Parenting

Published on June 10th, 2014 | by JLWL

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JLWL on STRANGERS WITH OPINIONS

Of all the parenting mistakes I’ve made, the one I didn’t see coming rippled deeply through my family. It wasn’t the time I let my son roll off the sofa at two or three months, or the first time I didn’t wait long enough for his food to cool and hurt his tongue. No, it was responding to criticism from strangers. On the internet.

My spouse and I are two white women who have adopted an African American boy at birth. He is the light of our lives, and the best adventure we have ever embarked on together. He will be two in April. Although I have been a nanny, parenting is different. As a nanny, nervous first-time parents asked for my advice. Now, I am on the receiving end.

Over the past 20 months I had gotten comfortable fielding the occasional questions and recommendations of strangers we would meet out in the world. I had a set of field-tested answers always ready. But that didn’t prepare me for the internet.

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My spouse recently wrote a short, personal post about some of our experiences and her feelings as a parent regarding transracial adoption. The post included pictures of our son. The very first commenter was a well-meaning African American woman who gave us advice about how to care for our son’s hair. Her comment went straight to my insecurities. My spouse and I both made follow-up comments with what we thought were polite explanations of some of the considerations we had made regarding his hair. We got a few more comments disagreeing with our choices, and another online community we are part of criticized the post, our choices regarding our son’s hair and our “defensive” responses.

My spouse spent that evening chasing our son across our condo to moisturize his hair every 30 minutes or so. We both became a little more self-conscious when in public with our son. I spent a lot of time reminding myself that a few people cannot represent all of African American culture, and that no one should have to parent by committee–there is no point in parenting (not to mention living) if all your decisions are made for you by others. I am still a little raw from the experience.

I think that often, when we have strong opinions about something, we believe that we are not just subjectively, but objectively Right. Capital “R.” We conclude that others would agree with us if they had all the information. We also assume that if they haven’t reached our conclusion they must not know something that we do. We think we are helping them by enlightening them. It’s hard to not be defensive on the receiving end of such advice when it’s clear your ignorance has been assumed.

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However, many parenting decisions, if not all, are based on more factors than you could list in five minutes or less. Life as a parent is a balancing act. You weigh your needs, your resources, your talents, your values and preferences, your spouse’s values and preferences, your child’s temperament and personality and, as he or she grows, your child’s preferences. You may not parse it all our consciously, but it’s all in there. Our family decisions are more complex than I could ever articulate. Having tried to, I realize that I’ve only given the most narrow slice of our lives. It doesn’t come close to explaining my family let alone why my son’s hair (which I personally love) looks as it does.

Participating on comments about our family’s choices opened up a dialogue. I’m all for dialogues. However, an open, public dialog about complicated and personal choices has its hazards. On the internet, you don’t pick your audience as much as your audience picks you. People come here to find support and community, to offer support, to advocate for beliefs and causes, to see their ideas shared. There is no filter to sort the well-intentioned from the trolls, and sometimes, when we feel so very capital “R” Right, we can be hard to distinguish from the trolls.

When the families I worked for asked for my recommendation about their children, I would try to give them a few options and reassure them that every child and every family is unique, and only they could make the decision that best suits them. At the time, I did have preferences and opinions, but as an employee I also didn’t want my close relationship with their child to threaten their role as parents. There were multiple reasons it was best for my charges to have confident, empowered, involved parents.

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But now I understand those parents a little better. Not only are they making complex, personal decisions for a child who can’t yet voice any opinion, but they are constantly being told conflicting “Right” ways to parent and often being judged by family, friends and strangers. And finding a definitive answer from “the experts” is impossible. Amazon lists 871 parenting books on potty training alone. It’s enough to make a mom’s head spin without sleep deprivation, and what parent isn’t sleep deprived?

We all want the best for our children. There is so much pressure from within and without to get it right. After struggling with a decision, it’s hard to weather any judgement. To be shot down when you think you’re getting the hang of it can be crushing. So, I remind myself that parenting will never be one size fits all.

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About the Author

JLWL

JLWL is a mother in career transition whose resume includes Office Manager and Nanny. A constant crafter with woodworking aspirations, her wares are available at colourjunkie.etsy.com. She shares an urban condo in Boston with her spouse, son and two cats.



3 Responses to JLWL on STRANGERS WITH OPINIONS

  1. Dawn says:

    You have a lot of valid points; just keep in mind often when people offer advice, it’s truly in an attempt to be helpful. The woman who was talking about your son’s hair was, I’m sure, just trying to let “two white girls” in on the secrets of keeping your dear son’s hair in great shape. I understand the defensive response, but for all your sakes, don’t ever assume someone is intentionally trying to be hurful – first assume they’re trying to help.

  2. anna says:

    As I read your article, I could feel my stomach tighten just remembering all of the judgement I’ve felt as a parent. It’s so very hard. That’s all I’ve got right now, since I am totally exhausted from my day. I know that most folks mean well, but as a kind of sensitive self doubter to begin with, I am often not prepared for the intese feelings and opinions of family, mom friends, and random adults in the community. Thanks for sharing your experience!!

  3. LaLaLauraB says:

    I just want to say that you are in so many ways, so very present and aware and thoughtful with regards to how you parent and for allowing other parents to make their own hard choices. Which, as you so astutely acknowledge, happen on a daily basis and for even the smallest things, but which may carry great meaning for you. I want to say that I think you both have done a ton of research on your child’s hair and do a great job caring for it. Then again, there is a choice there in terms of when or how to cut it and those are the unseen things that other people really truly know nothing about until they explore the whys with you. Just remember as well if someone is approaching you with their version of Right that it comes from layers upon layers of their own parent’s choices made for them plus society plus experiences plus their own sensitivities and aesthetics and choices mixed with their logic and knowledge and if they are taking the time to open up to you to reach out across that crazy space which is air which is the world we live in and try to connect it may be just an effort to communicate that got boluxed up by all those things and didn’t come out Right in a way that you could hear it without judgement but again maybe they were just trying to connect…. or share with you something that they had learned along the way. Thank goodness there is room in the world for something new that is old that is beautiful in the ways that it is different and that is a part of how you adn your spouse be parenting now. People have adopted children for millenia and now all those choices and questions come bubbling in to the ways you are living and think to remember for one minute that part of what is important is that essence of child and is he happy and loved and well cared for and healthy. When he grows up he will be faced with lots of choices of his own but hopefully that grounding in love in the beginning will help him move forward well. Blessings on your journey and what a wonderful piece of writing. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

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