Saturday, March 5, 2005

Motherhood as a Spectator Sport

I've been reading a single thread on Making Light for, oh, about five hours now. I was going to hold off on writing tonight's posting until I'd got through it all, but heck, it's nearly quarter to two, and I'm no more ready to write anything witty, informed, touching, or even coherent than I was three hours ago.

The thread is about a phenomenon called "mother drive-bys."  This consists of people (usually women) approaching mothers (online or in person) to offer unsolicited advice or criticism.  In many of these incidents, the criticized behavior is one about which there is no consensus: what, when and how the child is to be fed, whether the mommy works, and whether it's okay to have just one child appear to be common examples.  Prospective parents and even nonparents-by-choice are also subjected to drive-by judgments.

Now, this is not a subject on which I can have an informed opinion.  I am not a mommy, nor will I ever be.  Neither of my parents expressed a desire for grandchildren, and we were ambivalent ourselves.  John and I procrastinated for many years, partly for financial reasons and partly because neither of us was sure how well John would tolerate the stresses of parenting. I'm now convinced that John would have been a good dad, but we'll never know for certain. 

When I was 39, John and I finally decided to have a child.  I assumed that the only obstacle would be my weight, but my doctor expressed concern about my ability to get pregnant at all.  She was right.  Thousands of dollars, multiple trips to Nogales, Sonora (for prescriptions at a 10th of U.S. prices) a disfiguring minor operation and once false positive later, we gave up on the whole thing.  I retain only the scars (which go with the gall bladder scars, no big deal) and the unused names of our nonexistent kids: Romana Jean King and Alexander Scott King.  Changing the family surname to King was John's idea; but without the kids, there's really no point in doing it.

good Mommy, good blog

Becky Yanagi and Tyler.

Because of all this, I tend to shy away from mommy blogging posts.  If a blog exchange or exploration of Weekend Assignment responses takes me to a blog that's predominantly about parental issues or pregnancy or interactions between parent and child, I'll usually read politely for about 30 seconds and then leave. If the posting is funny in a fairly universal way, or the child is exceptionally cute, smart and interesting (Tyler and Athena score high in these categories), I'll probably stick around; but otherwise not.  I've accepted my nonparenthood, but I don't want to poke at the wound, y'know?

Even so, in the course of my wanderings I've read more than one posting in which Blogger A defended Blogger B's parenting after Blogger C left nasty comments.  The claim is that Blogger B can't be a fit parent, because she does/does not work outside the home, use formula, attend church, home school or vote Republican. On one occasion, Blogger C's beef was apparently that people should not indulge in mommy blogging at all.  It's boring, or self-indulgent, or a threat to the child's privacy, or commits some other offense against personkind that isn't immediately clear to anyone but Blogger C. 

Frankly, this sort of online altercation makes me want to avoid A, B and C, especially C. I have enough stress in my life without getting involved in three strangers' dramas, especially parenting dramas.

But the Making Light thread is genuinely interesting, not just for the discussion of the mommy drive-bys themselves, but also for the question of what constitutes appropriate interaction in a public place between frazzled, abusive or oblivious parent, out-of-control child and annoyed or sympathetic stranger.  A few people mentioned that they carry around some kind of toy to help distract other people's screaming toddlers.  Other people recommended the judicious use of funny faces.  I do this myself sometimes, playing peekaboo or just smiling at other people's babies.  Being as shy as I am (at least in face-to-face social situations), I don't think I've ever criticized a parent in public for anything.  On the other hand, I don't recall any really egregious incidents that required such a response.

One component of the mother drive-by seems to be the belief that proper parenting consists of agreeing with the critiquing stranger/friend/relative on every issue.  If Mommy A uses cloth diapers and Mommy B uses disposables (or vice versa), then one of them must be "wrong" in her choice.  Mommy B doesn't want to be the one who is wrong, so she attacks Mommy A.

This insecurity-driven behavior isn't limited to parenting issues. Any aspect of life in which there is a wide diversity of opinion and a strong emotional component will probably result in a clash between different camps of True Believers.  The other person can't be a True Christian because he or she disagrees with me about intelligent design or gay marriage or the literal truth of the Bible. The other person can't be a good teacher because he or she disagrees with me about teaching methods and discipline.  The other person can't be a real writer because he or she does/does not outline, use a computer/typewriter/pen/pencil, write for at least four hours every day, avoid adverbs, or write the same kind of fiction I do.  The other person can't be smart or kind or worthwhile in any way, because otherwise he or she would have voted for my chosen candidate.  The choice of a Mac or a Windows machine is evidence of the other person's ignorance or mental and moral deficiency. The same goes for being too fat or too thin.  And so on.

