I was on my way to my favourite shop in all the land, Lidl, when a woman in the street started yelling at me about my lack of parenting skills.
You see, I was pushing my baby son in his pram, and I had committed the great sin of crossing the road while the lights were green.
Despite the fact that it was a quiet time of day, and there was no oncoming traffic, this woman – who was waiting at the crossing with her own child – was of the opinion that I was a terrible mother, and moreover was setting an awful example for her own son.
“How could you?” she shouted, long after I’d reached the opposite side of the road, spectacularly un-run over. “What if my son copies you? What sort of mother are you?”
These words rang in my ears as I roamed the hallowed cut-price halls of mighty Lidl, and I began to doubt myself. Should I not have crossed? This woman’s son was older than mine, so clearly she’d been a mother for longer. Had I transgressed some vital unwritten parenting rule? Was she right? Was I a bad mother?
Now, I get nervous every time I approach traffic lights.
It amazes me when some parents jump all over the way other people raise their children. At the risk of sounding naive, shouldn’t we all just get along?
Being a parent is hard. Giving birth is an earth-shattering body-shock and, in the months that follow, you have to recover from this, learn how to look after a child, and look after a child – all at the same time.
And I’ve only been doing this for six months. I haven’t even got to the part where you have to keep multiple children from eating each other, or when they grow into tiny adults and start copying you when you swear at the television.
How all people with children aren’t constantly weeping and patting each other on the back simply for getting through another day is beyond me. But they’re not.
It seems there’s always someone not only bemoaning someone else’s parenting style, but using it to extrapolate all sorts of unsavoury things about that parent’s personality.
Recently, this happened to David and Victoria Beckham. When their four-year-old daughter, Harper, was photographed with a dummy in her mouth (current NHS guidance says to stop using dummies in infanthood), tabloids were quick to wheel in “health experts” who warned of the dangers this posed to Harper’s teeth, her speech, her future mental health. Were the Beckhams allowing prolonged dummy use because Victoria was “clinging on to her last baby”, wondered these experts. Or was it because the Beckhams were just poor role models?
Precisely none of these experts asked, “Is it because an unsettling human wall of paparazzi is forever leering at a small child, and she might need a bit of comfort to deal with it?” or “How is this any of our business?”
And the below-the-line comments were stuffed with almost gleefully cruel judgements from other parents.
In a small way, now, I know how the Beckhams feel.
My husband, Stuart Heritage, writes for the Guardian. Six months ago, panic-stricken and sleep-deprived, he wrote arecord of our son Herbie’s traumatic birth, and has kept a weekly column for the paper ever since, detailing the highs, lows and poo explosions of new fatherhood.
The column explains our parenting set-up (I’m on maternity leave for a year, so doing most of the parenting for now, although Stuart takes over when he’s not working), and records landmark moments, such as our first family excursion to A&E, or the first time I breastfed in public and Stuart used his coat to shield my modesty, “like a Poundland matador”.
His latest instalment, though, has caused an internet ruckus. It concerns a day when I fell ill unexpectedly, and Stuart had to sack off work to look after Herbie.
And the fact that a) it wasn’t a barrel of laughs for him, and b) he’s said so in his inimitable self-deprecating style, has been misinterpreted by vast swathes of parents in the comments section as aggressively perpetuating gender disparity in parenting, and child cruelty bordering on abuse.
The main issues are:
1. He said that babies can be boring after a fashion – which people have taken to mean that he finds *all babies* constantly awful, and as such should have his own baby forcibly removed from his care.
2. He complimented my parenting skills – obviously confirming the gender stereotype that ALL women are more natural at parenting than men, and/or was trying to get into my pants.
3. He marvelled at how I do this all day without going nuts – I have never been so needlessly defended as I was by those who seemed to think he was some cold, distant chauvinist patronising his meek housewife, when really it was a terrified cry from someone who was deprived of his safety net for the first time. Incidentally, I’ve felt this way frequently when Stuart’s been away. It’s just that, if I say so, I’m not being sexist. I’m just being human.
The frenzy even reached US site Jezebel, where this response piece sprang up. It wrongly assumed all sorts of things about both of us, without taking the article in the wider context of the column as a whole, and the site went with a clickbaity OMG-this-guy-finds-babies-boring-WTF headline, which may explain why some of the parents in the comments called for Stuart to “die in a fire”.
To die in a fire. For shame, parents.
I stand by my belief that parents should support each other’s choices, not tear them down. Because what has all this judgement achieved, other than getting everyone all hopped up on adrenaline and finger-pointing?
Is Stuart a better parent because of all this criticism? Is David Beckham? Do they need to be? I mean, Harper seems to be doing well. She looks well and seems very loved by her parents. Herbie’s fine too, in case you were wondering. He’s just spent the day laughing hysterically at his father pointing at a ceiling light.
So, the woman at the crossing, I’d like to say this: it’s not my job to be a role model for your kids; it’s yours.
I think David Beckham summed it up well on Instagram. “Why do people feel they have the right to criticize a parent about their own children without having any facts?” he said, in response to dummygate. “Think twice about what you say about other people’s children because actually you have no right to criticize me as a parent.”