woman who had read my book, Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect
Life, which includes a chapter on women, especially new mothers,
judging each other, wrote to me this summer to tell me about a recent
encounter she’d had at the park.
The woman who wrote to me, whom I’ll call Joan, said that
her 20-month-old had been playing in the sandbox before stopping
to ask her mother for a snack. Ever the prepared mother, Joan pulled
out a Stonyfield Farms organic strawberry yogurt in a tube.
Immediately another mother, whom Joan did not know, piped up from
a nearby bench: “How can you give that to your daughter? It’s
so full of sugar. What I do,” she continued, “is use
a syringe to extract 1/2 of the sweet yogurt from the tube, then
I use a second syringe to inject plain yogurt back into the tube.
That way my daughter has the same yogurt as the other kids, but
I know that it’s not too sweet.”
Joan wrote in her email to me that she was too floored to say anything
back. Let’s consider for a minute— just for fun—
what an appropriate response could be in this situation. More specifically,
what could be an appropriate feminist response— one that fosters
community among mothers?
Here are a few choices I came up with:
a) Thanks so much! Can I borrow your syringe?
b) Would you like the name of my psychiatrist? Zoloft has done
wonders for me.
c) Do you realize that the President of the United States is an
often incompetent, but still incredibly dangerous, warmonger? Why
not use your yogurt time to fight any number of unethical and nonsensical
policies that harm mothers, children, and everyone else? Here’s
the phone number for the National Organization for Women. Or,
d) the all-purpose response to strange statements— for
feminists, as well as anyone else: Huh? Say What?
When another mother makes a statement that feels like a judgment
on our mothering— and Joan certainly took this yogurt-doctoring
advice as a judgment rather than an innocent food hint— how
do we answer back? How do we answer back without resorting to counter-judgment?
Why do mothers judge each other, sometimes on the pettiest details,
in the first place? Why do mothers— at least in my experience
and according to my observations— judge one another at a much
higher frequency than other members of the population judge one
another? Furthermore, if we are living in a patriarchy— a
society based on male privilege and upholding that privilege, which
I believe we are— why do 99 precent of the judgments I’ve
felt as a mother come from other women, other mothers, other would-be
sisters-in-arms? Why are we doing men’s policing work for
them— watching, then critiquing each other’s behavior
so intently, so minutely— Snugli or sling, Aveda bottles or
Playtex, PBS or no TV, soymilk, ricemilk, or cow’s milk? Are
men simply less judgmental? Or is that they typically don’t
pay enough attention, don’t have to, aren’t even involved
enough in the daily household decisions to know the difference between,
say, Aveda and Playtex bottles. Why do mothers notice other mother’s
choices, down to the minutia? Why do we judge those who choose differently?
I believe that at least some of the time, even the tiniest judgments
we make are really ways of asking these two questions: 1) Is that
mother selfless enough? And more personally, 2) is that mother sacrificing
as much as I am? If not, I’m not sure I like her,
and I’m not sure I can refrain from saying something critical
to her— just to see if I can get her to feel anxious, the
way I feel anxious.
is going on in mother’s judgments of each other, and how is
feminist community-building possible within this all woman sphere
of critique? I think these are essential questions for feminists
because as I see it, judgmentalism among women is one of the primary
things keeping us from truly bettering the social position of mothers.
Which is not to downplay, for an instant, the roles of patriarchy,
global capitalism, and biology in mothers’ lack of social
power. But rather to focus, for a moment, on what mothers, ourselves,
do to each other to impede progressive social change, why we do
it, and how this might change.