As a parent, there are many things to fear.
Potential abduction, getting lost at the beach and disappearing forever, the dawn of World War III, threadworms….
And those are just the things that you worry about happening to your child.
There are also things that you worry are going to happen to YOU, and I don’t mean going grey or pulling out your own hair with stress over the child’s eating habits and whether they are doomed to a life of obesity and being lifted out of the house by crane as part of a Jeremy Kyle special on Britain’s fattest people, after they refuse to eat anything but Pom Bears for several days running.
I mean Parenting Judgement.
It’s always there, the looming spectre of Parenting Judgement, looming behind every hedge and rock. Waiting to pounce on every unsuspecting passer by with a pushchair, if they so much as dare to kiss their child on the lips, use a dummy for slightly longer than the Daily Mail deems acceptable, brush the child’s hair a certain way, feed them with a metal spoon or fail to cover their feet to the standards expected by a random at the station.
I find myself actively doing things, or avoiding doing them, in order to avert the judgemental wrath of the Gods of Parenting, the Great British Public, the ordinary people on the street who are so quick to sit on their golden thrones of majestic judgement upon a poor mother trying to do her best.
And so it was that this week, when I was invited to dinner at a restaurant, with my brother and his partner, in the actual (in my defence, early) evening, on a night when my resident babysitter (my mother) was out painting the town red (also known as “book club”) I hesitated before accepting the offer, for I would have to take Piglet, a child whom most people seem to think should be in bed by 7pm, seen and not heard, and certainly not allowed out in an actual restaurant in the evening when there are adults trying to have a civilised conversation without having to duck to avoid pieces of flying garlic bread.
I hesitated, and then I thought about it, and then I hesitated some more, and then I thought “screw you world. Who cares if people judge me for being out at 7pm in a restaurant with a two year old. He never goes to sleep before 10pm anyway, and besides, he had a very late nap. You can all keep your Judgey McJudgey faces to yourselves. Parenting Judgement, I am Over It. I am properly over you. No longer will you dictate to me what I do with my own child. I know I’m no Rose West. I’m an intelligent and capable individual who knows her child better than anyone else, and loves him unconditionally.”
So off we went.
And reader, it was absolutely fine. No one batted an eyelid, everyone was polite and friendly. The restaurant even gave us free Prosecco (no, not for Piglet. Put down those phones, people. No need for social services here). I even started to relax, drink the free Prosecco, and enjoy a pleasant evening meal in the company of the adorable Piglet, who loves being in the company of his uncles and ate a bit of bread and even A BIT OF POTATO (exclamation marks all round!!!!)
And then it happened. Just as I was getting comfortable, just as I was thinking maybe this isn’t so bad. Just as I was losing my conviction that the world was out to get me, and was just waiting for me to slip up so that they could get on the phone to social services, crowing, “I KNEW SHE WASN’T CUT OUT TO BE A MOTHER. I ALWAYS SAID SHE WAS MORE INTERESTED IN CLOTHES AND BOYS.”
There came, of course, the inevitable point when Piglet got a bit bored. He’d finished his pieces of bread and one bit of potato, and was refusing every other tasty morsel that one of Bristol’s most critically acclaimed restaurants could offer. He’d started throwing Bigjigs Rail, his trusty toy train that had accompanied him on the trip, on the floor, and my brother and I were starting to exchange worried glances, fearing that if we didn’t act fast, Bigjigs Rail was going to launch straight into the head of our retired former family GP, who happened to be sat behind us. Desperate conversations were had. Conversations along the lines of, “does your phone have any data? I’m out for the month, AGAIN.” And, “QUICK! We need Youtube. Someone find Youtube!”
Youtube was duly found, and Chuggington was proffered, along with a large glass of wine for me. Then Chuggington lost its lustre, Bigjigs was ready to launch and the desserts still hadn’t arrived, which sent us scrabbling for an episode of Fireman Sam. And then, before Fireman Sam could get Jupiter out of the fire station, the woman at the next table was giving me a massive lecture about the dastardly effects of screens on the under-fives.
“Look up the research on Google!” she cried, as I nodded and smiled, trying to pretend that I was a poor ignorant soul who had never read anything on Google before, and needed to be lectured on the Right Way to Raise a Child by a random woman in a restaurant. “There’s a nursery in what’s-that-place called-in California? The place with all the tech billionaires?”
“Silicon Valley?” I offered.
“Yes, that’s it-and it has a NO SCREENS RULE. And all the children of the tech billionaires go there. They won’t have screens, you see. Because they KNOW THE DANGER. It messes with the wiring of their brains!”
I thought about this. And I thought three things.
1.) I have read about this nursery in Silicon Valley. I have heard about this research. But I am not clear on how the famed holier-than-thou Silicon Valley nursery is any different from the one Piglet attends, as they don’t have any screens there either.
2.) I have read many things about the wiring of children’s brains (and brains in general). It is an interesting area of research. I once listed, both rapt with attention and crying into my sleeves, during a talk by Camila Batmanjeilih of Kids Company fame, where she explained how children’s brains were permanently damaged by trauma and neglect. But screens do not cause trauma and neglect, and the studies Camila was talking about involved children who had been exposed to extreme levels of trauma and neglect. Fireman Sam has its moments, but even I wouldn’t place it under the category of “extreme trauma and neglect.” Even Naughty Norman has some social skills. I can see how it might not be advisable to allow a child to do nothing but look at screens all the time, but Piglet doesn’t. He plays, he has stories read to him, he has conversations with adults, and he goes out every day. Screen time is just one small part of his varied experience of the world. Hopefully, with his lovely plastic child-brain, he learns from ALL of those experiences, not just those involving CGI talking trains.
And most importantly,
3.) It’s none of her business.
And the interesting thing was this. After she had gone, I felt no shame. I didn’t even need to hear my brother’s partner point out that screens were part of our lives now, and anyway she had just spent the past hour unsuccessfully trying to fix her laptop, while Piglet, as a fully paid up member of the Digital Age, would have fixed it in seconds. I didn’t feel any remorse that I had tried to ply my child with Fireman Sam to stop him making a far greater nuisance of himself in the eyes of the other diners by screaming repeatedly or throwing toys or food. Quite simply I did. Not. Care.
Because we cannot live our lives worrying about the judgement of others about our parenting, any more than we can live our lives worrying if we will be social outcasts if we don’t like Game of Thrones, or if we look a bit fat today. It is, of course, right to want to be a good parent, to be the best we can for our children, but not at the expense of our own wellbeing.
Parenting Judgement: It has taken me a while, but I think I can finally say I’m all over it.