The Mom in the Mirror

March 13, 2007

She couldn’t have been more than nineteen, maybe twenty, years old. She could have been much younger. She wore jeans and running shoes and a light winter jacket and no makeup. There were half-moon circles under her eyes, deep and dark, and she clutched a Mcdonalds take-out bag in one hand.

The other hand rested lightly on a small fold-out umbrella stroller. I would have known that she was a mother from the circles under her eyes, but it was the stroller made me smile at her when I sat down next to her on the subway. It was facing away from me, and covered in blankets, such that I couldn’t see the very small child within it, but still. A child. I have one, too. I was going to smile at the child, ask its age, make conversation. I’m a mother too!” I would say. Mine’s at home, a toddler. There were, no doubt, many years between we two mothers, she and I, but still. Mothers. We’re of a kind, we are. There is always something to say to another mother.

And then, as she pulled the stroller back slightly to adjust the crush of blankets, I noticed: the child was a baby, a very small baby, newborn. Cradled awkwardly, so awkwardly, in the steadfastly upright seat of the umbrella stroller. The young mother adjusted the blankets, cooing softly; the infant slept, slumped, its heavy, fragile head bent over tiny shoulders, twisting tiny neck.

If the smile froze on my face, she didn’t see it, so intent she was on adjusting her baby, whose tiny, delicate shape was not made for the unforgiving upright seat of her vehicle. But it did, my smile, tired metaphors be damned, it froze on my face and the cheerful words of commiseration died on my lips as new, shriller ones burbled up in their place.

I didn’t speak these words, of course. ‘Oh, but you mustn’t put newborns in umbrella strollers! Do you know that? They mustn’t be kept upright for too long, they mustn’t be pushed along bumpy streets with their backs unsupported, their tiny backs, their fragile spines, their delicate, delicate necks…’ I didn’t want to speak them, and I didn’t. I couldn’t. I couldn’t, because she would look at me – older, smarter, richer, maybe, presuming to know better – and say, or think, bitch. She would ask me, with or without words, who I was to judge her.

And I wouldn’t have an answer.

I sat there, beside her, for what seemed a very long time, sick with uncertainty. Surely I must say something. What if she doesn’t know? She must know. She must know. She does know. She knows but she can’t afford a proper stroller. I resolved to offer her a stroller – I would offer her our second stroller, the lightweight stroller that we use for buses and subways, one that reclines. I would say that we no longer need it, that we’re looking to get rid of it. I would give her my phone number. I would turn to her and I would say… what? ‘Hello, I notice that you’ve put your newborn in an umbrella stroller and wanted to tell you that that is very, very bad for their necks and spines but I’m sure that you know that, you must know that, and so it must be the case that you simply could not afford a proper stroller, poor thing, (cluck cluck), and so I would be happy to offer you one, because I have two.’

Because I have two, one for the snow and the parks and one for the shops and the subway, both of them fine strollers, both of them costing far more than anyone would expect to pay for bits of fabric wrapped around a small fibreglass chassis but costing far, far less than what I would pay to ensure my child’s well-being, than what I would pay to keep us happy and comfortable. What I can pay. What I can pay, and she, perhaps (and only perhaps, for who am I to judge?), cannot.

I never did speak to that young woman; I still feel guilty about this. I couldn’t, at the time, because the right words wouldn’t come; I would have said the wrong thing, I know, I think, I would have given the wrong look; I would have been one of those women. Pinched, critical, judgmental. And I would have had no words to explain to her that I meant well, that I wanted to help, that I understood.

She mightn’t have believed me, anyway. Rightly, too. Because I don’t understand. I can’t, not entirely. I can only imagine that I can.

I need to remember that.

What would you have done?


