I was talking with a good friend the other day, a fellow convert to Catholicism from atheism, who is expecting her fourth baby in five years. We were talking about how wonderfully crazy it is that our lives are where they are, how neither of us would have ever guessed that we’d be where we are today given our totally nonreligious backgrounds. One thing that came out is that we both agreed that one of the most difficult parts of having children spaced so closely together is simply dealing with the reactions of friends and family members who are baffled by our newfound religion and lifestyles. With each of our pregnancies, we have both gotten reactions that ranged from unsupportive to downright vitriolic. Frankly, we often feel attacked.
Then I came home to read of the blowup about parenting philosophies that was going around the Catholic blog world last week (Hope has a good summary here). I doubt that anybody involved in the debate meant to make other parents feel attacked by simply expressing their beliefs that certain parenting methods are what’s best for children…yet that was the effect. There is no more sensitive area than the subject of what makes a good mother. The mere whiff of implication that something a woman is doing may not be in her children’s best interest will cut straight to her heart like a knife, even if she disagrees with it.
That’s why I think we should be really, really careful in discussions about parenting philosophies, because the more strongly we advocate for one particular method, the more parents who don’t adhere to that method are going to feel attacked. Certainly in some cases this is warranted: it is a good thing to decry clear cases of neglect and abuse. Yet the lines between what is clearly abusive or neglectful, what is just less than ideal, and what is simply a matter of opinion, are not clear. They are for each person to discern on his or her own. And I think that we should be very careful where we draw those lines, and ask ourselves when advocating for certain practices as “best” or criticizing other practices: is it worth it?
I can speak with authority on this one because I used to be the worst of them all. When my first child was born I pretty much had it all figured out. I had read all the books and knew the proper way to parent. Unfortunately, however, there seemed to be a lot of people out there who had not read the books and did not know the harm they were doing to their children with their improper parenting. At the time I had a neighbor who violated pretty much every one of the parenting principles in which I believed. I was horrified as I heard her nonchalantly discuss the things she did and didn’t do. “I just cannot believe she’d do that to her baby,” I lamented to my husband one day after hearing about a choice my neighbor made that I strongly disagreed with. “I feel so bad for her children.”
Yet as I got to know her family better, at some point it occurred to me that for all my opinions about how detrimental her choices were for her children’s mental health, I had not a single observational data point to indicate that they were anything other than happy, well adjusted kids who had great relationships with their parents. From seeing their family day in and day out, hearing the giggling children yell “Hi, Miss Jennifer!” as I’d walk to my car, I started to wonder if maybe her kids were doing fine, if maybe kids can thrive under a variety of circumstances, even if some scientists say they’re wrong. Maybe all my opinions and raised eyebrows about her parenting choices were doing nothing more than adding one more voice to the attack on families.
The traditional family is under attack in our society; I might feel that more because of my nonreligious background, but it is undoubtedly so. Especially families who are involved in their religion, who homeschool, who have or are open to having larger-than-average families — even the parents who just want to raise their kids with some traditional Judeo-Christian values — we are under attack. And because of the sensitive nature of the subject of parenting, when we espouse one way as best, when we take a lecturing tone in discussions with other parents, when we imply that perhaps parents who make choices different from our own have not properly discerned God’s will for their lives…we’re adding to the attack. Again, there are cases when this is warranted, when the cons of wearing down other parents with direct (or indirect) criticism are outweighed by the pros of pointing out something truly dangerous or detrimental. But I think that we should put some serious thought and prayer into where to draw that line. (And I really do mean “we” here — I am as guilty as anyone.)
Now that some years have passed and the trials and tribulations of motherhood have left me realizing that my best effort is not enough to meet my own high bar, I sometimes think of that old neighbor. I run into her every now and then, and each year I see her children’s smiling faces beaming at me from their Christmas cards. She didn’t know about all the studies that proved that my way of parenting was superior to hers. But neither did her children. All they knew was that they had a mom, imperfect like the rest of us, who loved them dearly and was doing her best. And while her best may not have been good enough to meet my lofty standards, it was good enough for them.