I have been so over my head busy lately struggling with the day to day grind of parenting; sick kids, sick husband (they are really in a class all by themselves), my job, The Husband's job, catching up missed school work (both The Husband's and the kids'), keeping the baby safe from his new habit of climbing all the furniture and other fun shenanigans. Meanwhile, recently a childless friend was complaining to me about the "secret club" mentality of parenthood. She expressed frustration that sometimes her suggestions to parents of her students (she is a teacher) are met with disbelief and derision because she "isn't a parent." All this began my wheels turning......
I remember vividly trying to work on my thesis studying social networking and suburban stay-at-home mothers. I was interested in the ways that women grouped together and interacted, and whether there was a monetary or economic benefit that was derived from these interactions. However, for the first six months I couldn't get anyone to really, really talk to me. All I got was defensiveness and superficial answers. I was frustrated. I was furious. Here I was, an intelligent, caring female who had spent the majority of her life as a nanny and a babysitter or a dance teacher and these ladies would barely give me the time of day.
I complained about it to my husband, "What is it with these ladies and their "secret club" of motherhood? Does having a baby somehow induct you to the secret handshake and password?" I was even more frustrated when, after becoming pregnant mid-grad school, these same women suddenly began opening up to me. I was baffled. I started showing and suddenly they couldn't wait to share the innermost secrets of their lives and it further frustrated me. I often wonder if I would have ever managed to finished my research if my little Snowflake hadn't come along.
Then I had her and suddenly I understood: It is amazing the transformations that occur when you become a parent. Your entire perspective makes a momentous shift. But, this article isn't here to address those issues. Instead, I want to address what I perceive is the WHY behind the various perceptions of exclusivity and condescension that come with different levels of parenting. As I see it there are very distinct barriers perceived as invoking what is assumed to be click-like behavior. These steps are obviously not applicable to all mothers, but they do seem to separate parents into distinct groups:
1. The transformation from non-parent to parent
2. The addition of the second child
3. Reaching 3 or more children
4. Graduating to school aged children
5. Graduating to teenage-hood
6. Parenting adult children/become a grandparent
The first transformation is obviously the most dramatic, and also the one that tends to chafe the most people on both sides of the fence. Comments such as, "She doesn't understand, she's not a mother" or "I don't need to have a baby to understand it's hard" echo from both sides. I am here to tell you, if you don't have a baby, you DON'T understand. It is not that I am insulting your intelligence, but it is like the difference between soldiers and civilians. You can't understand war unless you have been through it. That is why they have written book upon book documenting the close bond between men who have been through the trenches together. And that is what parenting is....going through the trenches together. Parenting is the great equalizer. Suddenly even the most disparate of personalities have something to bond over.
Until you have gone 2 weeks on less than 3 hours of sleep a day, responsible for another human being wholly and completely, unable to rest or quit, you don't understand. Daily battles over teeth, potty training and bedtime changes you. Becoming a parent means that when you have the flu, it doesn't matter how sick you are, unless you have help, you HAVE to get up and function anyway. There is no putting up your feet and watching movies all day, or sleeping when you need to in order to get better. No, you get up and put one foot in front of the other because there is no other choice. And before you stop and say, "well, you chose that life" I would argue that so did the soldier but it doesn't make it any less hard while you are in it. There is a reason they use sleep deprivation as a torture device.
As a parent you make sacrifices you never thought you were capable of. You push yourself past limits you never knew you could push past and you step outside of yourself in a way that no other relationship forces you to do. You are forced to look at a child and see not only your own downfalls but also recognize your own strengths. You are forced to soul-search whether you want to or not and you are forced to decide, unequivocally where you stand on all kinds of issues because that fact is when your 5 year old asks where the cat went when it died, they are going to want an answer.
The next step comes the addition of a second, or more children. It isn't any offense to parents of onlys...I myself am an only and when I complain to my mom she says things like, "I know, I get it. You were tough too" and I find myself saying, "No offense mom, but you have no idea how hard it is to have three!!!" And guess what? It isn't supposed to be an insult, it isn't that having three is BETTER than having one or two, but as any parent of 3 (or more) can tell you, it is just different. There is a certain level of chaos that comes with a big family that you just don't encounter when you have one. Getting out the door with every one's homework, every one's hair brushed, everyone dressed and fed.....that is a victory!