The above isn’t my meta-post. It was going to be. I’ve been struggling to figure out where judgment, or ideas about judgment, figure into our happy blogospheric/momospheric community. To what extent might our like-mindedness blind us to certain issues/ideas/perspectives? And does that matter? Can we really be radical – can this whole writing-through-our-lives thing be meaningful beyond our own little personal emancipations – if that ‘we’ is a collectivity that is defined by privilege? I think that the answer is yes – not least because the experience of motherhood/parenthood is, to some degree equalizing in that it gives all of us something of the taste of disempowerment, and the more that we speak about that the more that we can dispel myths and misunderstandings about our relative experiences as women, as people. But I still haven’t worked out my thoughts on that.

In the meantime, as I said last day, I’d (we’d) love to hear your thoughts.

Oh, and I’d also love for you to visit the Basement, and my reviews page. Because you don’t have enough to do already.

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    TB March 13, 2007 at 1:36 pm

    I’m not sure how I would have handled that situation. I know the same reservations would have been in my head. Maybe I would have struck up a conversation, felt her out to see if I thought she might be open to advice. Then again maybe I would have said nothing. I’ve been thinking a lot about the vast difference between the classes myself lately, where I fit in and what my responsibility is to make things more equitable and I always end up with more questions than answers.

    Mimi March 13, 2007 at 1:37 pm

    Ahhhh, this is hard: self-recrimination and guilt mingled with fear and judgment and empathy. My own impulse is to scoop up all the babies of the world and … make them middle-class like me? Doesn’t the mother deserve a fairy godmother, too?

    Here’s something. I remember riding the subway with my very young nephew, born to my very young sister. He was born a little early, and we took him everywhere, because he slept so much, and when we took him everywhere he slept more. I think now he likely missed some meals because of it. Because of me. Young and not knowing, but actually pretty fierce about doing best by this baby.

    It all can be done cheaply: it’s not so much about the money. Is it about class? About a superior level of knowing? Like when Bub and Pie felt uncomfortable telling her class of moms-to-be that CIO is sometimes ok? Because they might not judge properly the line between sleep training and neglect? That woulda been me, too. Uncomfortable. Not trusting.

    I always come back to: make things more equitable for the new generation, so they learn, so they grow, so they have opportunities. Because I can’t get past the class and power and age and money issues that mean I’m at once too entitled and too ashamed to intervene. Hm.

    This post made me well up: that’s the hormones at work. I want to mother all the babies of the world. Protect their wee delicate spines. Oh god.

    Karianna March 13, 2007 at 2:03 pm

    Ugh. I hate confrontation, so I would have bit my tongue. I hate it when people give me advice, and so I offer others the same courtesy.

    But when there is something so obviously wrong, it kills me. I have never forgotten the image of an emaciated, wrinkled pregnant woman smoking outside the hospital as I went in for my own prenatal visit.

    Mrs. Chicken March 13, 2007 at 2:25 pm

    Hooo hoooo. Go read my post today, HBM. I was the mother being judged based on my class this past weekend.

    And still, I would likely have felt the same as you did here. I would like to think I would have offered her a stroller. Or the money for one. Or taken her to Wal-Mart and bought one for her.

    After the withering experience I had in an airport lounge, I will certainly think differently about these situations from now on.

    This hit me where it hurts.

    Jennifer March 13, 2007 at 2:34 pm

    I don’t think I would have said anything. I wouldn’t have wanted this mother to have felt judged by me. Haven’t we all felt judged when someone, albeit kindly, gave us unsolicited advice?

    Scary, though, with the baby in an umbrella stroller…

    kristen March 13, 2007 at 2:35 pm

    That’s a tough one. I think judgments are hard. I’ve noticed myself feeling that way every now and then — how could they do that?

    But then I wonder, how many people are saying that about me?

    I would have offered a helping hand — at least, I think that’s the best way to go — baby in umbrella stroller, friend with really bad mom jeans (heh) — cover them with love — so that they know you don’t do it out of judgment but because you care.

    Plus, when it comes to the jeans –no one wants to be laughed at.

    Tania (urbanmommy is so 2006) March 13, 2007 at 2:41 pm

    This post strikes a cord for me HBM. You know I think being polite is overrated. Here is why.

