Before You Judge Me As A Parent, Walk A Mile In My Shoes

What you call ‘helicopter parenting’ is just me helping my son learn how to be appropriate.

Once people are done scrutinizing politicians and Kardashians, there appears to be nowhere left to level ill-conceived judgments but upon parents. We’re at the top of the list of people who earn—or in many cases, don’t earn—the derision, head-shaking, and plain old hatred of people who have never walked a mile in our worn-out Converse shoes or mom-jeans.

And to those people I say fuck you.

Because if you’ve ever taken your kid for a Happy Meal at McDonald’s, you’re a bad parent. On the other hand, if you only feed them organic food and crow about it, someone is going to find you annoying and decide you’re a bad parent. They’ll construct and justify an argument—no doubt something having to do with being uptight.

If you’ve ever tried to explain something in public to your crying toddler, someone is going to think you’re being too permissive, and, thus, a bad parent. Conversely, if you’ve ever lost your cool and yelled at your preschooler in public, you’re a bad parent.

If you’ve ever tried to soothe your children after they hurt themselves, someone will think you’re coddling and are clearly a bad parent. But if you tell your kids they’re OK and shouldn’t make a fuss? Yup, you’re cold-hearted and a bad parent.

Time-outs? Too soft. Spanking? Too hard. You simply can’t get it right.

I suppose if you carefully navigate the public presentation of parenting, making sure to cultivate the right appearance of attachment and detachment parenting, the right blend of attentiveness and sang-froid, always with the right foods but not too right, you won’t earn the judgment of people who have no idea what it’s like to navigate your particular experience with your children, which is nuanced and complicated and largely private.

But to get it right both privately and publicly is close to impossible. Facebook, for example, is social media’s public relations tool for parents to present the rosy and largely false narrative of what its like to raise children.

However, I understand that some mothers might scream obscenities at their children. I’ve seen it and judged. Some fathers might pop open large bottles of Diet Coke for their preschoolers. Some parents might get stoned every night while their children watch five hours of television and eat Cheetos for dinner. Don’t get me wrong; there are mothers and fathers out there who really are bad parents. Who are actively damaging the offspring they have produced.

Most of us, though, are doing the best we can.

Before my son was 2, he had a major allergic reaction to sesame, broke his leg, and nearly disappeared into the murky waters of Greenlake in Seattle. Do you want the background of these stories to try and figure out if I was somehow responsible? Falafel. Tripped over a cookbook in footed pajamas. Slipped on the pier and fished out by his jacket, barely wet. Thanks daddy for the save.

Between the ages of 2 and 3, my son had his first febrile seizure. When you see your child like that—taken down by the electricity of his own brain—you never look at him the same because you realize, especially in that postictal state when he’s vegetative, that it’s hard to protect the one person who needs your protection, which can only reach so far.

Sometimes no matter how hard we try to be our kids’ saviors, we fail.

Between the ages of 3 and 4, my son had his second febrile seizure followed by a week of fever chasing and multiple visits to the emergency room. This was also the year that our son developed a partial seizure disorder, and all we knew is that the bottom half of his body did its own thing. It took a little while to diagnose, but in the meantime, we had the MRI results, which suggested that he could have a devastating neurological disorder, or he could be fine. So we had to sit with that information for a week. Try it. Try wondering for a week if your kid is doomed.

My son is doing great now. No seizures for a long time. Yet you may catch me hovering over him in certain public situations because this has also been the year he was diagnosed as on the autism spectrum. In stereotypical fashion, he is obsessed with trains. Atypically, he’s affectionate with the people he knows and has good emotional intuitions. While he constructs elaborate stories, he also has a language disorder, which means sometimes we have to translate. And for the record, if your baby happens to get in his way, our boy is still learning that it’s not OK to push babies down.

So if I’m “helicopter parenting,” it’s to make sure that my son doesn’t hurt your child while I try to teach him what is socially appropriate. If I’m helicopter parenting— which I don’t think I am, but who knows how the judgment falls— it’s also because I feel sometimes like my one child is in danger, and though this has not been proven by historical precedent, it has been corroborated by a shaky first five years.

Getting it exactly right every moment of every day is impossible. Some days we lose it. I hate to hear the sound of anger in my voice. Yet some days our entire family is angelic.

My son said to me in the car yesterday, “My mama, Sonia, is the best girl I ever had,” and we soared for the rest of the night. I wish you could have judged us all then, mom, dad, and child, after we piled out of the ol’ Subaru to run through the downtown plazas intent on being dazzled by corporate fountains. To any casual bystander, we were an uncomplicated story of parenting done right. Right time, right place. Tonight, I’m letting my son watch Despicable Me 2 again. Oh well.

We parents can’t win them all.

Sonia Greenfield was born and raised in Peekskill, New York, and now calls Los Angeles home, where she lives with her husband, son, and slightly feral dog. Her poems have been published in a variety of journals including The Massachusetts Review, The Antioch Review, and Rattle, and her work can be found in the 2010 Best American Poetry. She also writes fiction and essays, and her prose can be found in Mamalode, PANK, the Monarch Review, and the Bellevue Literary Review. She teaches writing at USC.

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