Parents Make Mistakes: How Shaming Them Online Makes Parenting Harder For Everyone

When we take to the Internet and call a tired mother a drug addict and a terrible parent, when we deem mistakes to be crimes, we compound someone’s pain to an unbearable degree.

“What’s the craziest thing you ever did while in the throes of sleep deprivation?” someone posted in my online mothers’ group. Thus began a hilarious thread about answering the front door topless, making coffee sans filter, arriving at work wearing unmatched shoes, and retrieving the mail without pants (clothing mishaps are common among the exhausted, it seems). Some of us posted photographic evidence: fatigued nail polishing (only one hand done), pajama bottoms accidentally worn to a board meeting, running shorts donned backwards for five miles without notice.

We were in the mood for making light that day, and light is good; humor, a laugh at oneself and the absurdity of parenthood, is necessary. But when I plugged “sleep deprivation” into the search bar, a scroll through other time-capsuled threads told a different story. One woman posted about back spasms after months of sleeping upright with a baby worn in a carrier (the only way he’d sleep, which is not uncommon). Another posted about falling asleep at the wheel on her way to work in the morning. There were at least five posts about fights picked with partners after long nights up with teething babies. And several guilt-wracked posts about yelling at sleepless children in the middle of the night, or slamming nursery doors.

Then there was my own post, back in March, soliciting advice about going on an antidepressant. Buried in my anxiety about getting medicated was that my daughter had been waking up and crying for 2-4 hours every night for two straight months.

Our group is private (“secret,” Facebook calls it, an apt word for this discussion), and we have a strict no judging rule. We can admit these things to each other in the safety of shared vulnerability and total confidence, sure that our confessions will elicit nothing but love, sympathy, and stories of Me, too.

Which is why I wish Cherish Peterson was a member.

The Internet got its hackles up again last week when Peterson, a 27-year-old mother, accidentally left her two-month-old son in a grocery cart after a shopping trip with three of her four kids. An off-duty police officer noticed the infant almost immediately, and took him out of the Phoenix heat into a Supercuts salon, where employee Miranda Asadoorian, who posted a photo of Peterson’s baby to her Facebook page, began the latest witch hunt of a mother in distress. “It’s kind of hard to forget a child. And in this heat? That bothered me,” Asadoorian told a local television station. Peterson has been charged with misdemeanor child endangerment. She explains what happened to Phoenix’s KPHO in this heart wrenching interview.

I can’t be certain that Peterson was sleep-deprived when she drove away from the grocery store without her infant son, but I’d bet my next paycheck on it. Two-month-olds aren’t exactly champion sleepers, and with three other young children to care for, I can only imagine the depths of Peterson’s fatigue—years and years of it. Research suggests that chronic sleep deprivation is highly detrimental to daytime functioning. The average American maternity leave is 12 weeks, after which many mothers return to work dangerously tired. And stay-at-home mothers fare no better when they have children to care for under such exhausted conditions.

The only thing that makes such a draconian lack of social support worse is the wrath of the public when a parent makes an honest mistake, or even a questionable judgment call under far-less-than-ideal circumstances, as happened to this mother. And this mother. And these mothers. The village has become a police state where “good Samaritans” call CPS and shame parents on social media. More terrifying still are the repercussions for African-American and Latina mothers, whose parenting is under surveillance every time they deign to step outside with their children, and who face felony charges over misdemeanors.

The bootstrap myth in America, where everyone is individually responsible for their own successes and failures, where good old hard work will eventually pay off in middle-class comfort (just ask Shanesha Taylor), has contributed to a pervasive and damaging culture that believes only the infallible (in other words, wealthy, white, and 100% sacrificial) deserve to raise children. This is exacerbated by the incomplete narratives of child-rearing we tell with our highlight reels online—smiling children, maybe covered in oatmeal or birthday cake, captioned with “What a mess!”

But it is a mess. Parenting is messy work. Just last night, we ate dinner with friends who just moved to town and also have a toddler, but while their 22-month-old sat quietly and ate sweet potato tempura, our 19-month-old spilled an entire cup of milk and knocked over my husband’s Bloody Mary, breaking a glass. When we got home, I realized that I hadn’t taken a single photo of our otherwise very happy reunion. Because broken Bloody Mary glass isn’t part of the narrative we tell on Facebook or Instagram, and the sound of that glass kept reverberating in my brain. Bad parents, bad parents, it said.

A broken glass, of course, is nothing. Our daughter didn’t even get cut. Parenting mistakes can have grave consequences, leading to irrevocable grief that changes lives forever. But I know of zero parents who process even their most benign errors cavalierly—in my group, the self-flagellating is heartbreakingly high. When we take to the Internet and call a tired mother a drug addict and a terrible parent, when we deem mistakes to be crimes, we compound someone’s pain to an unbearable degree.

The digital world has shrunk the physical world, but it also amplifies its terror. Spend too much time inside the sensational, and you’ll start to believe the planet can be divided into only predators and prey. We turn every child into a potential victim. They are safe with no one. Not even their parents.

But the Internet might also offer a way to rebuild the village. In the days since Cherish Peterson’s story broke, the hashtag #IStandWithCherish has been created to show support and solidarity with Peterson. A public Facebook page has also been created. The group already has over 17,000 members, and the posts are mostly other parents telling stories about losing or forgetting their kids under similar circumstances: when they were exhausted, or encountered a change in their routine, or were overworked and stretched too thin to think clearly. The vast majority of the even the most tragic stories—yes, the hyperthermia deaths of children left in hot cars—occur under these conditions. When we say it would never happen to us, we are saying that we are immune to the devastating effects of chronic exhaustion, or never experience changes in regimen, or have no negative reactions to stress.

The real fear shouldn’t be predators at the park. The real fear should be the inevitability that each and every one of us fucks up sometimes. Most of the time, our fuckups are fixable. But not always. The only protection we have against ourselves are the small arsenals of hacks we develop to guard against our flaws, and the love and compassion of fellow human beings who show us kindness and give us help when we need it.

As summer winds down, I am tinkering with my freshmen seminar syllabus on the power of personal narrative to sanction diverse experience and promote cultural change. Included as a course text is Brené Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability. Brown argues that real connection—the sustaining kind that my mothers’ group just exemplified on their first retreat over the weekend—is born of the vulnerability that comes with being truly seen. But this same vulnerability, Brown warns, also drives fear. And fear can lead us, treacherously, to seek certainty. “This is what politics looks like today. There’s no discourse anymore. There’s no conversation. There’s just blame. You know how blame is described in the research? A way to discharge pain and discomfort,” Brown says. Nowhere, she says, is this more evident than in the way we see our children.

No, I can’t be certain that Cherish Peterson was exhausted when she left her infant son in a grocery cart, and then returned, as soon as she realized, to retrieve him, thankful and tearful and traumatized by her capacity for error.

But, Cherish, I was once so tired that I stood in the middle of my living room and screamed at the ceiling, terrifying my then 14-month-old. I was once so stressed that I pounded the walls of my shower while expressing the breast milk she wouldn’t drink. I was once so full of self-doubt as a mother that I couldn’t sleep for three nights straight, and then called a doctor for help.

What I really mean is, me too.

Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston, MA with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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