your last. It's just not for me. I'm sure people think they know what they'd do in my shoes, but you know? You never know until you get here.

I will concede that all of this does make me view things a little differently, a little more "outside the box," and so I understand the Edwardses choices. I have, in fact, chosen to take my kids with me on a trip, so we can experience it together. This means pulling them out of school for a bit. But I believe it is worth it.

I find it very telling that the criticism is leveled at the parent who chose to take the family out of the home and routine. I find it very telling that not one piece of criticism was leveled at the family that decided to part, with one parent at home and another out for of the time (or on the road). Is it because that model resonates a little closer to home for many of us? We are more easily able to understand that Dads need to travel sometimes for work? And Moms ought to stay home and keep the fires burning or something like that?

Isn't the point of this modern age of equality that we have choices we get to make now?

Karen Tumulty was right when she called this a re-enactment of the mommy wars.

We've all stated fatigue with the mommy wars. It's been argued (fought) and truces declared and yet...battles still break out. I think this is because we just can't help ourselves: we are judgmental.

We seem to think that our personal experience and situation is somehow applicable to another person.

We do this for the good (sympathy and empathy) and the bad (judgment) and sometimes, in either case, it's an insulting miss.

The bottom line is that we can never know what is behind another person's situation, in a broad view or situational one-off view.

And the excuses that we use for our judgment in cases of differences of opinion of how one ought to go about this incredibly complex job of parenting, and juggling parenting with other life situations (e.g., "you're harming your kids" or "that's just bad parenting because you're letting those kids run wild" and "well geez, I never had any trouble like that with my kids") won't hold water. If you judge, just admit it: I'm judging. There is no rationale for it, no excuse...although there is often a reason.

In addition to the discussions at PunditMom, Peggy As She Is, One Plus Two and the other sites I already linked to about the "kids on the campaign trail" issue specifically, a recent post at Motherhood Uncensored got me thinking about how I feel about the frequent judgment I feel leveled my way as a parent, in a more general way.

Kristin's (possibly unintentionally) timely question was, "Is your children's behavior outside of your home a clear and accurate indication of your parenting skills and/or how they act in your home?"

My answer, like Kristin's and many others, was, "not so much."

We have no idea why the child is behaving in a particular way or why the parent is doing (or not doing) a certain thing.

Even if a mom appears to be just sitting there...we still don't know. We don't know that two minutes ago she said, "If you keep this up? No (whatever) as a logical consequence," and is now hands-off. We don't know that she's sick to death of dealing with it, ineffectually, and has possibly retreated in the hopes of (a) being struck by inspiration of What To Do Next or (b) that the oft-bandied idea of "ignore it and it will go away" is true. We don't know that maybe she herself is sick and/or tired and is afraid that anything she says and does will be so shrill that she'll be judged for that, and worse.

That's the deal, isn't it? We seem to be frequently evaluating how other children behave and how their parents respond, and everyone has different ideas.

I've been smack in the middle of the "try to not reinforce it by giving it attention" method of dealing with some naughtiness by my kids when another adult walked up and said something like, "You shouldn't let your kid do that!"

Conversely, I've been smack in the middle actively dealing with it and had another adult come up and say something like, "You should just ignore it. Works like a charm for me every time!"

I've been standing (or GASP! sitting, or worse sitting and chatting with friends...oh the horrors!) at a park while my kids played, when an adult walked up to me and said, "Did you know your baby is climbing the rope wall? Isn't that dangerous?"

No, it's not dangerous for my child. If it was, I'd do something. Yes, I know where my kids are at all times. It's the MommyRadar. It snapped on at birth and I can't seem to turn it off, ever. Trust me, I've tried. I know what my kids are doing, what they are capable of and when to intervene. Just because your kid might fall off the ropes doesn't mean mine will. My kids are part monkey. I can't seem to turn it off. Trust me, I've tried.

Or worse, that nervous parent might rush over and snatch my child off of the ropes, assuming. Now I have a tantrumming child and a tantrumming adult to deal with.

It happens everywhere: restaurants, stores, parks, museums. Adults feel compelled, and sometimes older children too, to step in and point out the obvious then give unasked for advice about how to parent.

Just the other day, a woman approached me at a water park and said, "Your little girl is running through the water in her sandals." Why yes, she is, they are called Crocs and are waterproof and she wanted to, I had no problem with it (endorsed the idea, actually) and it's all fine.

I used to wonder why people automatically assumed that other people didn't know how to best parent their own children. I don't any longer. It's because we have selected our own beliefs about Best Parenting Practices and feel free to liberally apply them not just to our own families, but to others, as well.

Rebecca Eisenberg would never take her children on the campaign trail; she'd choose as Michelle Obama has (to stay home with the kids). She'd prefer her husband to parent by phone, as Sam Brownback does. You know what? I imagine that's the best decision they can make for their families. I imagine, like me, they consider and weigh all the relevant factors and make the best decision they can, understanding that nothing is perfect or ideal and everything carries a pro and a con.

I know myself, my family, our beliefs, and our kids, and I'd more likely follow the same path as the Edwardses.

