Oh my God, you’re huge."
Let me start with my belief that no woman, even one who’s eight months pregnant, ever wants to hear those words. But hear them I did and now, seven years later, I still remember my stunned, silent reaction. I think, in fact, I laughed it off, then went home and stewed about it. I was embarrassed. I was worried my baby was going to be born huge. But mostly, I was mad at myself for letting someone say that to me and just ignoring it.
What I didn’t realize then was that motherhood, in addition to all its blessings, is an invitation for people to offer all sorts of unsolicited comments, from harmless advice to rude observations.
"Are you really feeding him that?"
My favorite: Criticism in the form of a question. Why is it that people think it’s OK to insult you and then ask you to agree with them? From what I feed my sons to what kind of coats they wear in the winter, the busybodies of this world can’t help but question my child-rearing choices.
Because these opinions are phrased as questions, I always felt the need to respond in some way. Depending on my mood I might defend my choice to let my 2-year-old eat a hot dog. "It’s the all-beef kind. He needs protein." Or, I may pretend I didn’t hear the question and start talking to my kids. "OK guys. We hardly ever get to eat hot dogs, so enjoy this special treat."
It’s taken many years, but finally I have a ready response, "Why do you ask?" I tried it recently when someone asked me, "Three sons. Are you going to keep trying for that girl?" Then I calmly watched her stutter and stammer, "I just thought … you’re right … really none of my business."
"I never let my kids ride the school bus when they were that young."
Yes, someone really said this while my kindergartner was on his first field trip without me. Self-doubt set in instantly. Should I have not let him go? Should I have driven him myself? What kind of mother am I, to let my precious son go careening around Chicago’s highways without my steady hand at the wheel?
My illusions about solidarity in the "Sorority of Motherhood" were shattered long ago, but I am still amazed at how thoughtlessly we cut each other down. From the mom who primly claims to Windex her children’s shoes each night (no joke) to the one who "modestly" boasts that her kids never watch TV, these comparisons inherently imply criticism for those of us who don’t match up.
You would think after three kids that I would know better than to take the bait, but sometimes I just can’t let it go. I admit it. The highly sarcastic, "Well you are obviously a better mother than I am," has escaped my lips. I’m not proud of those moments but that response certainly stops any further conversation. Once in a while, I’m in the mood to indulge the superior parent and I’ll give in with, "Wow. That’s amazing. Tell me how you manage to squeeze spit-shining shoes into your busy day?"
Sometimes these comparisons seem like the throwing down of a gauntlet. "I wouldn’t let my son climb that tree if I were you." I hear a challenge and the next thing I know I’m encouraging my 5-year-old to climb as high as he pleases—my heart in my throat the entire time. And why did I allow this, I ask myself later? Because I was going to prove that woman wrong.
"You look tired."
Why, why, why would anyone feel the necessity to point out the obvious to me? Of course I’m tired. Show me a mom with young kids who isn’t tired. I don’t need someone, anyone, telling me it shows on my face.
And, there is simply no good comeback. "Thank you" doesn’t really ring true and the last thing I want to do is agree with someone’s rudeness. I have tried, "What a rude thing to say." Of course that leads to a very awkward exchange of apologies, which wouldn’t necessarily bother me except that my sons always seem to be hanging on every word.
For me, they are the bottom line. I really do (not always successfully) try to model appropriate social behavior in front of them. Rule number one: "If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all."
Alena Murguia is the mother of Patrick, Connor and Matthew and works part-time for Chicago Parent.