    What if she did know better but could not afford better, maybe she longed for the opportunity to take better physical care of her child and she lays awake at night hoping for good fortune like a stranger on the TTC to offer her a better stroller, for free, for nothing, simply because people can look out for each other.
    And if she had, instead, just told you “to mind your own f**kin’ business, that you, what, think you are so much better than her? A better mother because you have more money?” Well, I think you could’ve taken that in stride, knowing that it was perhaps coming your way.
    Would those words hurt you worse that that stroller is potentially hurting that baby? I would say it is worth the risk.
    It hurts my heart that, in general, people fear embarassment or a little hostility or God forbid, being wrong, so much so that they won’t intervene in what they believe to be someones best interest.

    owlhaven March 13, 2007 at 2:48 pm

    Oh, that’s tough….I might have struck up a conversation and told her how I had a terrible time getting my first one to sit securely (I had an umbrella stroller too), and showed her how to roll of a receiving blanket to cradle the baby better….but it is hard to know how much advice to give….
    Mary, mom to many

    Christina March 13, 2007 at 2:53 pm

    I honestly don’t know what I would have done in that situation.

    I’d like to think I would have struck up a conversation with her, feeling her out to see if offering some advice would be taken kindly or harshly, and then possibly offering to help her. But at the same time, I know how I clam up in public, so I might not have said anything.

    Maybe moms do need to get over the fear of judging and being judged and take the bold and gutsy step of offering advice, especially if that advice is connected with an offer of help. Anyone can give their opinion and advice, but offering to help resolve a situation is far more useful. It’s possible that young mom needed someone to come to her rescue.

    We’ve all become so cautious about judging others because we, or others we know, have been the subject of harsh judgement. Should we get over our own emotional scars and risk coming off as judgemental in the name of assistance? Maybe. I really don’t know for sure.

    m March 13, 2007 at 2:56 pm

    That’s tough. On one hand it’s good that you didn’t say anything because of all the reasons you had mentioned. There have been times when older (grandmothery) ladies have made comments to me about carrying A in a sling, or not putting mittens on him in the winter and I always just wanted to tell them to eff off and mind their own business. Of course I never did, and they were approaching me out of a place of concern, but the last thing I needed was their judgement, and it always came off as judgement.

    That woman had an umbrella stroller probably because that’s all she could afford, or because she had been given it. Or perhaps she was on her way to buy a better, more appropriate stroller, or perhaps she was just visiting the city and at home she had a better stroller? It’s hard to guess. Hard to know.

    Although I would probably be placed in the class of privilege because of my education and where we live, our family doesn’t have much money (we’re both artists, and yes, I acknowledge that by just being one is a privilege). Probably 95% of what we have for our son (clothes, carriers, strollers, toys) have been hand-me-downs or gifts. If we had to have bought everything for A, I’m not sure how we would have done it. He may have been in a sling for 5 months (like he was anyway) but then may have been in a umbrella stroller at 6 months. I know it’s not the same situation, but it’s not that far off.

    I have HUGE class issues, probably stemming from my small town working class background and it’s something I’ve been having to deal with a lot lately, especially living in this city. I know it’s all about perception and just as I don’t want to be judged for not having much money, I shouldn’t judge those that do. But I know if I had be told by someone who I judged as much wealthier than I that I perhaps I didn’t know the best for my child (or wasn’t doing the best I could mothering because of the equipment I used), my first kick-in-the-gut impulse wouldn’t be to listen and consider her points thoughtfully, but to shut down and feel shame.

    That said (and holy crap that was a lot said), you asked what I would have done, and I think I would have just asked how old her baby was, engage her and connect with her on the simple level of us both being mamas. And maybe, just maybe, if the conversation had steered that way, I would offer the stroller I was just storing and no longer needing and hey maybe she could use it, it would be such a help to me to have her take it off my hands? But only if it felt appropriate and the conversation was heading in that direction.

