By Eileen Flanagan
A few months ago, I heard author Faulkner Fox present a paper on mothers judging each other. She began with an anecdote about a woman who was giving her child organic strawberry yogurt at the playground when another mother pointed out that strawberry yogurt had a lot of sugar. The stranger explained that she bought strawberry yogurt in tubes, squeezed half the pink yogurt out, and squirted in plain yogurt with a syringe. That way, her child could have the same yogurt package as everyone else without having all the sugar.
Fox used this anecdote to illustrate how mothers compete with each other, how we judge each other, and how we respond to those whose suggestions feel judgmental to us. I appreciated Fox’s point, that mothers should criticize each other less and support each other more. I also agreed with her that we need to find ways to talk about the issues that really matter to mothers and that we should use our playground encounters for constructive things, like community building and consciousness raising.
But the yogurt squeezer story left me conflicted. A part of me sympathized with the syringing mother who was trying so hard to swim against the tide of sugar. I have my own struggles with resisting our culture. I’m always trying to figure out the line between judging our society (which I do, and harshly) and judging other mothers (which I try not to do).
How, for example, can I speak as an environmentalist about my enmity for Lunchables, processed food in disposable plastic, while being sympathetic to the busy parents who buy Lunchables? I don’t judge any parent for wanting convenience, but I do judge the marketers and corporate strategists who put Scooby Doo on the package, knowing that my five-year-old will beg me for it, no matter what kind of junk is inside. I judge the fast food industry that seduces children with little plastic movie characters. I judge the sugar industry that lobbied against the latest health guidelines from the FDA because the guidelines conflicted with the business of selling sugar.
“So don’t buy Lunchables or Happy Meals,” you might say, and that’s basically my approach. But part of me feels it isn’t enough. When powerful corporate forces are setting our children up for a future of diabetes and overflowing landfills with discarded Lunchables packaging, shouldn’t we be working together to oppose them? It’s not just a matter of my individual choice. The choices of parents around me shape the culture my children inhabit and the environment they will inherit. As a mother and an activist, is there a way I can raise consciousness on these issues without coming across as obnoxious and judging?
Part of the problem is that we live in such an individualistic culture that we abhor anyone telling us what to do. Although we may quote the African saying, “It takes a village to raise a child,” most of us don’t really want a village telling us how to raise our kids. I discovered that for myself when my husband and I considered sending our children to a Waldorf school with strict policies against letting children watch television, wear clothes with Disney characters on them, or eat junk food. While I liked the idea of the school protecting my children from the baser aspects of our culture, I bristled at the idea of someone telling me that I couldn’t use PBS as an occasional crutch. More importantly, I didn’t like the way that many parents I knew at this school seemed to feel shamed into pretending they fit the community.
In traditional societies, villagers are stuck with the values of the village around them, but in a big city like ours parents can seek out like-minded families. Still, it may be impossible to find a community where everyone’s values match perfectly. We ultimately chose for our children a Quaker school where non-violence is taught and war toys are forbidden. But when my son recently went on a play date with a new friend from this Quaker kindergarten, he was given a toy machine gun and allowed to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark, a movie that I personally wouldn’t have shown to five-year-olds. My surprise must have registered on my face when I came to pick him up and found him enthusiastically shooting the machine gun at the Nazis in the movie.
When the other mother (probably sensing my disapproval) said, “I think boys are just hard-wired to shoot,” I thought of Fox’s talk and wondered, “Now how do I avoid sounding judgmental here?” What I wanted to say was, “I agree that boys are more attracted to aggressive play than girls, but if you let your five-year-old watch violent movies and play with machine guns, what do you expect?” Instead I did what Fox confessed that she often does in awkward situations with other mothers: I said, “Uh huh,” nodded, and hustled my son out the door.
Fox would say, “Uh huh” when she felt judged and didn’t want to sound judgmental back. But what should I say when I don’t like the way another parent has supervised my child? In my situation, “Uh huh” was a copout used to get us out the door on a busy afternoon. It did nothing to build a relationship with the other mother or guarantee a better play date in the future. Being silent may be the safest response in the moment, but it ultimately creates more work for parents who, if they reject the popular culture around them, have to make their own culture from scratch. It is hard work, syringing yogurt and avoiding violent movies. Trying to change the culture around us can be equally challenging.
I recently heard of parents at a local nursery school who, because they didn’t want their child to eat sugar or animal products, wrote a letter to all the other parents, sharing their recipe for cookies made from carob, tofu, and rice syrup in hopes of discouraging the sugar-laden cupcakes that usually appear on birthdays. The response from the community was a resounding “You’ve got to be kidding.” The friend who told me this story—a mother of three who said she didn’t have the extra energy it would take to stock rice syrup in her kitchen—made a point that stayed with me: “If you are going to take this radical a stand on food, you might as well teach your child now that he is going to be out of the mainstream. The world is not going to change to accommodate him, and you’re doing the kid a disservice to teach him that it will.”
This is, perhaps, the hardest part of resisting the culture as a parent. We want our kids to fit in, even if we don’t fit in ourselves. That, of course, is the real reason the woman at the playground went to the trouble of using a syringe instead of just sending her kid to school with a jar of plain yogurt. She wanted his food to look like everyone else’s on the outside, the way carob looks like chocolate chips until the kids get old enough to tell the difference.
The issue of fitting in only gets more difficult as the children get older. When I picked my eight-year-old daughter up from school the other day, she announced that another girl in her class was teaching her how to dress “cool,” which was apparently going to require me to buy her some new clothes. Feeling my blood pressure rise, I made eye contact with another mother who was standing nearby and said, “I need help.” My friend jumped into the conversation, followed by a third mother, and together we discussed the concept of cool with our three daughters.
“I think everyone has to find her own style,” another mother said, “and it’s not always what’s in the magazines or what someone else thinks is cool.”
“But I’m not wearing my own style,” pointed out my daughter, who has a wardrobe of hand-me-downs. With the other mothers making all my usual points about our consumer culture, I was able to really hear my daughter and realize that she did deserve the chance to pick out at least one new outfit of her own. Because I felt supported by other mothers, I was better able to support her.
Perhaps moral support was what the yogurt mom and the carob cookie parents were really looking for when they shared their quirky food suggestions. If so, I don’t want to judge them too harshly for attempting to articulate their values, even if they did come across as smug and judgmental. We all need support if we want to resist the food, films, and fashion that our culture tries to sell us. What I’ve learned is that I’m more likely to get that support when I ask about the issues head-on—no tips, no recipes, no judgment. Marketers know that it’s not what you say but how you say it. It’s a lesson we could all learn.
Author’s Note: Just for the record, although I don’t buy Lunchables, I do let my children eat way too much sugar, including organic strawberry yogurt squeezers. This essay was inspired by a Literary Mama Mother Talk salon featuring Faulkner Fox, author of Dispatches From a Not-So-Perfect Life.
Eileen Flanagan is the author of The Wisdom to Know the Difference, which was endorsed by the Dalai Lama and won a 2010 Silver Nautilus Book Award. Her forthcoming book Renewable is about the midlife journey that lead her to civil disobedience to protect her children’s future. Visit her at www.eileenflanagan.com.
Brain, Child (Fall 2005)
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