Who are you as a mother? What do you say? What do you feel like? What idea is most important for you to impart to your kids? Those are completely different questions than these: What are you wearing? What do you look like? Do you have a nanny? Do you work outside the home? Do you buy organic? The second set of questions are pervasive in the mommy social network that we navigate daily. Some of these questions are answered immediately. We see what people are wearing and what they look like. Even if we are the most open and non-judgemental person in the world, our brains instantly take note, and categorize. It’s a deeply wired mechanism that is part of being human. We categorize people in order to make sense of the world and to figure out who we are. (Click here to read about a fascinating study on Social Identity Theory) Every single individual can’t stand on their own pedestal, in their own category. It’s easier for the human brain to separate people into large groups to sort the onslaught of sensory input we receive every day. This is called stereotyping. Yes, we all do it even if we don’t want to.
The place where we can make good is not taking the leap from stereotype to prejudice. We meet a mom, she’s lovely, funny, and unique, but despite our best efforts, our brain will still categorize that new friend somewhere in your brain. You will assign her to a group. Now, if you are truly non-judgmental, it will end there, no harm done. The category you’ve chosen for your new friend stays quietly in your brain. But if you start placing value judgements on her, then you’re moving towards prejudice. No! Don’t go there! Ask those deeper questions I posed above.
One of my main goals for this blog is to break down the barriers that keep moms apart. I want to shine a light on lots of real moms and parenting issues so we can all see how alike we really are, if not in our styles, then in the way that we all use a variety of styles to make up our own unique version of “mom”. That’s what a day in our lives is, a variety show…vaudeville. First there’s the organic steel cut oatmeal act in the morning, drop the kids at school, followed by a quick visit to the salon to fix your roots act, make a conference call while drinking your fifth cup of coffee (it’s not fair-trade, oops!), then grab your reusable shopping bags as you run into the grocery store to pick up a Jack’s frozen pizza (they’re cheap!), then pick up the kids and take them to soccer and German lessons (it’s not over scheduling, it’s enriching!), you alternate between knitting and tweeting while you wait, then run home to cook a vegetarian dinner so the whole family can eat together. It’s so hard to list a mock day for a mom because of the countless variables, but I hope you see the point. A mom makes some decisions that might fall into one category and other decisions that fall into another, sometimes diametrically opposed category. A vegetarian who uses reusable shopping bags, but buys non-organic food (Jack’s Pizza!?) and is concerned with her gray hair, has over scheduled her kids, but still wants to ground them with a family dinner every night. Does she paint her fingernails with non-toxic nail polish from Whole Foods, then paint her toenails with Wet ‘n Wild polish? She may, and that’s okay.
It’s impossible for your whole being (body, mind, actions, and spirit) to fit into one pigeonhole. We can’t fit into any category perfectly, but our brains put people in categories and I guess our brains want them to neatly stay there. Our brains must not want to be challenged by complexity because many mommy brains seem to spew criticism on other moms who either don’t fit into the category of their choice, or stray for some other category. “Her kids are at Waldorf, but I saw her shopping at H&M and looking at Facebook on her phone while her kids played at the park,” sneers one mom to another. Why can’t that mom love an educational institution that upholds nature and storytelling over screens, yet stay in touch with her friends online and take a break from crazy expensive organic, hemp clothing? Why would we say she’s a hypocrite, a sell-out? Because our beautiful, mysterious brains can’t handle too much complexity apparently. And it confuses how we see ourselves. Let’s push our brains to open up and make some room for contradictions, complications, and nuance. Let’s give ourselves more of a break and love ourselves a little more while we’re at it.
A sell-out would be someone who ignored her own true voice and blindly adhered to some category. She’d be selling herself out to a fear. That would be inauthentic. It wouldn’t be her. It would be boring too. Complexity makes us interesting and unique. I’ve talked to moms who’ve told me some of their decisions made them felt guilty. They were calling themselves hypocrites. “How can I be a ‘natural parent’ if I had an epidural?” “I can’t believe I used M&M’s to bribe my son. I could never admit that to the other moms at school.” Like you didn’t have enough to worry about with little Johnny emptying your box of Q-Tips into the toilet and little Katie pooping on the floor? I don’t want any mamas to be wasting their time worrying about whether they are a good “natural parent”, or “tiger mom”, or “attachment parent”. I don’t want any mamas feeling bad because they fed their baby formula right out of the gate.
Motherhood “types” are sometimes clung to with a religious fervor and it’s a bit scary. When you see it, you’ll know, and recognize it for what it is. Fear, masquerading as crazy. So don’t let it make you feel bad. A mom sees your kid with a bag of chocolate covered raisins (refined sugar!) at the park and comes over to offer your child some of her homemade flax seed granola instead. It’s the same as a religious woman proselytizing…highly emotional, subjective, and assumptive. So take that woman’s flax granola and tuck it where you’d tuck a religious pamphlet, then introduce yourself to her and ask her about what she loves to do with her kids. Let’s fight that misguided mama classification fervor with some attempts to reduce prejudice. Psychologists suggest that empathy and compassion can reduce prejudice. Let’s imagine what it’s like for that mom who has a full-time job, three kids, and a husband who works nights. Let’s imagine what it’s like for that mom who is bored out of her mind, competing with other moms at her kids’ private school, and has so much money to spend that shopping has become her only hobby. Compassion means “to suffer with”. Instead of practicing categorization, let’s practice compassion.
Here’s our action item: if our brains need to categorize, let’s make new categories. Here are some ideas: moms whose kids are in my kid’s class, moms who live on the north or south side of town, moms whose kids play with my kids, moms who are from the town you now live in, etc. These categories are less likely to lead to value judgements. Share your ideas! Send me your thoughts.
And before I let you go to pour yourself a coke into your recycled wine glass cup, I want us to remember who really matters in all this. Do our kids care whether or not we’re more crunchy or less crunchy on the crunchy mom spectrum? As a kid, all I knew was that I loved my mom, all my friends loved her, I felt safe, and I felt loved. I have no idea what category other moms put her in. I truly believe kids are oblivious to all that garbage. They just want mom. They know who their mom is. That’s what matters.