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You Be the Judge by JJ Keith

One mother shares some hard truths about ‘the village that it takes’ and encourages real conversation about how to be a parent in today’s world.


Conversations about parenting have gotten a bad rap, and not for nothing. Because there are so many of us figuring it out as we go along with minimum advice or help from our own parents, shit has gotten extra personal. However, if we all fess up to being insecure and uncertain, then maybe we can back off of one another.

When I chose to offer my baby avocado as her first solid food, I made that decision based on my own research. It was a personal decision. If my mother, my mother’s mother, and my mother’s mother’s mother had all done the same thing, it wouldn’t have been as personal, and thus it wouldn’t occur to me to be defensive about it. Likewise, if all my friends and neighbors gave avocados as a first food, I might not even think of it as a choice. For most of history, people have lived in relatively homogenous communities, so all this “don’t judge/be open-minded/it’s okay to be different” stuff is antithetical to human nature. It’s a great ideal, but not one that humanity can ever be reasonably held to in practice. Instead, we must keep our judgments to ourselves unless someone’s well-being is at stake. Go ahead and judge those parents who seem like they’re struggling, but express that judgment only by helping.

And then, once we stop being passive-aggressive about things, we don’t have to wonder if everyone is judging us. They are and that’s fine. Imagine if we had casual conversations about our differences instead of silently fuming or complaining behind one another’s backs. Say someone comes up to me and is like, “Yo, I don’t know if that’s the right call about skipping over rice cereal for avocado, man.” Then I could be all, “Why’s that?” Then they’d be like, “Because I read it somewhere.” And I could just be all, “Bro, no prob, but it works for us.” See? This hypothetical person and I had a confab about the avocado sitch and agreed to disagree. That’s diplomacy in action. However, that’s never happened and that’s sort of the problem. In general, parents have become fearful of even bringing such things up lest they be given the scarlet letter “J” for judgmental.

There are a number of “job description for a mom” memes that circulate the Internet with the basic message that moms do everything: Moms are nurses, bus drivers, teachers, chefs, seamstresses, cheerleaders, etc. The idea is that being a mom is the hardest job in the world, but to borrow from comedian Bill Burr, tell that to a coal miner. Being a parent surely is hard. And being a stay-at-home parent is hard. And being a working parent is hard. And being a single parent is harder still. But there are always harder things. Let’s leave the superlatives out of it.

What’s obnoxious about these memes, aside from the endless back-patting and subtle condescension, is the idea that parents should be all things to their children, and that is dangerous. I am a teacher by trade, but I teach college, not preschool. Know who’s a good teacher to my kids? Well, me, to some extent, but their preschool teachers have far more refined skills for conveying information to young learners because that’s their job and they have years of experience. I take care of my children when they are sick, but I am no nurse. Nurses have specialized knowledge and can do a lot of stuff that I can’t, so if my kid has more than a cold or the flu, I’m going to rely on doctors and nurses to tell me what needs to happen. In other words, gluing my kid’s shoe back together doesn’t make me a cobbler any more than making mac and cheese—even the home-baked kind—makes me a chef. I’m not a chef. Chefs are chefs. I cook what I can…usually badly.

My husband and I are self-reliant in that we provide for our family and keep our kids clean, safe, well-fed, and healthy, but we are only able to do so because we rely on a network of other people to help fill in for what we cannot do or are poor at doing, such as teaching phonics and filling cavities. This dependence is a fundamental aspect of participating in a society and having a community. Sometimes that may mean that we’re beleaguered by our obligations to other people, but that is the cost of the interdependence upon which the entire notion of society is based. Quick: Someone show me a family that just had a new baby so I can bring them some food. Will it be a pain in the ass? Maybe, but it’s a freaking amazing thing that we get to live in an interconnected world in which we can give and receive support as needed, and I’ll drink to that!

Even as conversations about parenting grow ever more divisive, they are still beneficial if they are indeed conversations. There’s a lot to sort out in this parenting business. But if we eschew the idea that what’s best for one is best for all, then actual conversations can be had. I was once in a room full of mothers and asked, “Did any of you circumcise your sons?” and I could palpably feel the air drain out of the room. But then one mom said, “Yes, we’re Jewish and I wanted the tradition.” Another said, “Yes, but I regretted it.” Another offered, “No, but I’m not sure if I did the right thing. I guess I’m leaving it up to him?” And yet another said, “No, I didn’t feel it was necessary.” We all kind of settled into how weirdly personal and complicated the issue was and managed to free ourselves from thinking that there’s one way to deal with a foreskin. It’s challenging because we all come from different backgrounds and carry different emotional, religious, philosophical, and marital baggage—but when we were true with our motivations and our feelings, there was no room to condemn anyone. In that room, we were all mothers dealing with the baby peens we had been dealt.


JJ Keith is a mom of two and the author of Motherhood Smotherhood: Fighting Back Against the Lactivists, Mompetitions, Germophobes, and So-Called Experts Who Are Driving Us Crazy (Skyhorse Publishing), from which the above is adapted with permission.


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