From a stranger’s super-judgmental remark to a friend’s offhand snide comment, all of it can sting.
I was standing in a checkout line in a nearly empty Target with my 2-week old baby when the lady behind me noticed him. She smiled at him, then looked up at me, her expression hardening: “He’s a fresh one. Isn’t he a little young to be out in public?”
Flustered, I shrugged and turned back to unpacking my cart full of diapers, wipes, and other baby essentials I’d come in to buy. I was very careful to avoid eye contact with her again.
It was only later, as I recounted the story to my husband, that I thought of a bunch of responses I wish I’d given her. I worried that by turning away from her, I’d let her win.
But the truth was, I wasn’t used to being a mom yet. I was still deeply insecure in this new identity of mine. I worried every day about whether I was making the right decisions for my baby.
Running errands was already filled with anxiety because I had to time it just right between my every-2-hour nursing schedule. So when this stranger judged me, all I could do in that moment was retreat.
And she was far from the only person to question or judge me as a new parent. Even my OB-GYN, at my 6-week postpartum checkup, felt quite comfortable telling me I shouldn’t leave the house in baggy clothes or without makeup because it made me look like a “tired mom” and “nobody wants to be around a tired mom.”
“Maybe I should say we need another follow-up just so I can make sure you dress better at the next appointment,” she joked.
Perhaps she had intended this comment as a playful way to grant me permission to take some “me time,” but it only reaffirmed my own insecurities about my post-baby appearance.
Of course, I am far from the only parent to ever receive unsolicited comments and critiques.
When I spoke with other parents, it’s clear that, for whatever reason, people feel completely comfortable saying all sorts of things to parents that they’d never say normally.
When one mom, Alison, was getting out of her car with her four children — two of which were babies only 17 months apart — a woman felt quite comfortable asking her, “Were all of those planned?”
Blogger Karissa Whitman recounted how, during her first trip outside the house with her 3-week old to grab eggs at the grocery store, a stranger thought it was OK to comment on her appearance by saying, “Huh, having a rough day, eh?”
Another mom, Vered DeLeeuw, told me that, because her oldest baby had a hemangioma (a benign growth of blood vessels that usually fades on its own), she started putting her daughter in hats to cover it in order to avoid having multiple strangers make rude comments about it or tell her to “get it checked out.”
One day, though, while she was shopping, a woman came over to her baby, declared it was too hot for the baby to wear a hat indoors, and proceeded to pull the hat off the baby’s head for her — and did a terrible job covering up her horror when she saw the hemangioma.
Unfortunately, we cannot change how strangers talk to us, but there are things we can do to prepare and protect ourselves from the hurtful things we hear.
Part of the reason why that woman in Target stands out to me so much, even all these months later, is because she was the first stranger to offer her unsolicited opinion on my parenting. As time has gone on, I’ve come to expect commentary and so, it doesn’t affect me as much.
As much as I may have wished I responded to that woman in Target, it really wasn’t worth it. I wasn’t going to gain anything by saying something back, nor would I have changed her mind. Plus, making a scene might have only made me feel worse.
That’s not to say that there aren’t times when a response is merited. If the person making you feel bad about yourself or your parenting is someone you have to see every day — such as an in-law or family member — then maybe that’s the time to respond or lay down some boundaries. But that stranger in the store? Chances are, you won’t see them again.
You don’t have to go through this alone. Some parents have found it helpful to join parenting groups where they can share their stories with other people who know what they’re going through. Others just call up their friends every time they feel overwhelmed or hurt by someone’s criticisms.
For me, what helped was figuring out whose opinion I cared about and whose I didn’t. Then, if someone said something that made me doubt myself, I’d check in with those I knew I could trust.
Yes, you might be new to this whole parenting thing. But it’s likely you’ve read some articles or books about parenting, and you’ve had a lot of conversations with your doctor, your child’s pediatrician, and trusted friends and family about raising a baby. You know more than you think you do — so trust that knowledge.
For example, several parents shared stories with me of people approaching them to criticize how few or many layers their babies were wearing outside or tut-tutting a baby’s lack of shoes or socks without considering why the kid might be dressed that way.
Perhaps your baby’s coat is off temporarily when you take them out of the car because it’s unsafe for an infant to ride in a car seat while wearing a puffy coat. Or maybe your baby simply lost their sock. I know my son loves pulling off his socks and shoes every chance he gets, and we lose a bunch when we’re out and about.
Whatever the reason, just remember — you know your child and you know what you’re doing. Don’t let anyone else make you feel bad because they make a snap judgment about you and your ability to raise your baby.