I recently posted a picture to my Instagram Story of my toddler snacking on a frozen (as in still frozen) chocolate chip waffle while watching a cartoon in the middle of a perfectly nice day. I captioned it: "We're all perfect parents until we become one"—and the response from many of my friends was, "Amen."
This was a scene that I didn't expect just years ago: Before I had children, I imagined I would make their meals from scratch and help them develop refined palates from young ages. I planned to limit screen time to occasional family movie nights, when we would sit around and laugh together while eating popcorn. I envisioned we would get out on exciting, stimulating adventures each and every day.
Then I had kids.
And while there are still plenty of homemade meals and screen-free adventures, there are also other days where we "break the rules" and watch too much TV while snacking on too many processed foods.
There's this quote from radio host Matt Walsh I like to remember during the times when I catch myself doing something I swore "I would never do" as a mom: "Parenting is the easiest thing in the world to have an opinion about, but the hardest thing to do."
Yet, mom-shaming remains pervasive—with some of it coming from non-moms: According to a 2016 survey of more than 2,000 parents by ZERO TO THREE, 90% of moms feel judged with 48% of moms saying they feel negatively assessed by strangers in their communities.
These aren't just numbers and they aren't just us moms being sensitive. They are real issues that, unfortunately, we encounter by going out in the world.
For example, consider the photo of a mom who was looking at her phone rather than her infant while at the airport. The picture went viral soon after it was secretly taken, with people commenting on how "sad" it was she found her phone "more interesting" than her baby. If only they had taken the time to consider the full story: The mom, Molly Lensing, was stranded at the airport for more than 20 hours with her 2-month-old daughter. So, yes, she needed a quick break.
"Anastasia had been held or in her carrier for many hours. My arms were tired. She needed to stretch," Lensing told TODAY Parents about the embarrassment she felt when the picture went viral. "And I had to communicate with all the family members wondering where the heck we were."
The perception of these judgments are also difficult to cope with—especially for new parents. According to the Emotional Experiences of Early Parenthood in Australian Families Project, a number of new mothers were reluctant to take their babies (who are all prone to crying on occasion) in public because of the "pressure to have placid, quiet babies."
It's doubly hard when you aren't prepared for these real-life challenges. As the same study found, "Several mothers and fathers described having set 'high expectations' of themselves as parents, and felt not being able to meet these made their adjustment to early parenthood more difficult. Expectations that men and women had before becoming parents included maintaining a clean and tidy house, being a 'perfect mum', breastfeeding, co-sleeping or focusing their lives on their children."
Maybe it's time we admit we were probably part of the problem before we had kids. Whether silently wondering why parents were letting a kid play on a tablet while waiting for food at a restaurant or tsk-tsking at a toddler's grocery store tantrum, it's easy to see the public scene and make judgments on the private reasons.
But raising children is a lesson in rolling with it, coping and—hopefully—giving ourselves the grace we deserve on those days. Just as important is extending that grace to others. "All parents have bad days, but that doesn't make them bad parents overall," licensed marriage and family therapist Heidi McBain tells Motherly. "Parents are all over the world are doing the best they can do in that moment in time."
That's because while it would be easy enough to see the processed snacks or the moments when a cartoon on the tablet is the MVP of the day and pass judgment, those are just small factors in the big scheme of things. McBain adds, "There is no perfect parent, just parents who love their kids and are doing their best with what they have been given in life."
What matters are those bigger markers of parenting that we do as we always hoped: We love our children fiercely. We allow them to be their unique, wonderful selves. We appreciate both the little moments of joy and big celebrations. And that we support other parents as they do the same.