I take it for granted that when my kids grow up and ask me questions about their childhood, I’m going to end up apologizing for something. I’ll tell the oldest I’m sorry I didn’t hold her enough. The middle child will get apologies because I didn’t enjoy her enough while she was the baby because I was too freaked out about getting pregnant again so soon. The youngest, for not getting to go to preschool, story time, playgroups, or dance class like her oldest sister did at her age, because I was too busy carting around the older ones.
This approach has come to guide my daily decision making. I think about it frequently, like when I’m tired, when I’m tempted to say no automatically instead of thinking about each situation specifically, or when I’m out in public. I try and really think about my decisions because I don’t want to make decisions I’m going to have to apologize to my kids for someday if I don’t have to.
But now, in an age of frequent parent-shaming, I’ve come to think of parenting decisions in public also as public-relations problems. How will I defend myself if someone videotapes me or turns me in to authorities for something I think is perfectly reasonable or low-risk but they think is not? (I honestly had examples here but was too worried someone would shame for doing those things, so I took them out.)
I feel like any small parenting decision can have very public consequences. Once when my husband was out of town, I had just put both kids to bed and decided to have a glass of wine now that I was alone. But then I thought: What if the house catches fire? What if someone breaks in or I have to take a child to the emergency room? All it takes is for someone to smell alcohol on my breath and that becomes a story. I dumped out my wine and spent the night tossing and turning in the dark, waiting for one of the kids to cry.
I’ve seen friends get called CPS on them because someone thought their house was too messy in a Facebook photo–Hoarder! Or because they joked in a post about running away from it all–Call the police! There was the mom in Houston who was going for help because she locked her kids in her car and got accused of getting her hair done while her children baked in a hot car. (She’s now suing the TV station for $200,000 and fears for her family because people were so vile over it.) There’s the couple in Sandusky, Ohio, who walked a few feet away from their baby, who was in a car seat, to grab food at a buffet, and had a complete stranger shame them on social media and call them terrible parents. (He didn’t call 911 or do anything about it at the time because the baby was in no danger.) A recent study showed that individuals in a focus group judged parents on the perceived moral rightness of their actions when stepping away from their child even for a moment.
Read that again.
The article says that “moral attitudes toward parenting have changed, such that leaving children unsupervised is now judged morally wrong. And because it’s judged morally wrong, people overestimate the risk.”Â It’s much more exciting for some Facebook acquaintance or stranger to call the local news station than give you a call and ask if you’re OK or if you need help. What a hero.
So what started as a pledge to not have to apologize to my kids one day in the future has become of a way of living in public.Â I have to make the best possible decisions I can not only for my family, but now also to the defense of my integrity in the public eye, even when my kids are unaffected. You’d think raising tiny humans to be decent adults is enough pressure. It’s an exhausting proposition. It puts me on edge in public, and sometimes I have the feeling that everyone I see is judging me. But that’s an advantage, I guess. Because someone always is. At least now I am prepared to confront them.
Erin Burt is a freelance writer and mother of three. She lives and writes in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.Â