This phenomenon seems to be especially common and outrageous with respect to judgments of whether a stranger is a good mommy.  There's a whole biological/sociological component going on that's much closer to the core of human interaction than disagreements about Coke vs. Pepsi. But the "if you're right, I must be wrong, and I'm not; therefore you are" dynamic is there in the lesser disagreements as well.

Now, with all that as backdrop, here for your consideration is a bit of social interaction John and I had with a family at Best Buy tonight.

Dramatis Personae:  John, Karen, Father (age: about 40), Mother, Teenaged Daughter.

The Scene: the aisle with the SF TV DVD boxed sets.

Father says something derisive about Lost in Space.  John expresses good-natured agreement, adding that many of the shows of our youth were just terrible.  Father holds up an All in the Family boxed set that he intends to buy, and mentions his interest in getting Hogan's Heroes as well. 

So far, no big deal, right?  But the family then does a riff on Star Trek, the first series of which the Mother's mother likes. The family has only a vague idea of the difference between the original series and Voyager.  Okay, so not everyone has a Trekkie background.  That's no crime.

But then the mother points to one of my personal sacred cows, a Quantum Leap box set. (Let's set aside the fact that MCA practically ruined the Season Two box, and just deal with the series itself.) She says that she thought that would be a good show to have, but it turned out that a couple of episodes were too sex-oriented. (What??!) "They shouldn't have shows that teach filth like that to young people. So we threw the set away," she says.

I don't say anything.  I don't ask what she could possibly find in Season One or Season Two of Quantum Leap that is particularly explicit, or that "teaches filth."  The closest thing to explicit I can think of is Sam in a bubble bath, or some of Al's remarks.  I don't say, "Excuse me, but I co-founded a fan club for that show, and if you find it objectionable you must have unreasonably strict standards." No.  All I do is discreetly murmur to John, "Can we go?"

But John carries on talking to the Father. The Father doesn't say anything about Quantum Leap, but he does mention that he is "old-fashioned" enough not to pipe the "garbage" (or is it filth?) of cable tv into his home.  Eventually the conversion ends without a cross word spoken, but I've been squirming inside.

Afterward, John was amused.  "You're always accusing me of intolerance," he said, "but you're the one who was intolerant in there."

Maybe I was.  But only shyness and politeness kept me out of a Quantum Leap drive-by tonight.  That Mother (whose daughter said nothing, and was dressed down, as John put it, "for unsuccess") dissed the One True Faith of good TV, 1989-1993.  And I couldn't take it with equanimity.



deabvt said...

Attack "Quantum Leap"? That lady must have a death wish!  LOL

ryanagi said...

This is such a great post, I want to do a dance! And not just because the mugs of myself and my son make a guest appearance. I am a major victim of drive-by mothering (and religion, and diet, and politics, and...)  Honestly, I've done it a time or two. A little drive-by giving. I try not too. It's just hard to keep my mouth shut when I know I am always right. ;-)

jabarett said...

You were right to hold your tongue. You just don't mess with deeply held beliefs, at least in that kind of setting. You wouldn't change their minds, nor they yours.

I wonder what they're going to think when they watch All in the Family.

felicia63 said...

i had to laugh reading this.. it brings back memories of when my son who is now 22 was small and i had three aunts who have never had children themselves always felt the constant need to criticize my parenting abilities.. after much tongue biting on my part i finally told them that it is very easy to be the perfect parent if you've never had children, so they finally minimized their advice... but it still amazes me as it does you that people fell that theirs is the only "right" way whether its child raising, religion or politics. i like to hear peoples differing opinions but now it seems you can't discuss things like that unless it becomes too heated..

ceschorr said...

woman! make me laugh too! somehow reading this, i had to remember watching "splash" when it came out on vhs... and my mother leaning over and covering up my eyes during the 'love scenes' ... not a huge fan of what ever leap show... but then i don't get a lot of my own tv time... or care. i'd rather go sit by myself int he library... it's quiet there.. hence.. no one's allowed to talk to you about anything... much less parenting...