Working in the nursery of a large church I see a LOT of moms. The workers who have been around a while can easily spot a first-time mom. There are specific characteristics of first time parents that cannot be duplicated. A certain obsession with the details; when baby eats, when he sleeps, what toys she is or is not allowed to play with, how closely she keeps to her schedule, or whether or not they are allowed to use pacifiers or suck their thumbs. There is also an air of slight insecurity versus the more laid back second and third-time mothers. The fact is, as parents, we are all just feeling our way through the mine-field, hoping to arrive on the other side intact, but after you have made it across a couple of times your footing starts to feel surer.
Which brings me to the next level of parenting. Reaching the milestone of school aged children. By the time a mom has reached school age with her children she has probably found her footing and feels more secure in her parenting style. She has decided on what type of parent she wants to be and the family routines are pretty well established by that point. A lot of the insecurities plaguing parents of young children have been resolved for the most part. There is also a letting go in regards to the minutiae of the day to day that drives the infancy stage; how often they eat, how often they get changed, if their diet is balanced, if they have gotten enough tummy time etc.
Mothers of infants are drunk with the promise of tomorrow. They are holding their precious newborn or 1 year old and they are dreaming of who that child will become and what a wonderful parent they are going to be. They will be a wonderful parent, with their own unique parenting style. But when the baby is small, it feels like every decision is going to have a life-changing or cataclysmic affect on that child. From this is born the heated debates on cloth or disposable diapers, breast or bottle, circumcised or uncircumcised, or co-sleeping or crib sleeping. It is important to realize that all these things are hot button issues for the simple reason that as parents we are afraid that one wrong choice is going to negatively affect the long-term future potential of the sweet baby in our arms. The future of one's child should invoke a passionate response.
The fact is, who knows if these things affect your child's future or not? All I can tell you is when I am volunteering in my daughter's classroom I don't look around and think, "That kid was clearly bottle fed," "I bet that kid was a co-sleeper," or "she is such a great kid, her parents must have practiced attachment parenting." The only thing I notice, and that other moms notice, is who is involved and seems to care about their child, and who seems disinterested. It is this realization that provides those knowing looks seen between moms of older children when certain comments are made by parents of pre-school children. It isn't snobbishness, it is just that their perception has shifted yet again. The world expands when you move beyond the home-bound cocoon of the early years.
Another parenting milestone which seems to cause knowing looks between parents "in the know" is the passing of the school aged child into teenage-hood. I know I myself have been a victim of these comments and looks. The "if you think teething is bad, wait till they start [dating, driving, etc] has been tossed my way more than once. The other thing I often hear is, "appreciate those moments when they want to crawl into your bed 10 times a night, soon enough they will want nothing to do with you." There have been times when these comments have bugged me, especially while in the throes of sleep deprivation, but I now realize it is just that these parents have experienced another perception shift. I am sure that things that feel terribly important to me right now, will look different to a parent who has "been there and done that."
And last but not least, the parents of adult children, and grandparents. The final graduation, as it were, provides the last shift in perception. Looking back on things with the benefit of the big picture seems to give people the overview to really see things differently. I have commented to my mom more than once about my own children, "Seriously Mom? You never would have let me get away with that!" She always responds that she has learned a lot since I was little. And now that I am the parent of a school aged child, I can begin to see how true that probably is.
So, as I see it, it isn't that these various phases of parenting make someone better or worse than another parent or someone who chooses not to be a parent, but that it merely represents a shift in perception based on experience. So, the next time you feel shunned by a group of moms, chances are they aren't trying to be condescending, they just see things differently. And to moms talking to ladies in different stages, please be sensitive. Often the only thing that is going to "enlighten" them is experience so you might as well save the, "you have no idea how much your life is going to change" when talking to the first-time pregnant mom or the "battling over potty training really isn't worth it in the long run" because the fact is, they are going to figure that out for themselves soon enough.