You don't have to be on the campaign trail or in the news to feel the judgment, although I'm sure it's more frequent and intense inside the media fishbowl. All of us who parent are subject to scrutiny and a million little judgments. Even if many well-intentioned, and even if in and of themselves they don't seem very big or very bad, they add up. Some days, you can feel a little stinged and slinged by one too many arrows.

But those arrows are amiss.

In the awesome words of Elizabeth Edwards herself

I want to be entirely clear. You don't get to say I am a terrible mother because you think you wouldn't make my choices in my situation. You don't get to say that my children don't want to be with us when you don't know them and when, parenthetically, you know that happy children can be periodically disagreeable. You don't get to judge me because you think you know exactly what you would do if you had my disease. I want to be really clear: you don't know. And if the sun always shines on you -- and I pray it does -- you will never know.

Eisenberg did come back to edit her original post and express a change of opinion after the spirited discussion and broad media review of the idea. Good for her.

I hope more of us can understand that, honestly, even if think we would do differently in the same position, it doesn't make us right and them wrong, nor does it open up the judgment door. And truthfully, until you walk a mile in those shoes, you just don't know.

Copyright 2007 Julie Pippert
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thailandchani said…
I read this exchange also ~ in fact, just a few hours ago. I was tempted to post about it.. but I'm glad you did instead. :)

Somewhere along the line, it became popular to be snarky and incendiary. It's like throwing cold water on someone to get attention. All it does is make people mad.

Personally, I didn't find the post to be in the least bit amusing or clever. It was just ... mean.

Elizabeth Edwards responded in exactly the right way. "You don't get to say I am a bad mother."


Kyla said…
Well-said. It was all cheap shots and judgment...but isn't that what the mommy wars are always about?

I've learned not to judge others. My 2.5 year old with a bottle has taught me that much. You never really know and it isn't your place to assume anything.
flutter said…
I think she handled it with considerable grace. Great post Julie
S said…
Thanks for this post. Y'know, I like Elizabeth Edwards even more after her response (sadly, I don't feel the same way about her husband, though he's OK).
Anonymous said…
I make it apoint of smiling sympathetically or saying "We have that in our house a lot, too," when some poor parent is dealing with a tantrum in public. I have also held other people's babies while they deal however they like with the older child (short of hitting the child) and I have asked random people to hold Benjamin while I bring the wrath of mom down upon his brother. Those are the kinds of strangers I appreciate.

I judge my own mothering plenty without any outside input. Anyone who wants to judge me had better get in line, because I have first dibs.

And, Kyla, all our French friends here in London still give their kids bottles well past age three.
Lawyer Mama said…
Yes! Thank you for writing this.
Unknown said…
I agree with what you say here, Julie. You just don't know what is informing a choice or decision. My darling children have provided me with many, many opportunities to be on the receiving end of that kind of judgement.

Just this past Tuesday at soccer practice, it was hot (HOT!!!) and Marley was tired so she gave up and wouldn't go back after the water break. I did what I could to get her to go back. She wouldn't. I was hot (HOT!!) and trying to take care of team mom stuff. I chose to let her sit and let her know what consequences she would have later. One of the other children's grandma was close by and looked at me strangely.

"How old is she?" she asked. I thought maybe she was thinking Marley was one of the younger kids and that the practice might be a littlt to much for her. I told her Marley's age, 7.

Then she said, "Is she your youngest?" As I automatically said, "Yes," I realized I was being judged. Obviously, my daughter was the youngest and thereby spoiled and used to getting her way. Argh!! I just swallowed it and moved on. Why do anything else in that moment, but how irritating it was.

I can't help but think about the Edwards' choice to bring their family with them. Regardless of the why, which is none of my business, I am surprised that someone would talk about that, especially with the Edwards. They had a son who died. The mom is on her second bout with breast cancer. I imagine they have a huge awareness of the precariousness of life.

I don't judge the decision of someone who doesn't take their children with them on the campaign trail, either. It is just a situation I can't begin to understand. But c'mon, get some perspective.

(This isn't the first controversial crud to come out of the Silicon Valley Mom's Blog--or from one of their bloggers--is it? Wasn't there some sort of PTA racism kerfuffle, too?)
painted maypole said…
as always, and very thoughtful and heartfelt response.

Right on, sister!
Christine said…
amen, sister. AMEN!
Amie Adams said…
Well said Julie. Well said.
Anonymous said…
I loved hearing your thoughts on this.
Snoskred said…
With stuff like this I always wonder if it is actually "link bait" - controversy designed to get a lot of people linking to them. That raises their rankings etc. So they actually make money out of being controversial. :(

Christine said…
snoskred has a great point here. . .
Gwen said…
This is a hard one for me. I know it's the right thing not to judge others, mothers, especially, I suppose. But that doesn't mean I don't do it in the privacy of my head or in conversation with the people who are the very closest to me. I am a great relativist, but even I can't always agree that everything is okay, all the time, as long as it's okay with the decider (well, especially not if the Decider is our Prez). I think the way we use judgment as a tool to sharpen our own sense of value has been discussed here before, so I'll leave it.

