By Caroline Grobler-Tanner
A friend I met years ago in a mother-baby group recently told me she had been shunned by her social bubble for being too strict during COVID. “They call me the Taliban because I measure the distance we sit apart and enforce it,” she told me. I recalled she had been the same way with her first baby, imposing a rigid regime and carefully measuring her breast-milk output.
As a new mother, I often reacted viscerally to other parents behaving differently. These days I find myself similarly aggrieved by those taking a different approach to the virus.
When I had my first baby twenty years ago, I discovered just how judgmental others could be. Family, friends, fellow mothers, and even perfect strangers felt entitled to tell me what I was doing wrong. The disapproval appeared to be everywhere. When I first took my two-week-old baby outside in a carrier, I was chastised for a full five minutes by my elderly neighbor. “Oh my dear girl, you can’t take the newborn out in that sling in this weather, and without socks, she’ll catch her death.” The baby was wearing a footed onesie, and it was May, but I was the one with cold feet. I went back inside to put booties on the baby, because I’d rather she overheat than be judged as a bad mother. I was insecure and plagued with self-doubt.
For weeks after that incident, I stayed at home in self-imposed isolation. I wore the same elasticated maternity leggings every day. I had bits of toast in my hair, and cabbage leaves stuck on my boobs to relieve the mastitis. Breastfeeding was painful, but I was a martyr to the cause, bitterly judging those that bottle-fed. I finally left my house and went to a local mother-baby group, where I encountered Sally, the “perfect mommy.” Sally was the antithesis of me: confident, calm, and clad in size two jeans. She was an expert in everything—and in an accusatory manner told me that bottle-feeding would solve all my problems.
All our choices as new mothers feel like a statement of who we are. Whether to have an epidural or natural birth, cloth or disposable diapers, breast or bottle, free-range or attachment parenting. All these decisions are fraught with angst and subject to derision. In this pandemic, our decisions also feel fraught and now there are lives at stake, which means I feel particularly entitled to have a say in other’s choices. I cast judgment on those not wearing a mask, standing too close, crowding on beaches, eating at a restaurant, or going to the dentist. It is all scrutinized. I regard those who are too cavalier about certain restrictions as insouciant. They, in turn, judge me for being overly-anxious.
When I had a baby, the fad was for a regimented sleep and feeding routine. Gina Ford, a midwife, allegedly held the secret to “calm and confident parenting.” I didn’t think much of Ford’s The Contented Little Baby Book or the regime she promoted. I eschewed her advice, preferring to go with my instinct for a flexible “on-demand” approach, sure that my way would result in better bonding. “Haven’t you heard of the Romanian orphans deprived of contact?” I said to those who critiqued my choice. Friends who were devotees of Ford talked of sleep-filled nights while I was on night duty for months. I thought they were control freaks, putting their own needs ahead of the baby, beholden to a preposterously specific schedule. Conversely, I was considered a hippy, too lax, a slave to the baby.
At the time, we were all testy and tired. Friendships ended over differences in parenting styles. I sensed that the path another mother took was a negation of my own. It was easier to shame and blame than sit with the fear that I had made the wrong choice. Mothers are judgmental of each other at the best of times. It’s a protective instinct, and because we are uncertain, we seize on anything that makes us feel more secure that what we are doing is right. Somebody else’s different choice becomes a personal criticism.
Much like new motherhood, quarantine can be isolating and lonely. These days, I am testy and tired again. I lurch between wanting my old life back and facing the reality of the new normal. As mothers, we are thrust into a world for which we are little prepared. Our previously ordered life is thrown out with the bathwater. When friends and family inquire how I am doing during these COVID times, the truthful answer is: akin to how I felt as a new mother. “A bit blue. I am fearful of going out, I’ve made 56 cakes and eaten all of them.”
We are all trying to work through how to respond to this plague. A friend says she’s “not that bothered” about the virus and then admits she has not been outside her apartment once during the lockdown. Another tells me I am “too relaxed” in my attitude (trust me, I am not). In turn, I criticize her for visiting her extended family in another state. There are the contrarians who tell me that it is all “overblown.” Then there are the “experts” like the perfect mommy, who believe they know what is best. My way of finding certainty in these uncertain times is to define what I am NOT. I may be anxious, but at least I am not irresponsible. I have become adept at justifying my own behavior and assuming the worst in others because often I don’t take time to understand the reasons behind their choices.
When my “Taliban” friend sits the measured six feet away from me sipping wine under her mask, I try not to judge her for being a tad paranoid.
“Do you remember Sally?” she asks
“Of course, perfect mommy.”
“She had a serious case of COVID.”
She probably didn’t wear a mask, went to a crowded beach, got her cleaner in, and she always thinks she knows best… I say to myself. But I don’t know the backstory, so instead I resolve to be understanding. I contact Sally to inquire about her health. She is delighted to hear from me.
As mothers, we grow more confident every day in our own judgment—and less prone to judging others. We realize there is no right way to parent and what we really need is each other’s support. We watch our children hit milestone after milestone and we adapt as they develop. This virus is barely at the crawling stage. It will no doubt take a little more time for understanding and tolerance to carry the day.
Caroline Grobler-Tanner is a British writer, yoga teacher and international public health expert based in Washington DC. She is a mother and a step mother. During this pandemic, she is trying hard not to be too judgmental of the behavior and choices of others. Find her on Instagram @carolinegtanner.
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