Published on June 10th, 2014 | by JLWL3
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.
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.
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.
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.