I'll be honest with my own judgments about Mrs. Edwards: when I heard that she and her husband were continuing their campaign, I felt kind of pissed about his lack of judgment, or disappointed, I suppose.

But see, this has to do with my own personal experience, with having just lost a good friend to the disease that EE has, with watching how her husband continued on with his life of travel and work and how much he has regretted it since because she died so much sooner than she was supposed to. At the same time, I wouldn't write a snarky article about it. That's just mean. Like Snoskred said, though, "mean" is a good way to generate attention, as sad as that is.
Julie Pippert said…
Gwen, I see what you mean.

When you talk about evaluating and sharpening your own do this for *yourself.* This, I get and understand. I agree. That we do it in our own head, I concede. As I said, we judge.

I just think we need to be conscientious about the fact that it's opinion, not an absolute in right or wrong (which doesn't exist IMO).

When people judge themselves right, they find this sense of entitlement to judge others not like them wrong and I think it takes a bad path down from there.

My problem occurs when the advice comes with a negative thought assessment---or, more specifically, the assumption that *I* don't know what I'm doing or haven't thought it through. Or, because I am doing it differently than their sense of "right," then I am doing it "wrong."

(I admit a psychologist would probably call this a Complex in me, if that's current vocabulary still. I have a serious Complex about this---dealing with it as intensely and frequently as I do. I probably veer too far the other direction, LOL.)

As your friend's husband has, John Edwards might come to regret this, or...he might look back fondly on the time as giving their time their all.

The respect is that they made their choice for their life, not a judgment of right. KWIM?

That's the point at which I step know, have a boundary.

Of course I have my own opinion about things/choices/life (what a silly thing to say LOL right on this blog, biggest example of that BWAHAHA).

So I sat and thought, why is it okay for me to write this post about my own opinion, in which I judge another person's expression of opinion?

Okay if *I'm* honest I think my big problem here is what Snoskred said: I think this person built herself up by tearing down another person.

I hated that in high school and I hate it more now. I think it is despicable.

And me? I'm judging. ;)
Excellent post. I can't think of a single thing to add!
Snoskred said…
And look at the publicity she got from it! It was apparently on US tv, which is why she ended up with so many comments. That kind of traffic is pure gold from a marketing your blog point of view.

Not only that, so many people have linked to it. When I feel like someone is "link baiting" I will not link to it if I can help it, and if I do, I make the link no follow - this week in the think tank Sephy and I are talking about no follow and he'll show you how you can make a simple link no follow in a case like this, where you don't want to be giving that blog your link juice.

Checking that specific link on Technorati there are 37 blog reactions to that specific link that I can see - that's 37 more backlinks that get picked up by google and added to page rank, 37 more backlinks which boost a technorati rating - and other things.

I dare say none of the people linking to the article wanted the blogger involved to benefit from it, right?

I think we all have to stop and think - when it is ok for us to judge, and when is it ok for us not to? I'm with you Julie, I read the post and my judgment is - it was deliberate link baiting done to raise themselves up, get discussion happening, get links back to their blog.

But why is my judgment on this occasion ok and her judgment not ok? That's where it starts to get tricky. ;)

There's a blogger I know who continually posts controversial things because they have found it gets more views to their blog, more people discussing them. They have turned comments off and basically said - if you want to discuss my blog you have to do it on your blog. That is link baiting for certain. I have no respect for that blogger, and I have no need or desire to read their blog or discuss their controversial viewpoints on my blog either - I think turning comments off is disrespectful to your readers, but maybe it's just me.

Anonymous said…
Bravo. I think we all deal with mommy 'drive-bys." Isn't the expression something about walkin ga mile in someone else's shoes. these are not harmful situations, just one that require transition and adjusting.

Anonymous said…
This post and the following discussion were very interesting and insightful. Thanks for giving the topic so much thought.

As someone who's still new to parenting (not that I think I'll ever be able to believe I'm experienced), I'm dismayed at the ongoing mommy wars. And I have to say that all of this makes me so glad not to be in the public eye.
Bea said…
Yeah - between this and the racist-PTA post it sounds like there's been a bit of a marketing drive going on at SV-mom-blogs.
PunditMom said…
Wow! You have really summed this all up wonderfully. Are the "daddy" bloggers getting after the male presidential candidates of young children in the same way? I'm guessing probably not.
Liv said…
This is the truth. We don't know. We none of us know what we would do in a number of situations---and yet, so often we women find ourselves casting out statements and opinions about all sorts of topics that are not close to us. Good for Elizabeth for speaking out. Good for you for posting.
Anonymous said…
You're absolutely right. Nobody knows until they're in the situation (ANY situation) themselves. Remember what we thought it would be like to be a mom BEFORE we had kids? Boy, were we naive! Same stuff.

Great post, Julie. I totally enjoy reading your words.
Unknown said…
Great post Julie! I've experienced the bad mommy comments and the good mommy comments inspired by my children's public behavior. None of the comments were deserved because you can't judge a family from isolated snapshots.
Ally said…
Fabulous post; really great to read. I love Elizabeth's response to the criticism.
Mom101 said…
I'd followed the whole deal with great interest but only found this summary of it now. Nicely done!

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