    Okay. I’ll shut up now. Very thought provoking post.

    Sandra March 13, 2007 at 2:56 pm

    This one stirs up a lot of things for me. My parents were very poor and made choices that I wouldn’t make for my own son. I could picture my mother using an umbrella stroller with a newborn.

    My husband had a child with his first wife as young as this mother you describe and they had little money, many challenges and an lots of judgement.

    My first reaction is to feel defensive on behalf of this mother. To feel protective of her. Maybe her mistake was an innocent one. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe she fled an abusive partner just hours before and was on her way to get a proper stroller. But my instinct is to beg that she not be judged.

    I think I had this strong reaction because you were so honest with your thought process. You sincerely wanted to help and not to judge. You were being a kind woman and a mom that cared about that little baby. You were just saying what most of your commenters agree with. And thoughts that I would likely have processed too.

    I have had a somewhat similar situation happen to me. I saw a mom with a baby that didn’t have a coat in the winter. I befriended her and made some silly small talk and cracked a joke and then told a story to demonstrate I could empathize. About how once I locked my baby’s coat in the car. Then I said, hey, I was about to sell a whole bunch of my son’s clothes in a yard sale because I didn’t have any friend’s with younger children … but if she wanted them they’d be super cute on her son. I told her that many of them were hand-me-downs and she’d be doing me a huge favour to take them. I didn’t want her to feel like I was judging her or that it was charity or that I was better in anyway. She took them. And it was postitive for both of us.

    I know I am not a young mom without resources, but with the work I do and with the family I have, I sometimes, mistakenly identify with people who are in a different situation than I am. Which is wrong because I do have priveledge and I should admit that makes things easier for me.

    But we are all mothers. We are all human. I know affluent, educated mothers who make some pretty questionable choices. I also know some financially struggling, young mothers who make some really excellent ones.

    I am totally monopolizing your comments section and I don’t know why I can’t be just succint or focused.

    I am glad you wrote this. I think your honesty really should stir up something in all of us that we all fight not to judge and struggle to find the words to help best.

    Oh, The Joys March 13, 2007 at 3:00 pm

    I don’t have the answers, but your writing today has made me swoon for you.

    crazymumma March 13, 2007 at 3:29 pm

    I would have done……about what you did.

    shit. poor kids. and by that I mean the baby.

    And the Mother.

    Janet a.k.a. "Wonder Mom" March 13, 2007 at 3:31 pm

    I would have said nothing. As you have done.

    It is not my place to tell her how to mother. She didn’t ask. I won’t offer.

    It is just not my place.

    Lara March 13, 2007 at 3:39 pm

    i hate that feeling – when you want so badly to relate, but you know you really can’t, so you’re left feeling helpless and more than a little guilty. you want to help, but you’re not sure how to help without hurting. so painful, to see someone and be unable to do something to assist. i see it in fellow cutters, others dealing with depression. who am i to judge them? but how do i reassure them that i’m not judging, just hurting for them and wanting to do something? i haven’t figured it out yet.

    different, of course, from your situation, but i do understand the basic sentiment.

    reluctant housewife March 13, 2007 at 3:46 pm

    I don’t know what I would have done. But I understand exactly why you did what you did.

    braiding mommy March 13, 2007 at 4:07 pm

    Thanks for sharing… very thought-provoking.

    When my daughter was still a baby (sigh), and I was a younger, single-mom w/o a lot of cash, I felt like those things and my inadequecies as a parent were glaringly obvious to everyone, especially older, more affluent mothers. Several times I felt like other moms were shoving that in my face and I almost always felt judged.

    There could have been many reasons why she didn’t have a proper stroller – I think I would have probably done the same thing. Sandra’s comment/response was great too. Or, if you felt really moved, you could donate a stroller to a local group that helps young mothers or such. You may not help that one mom and baby, but another pair would certainly be grateful.

    slouching mom March 13, 2007 at 4:23 pm

    This issue has weighed on me ever since I was a teenager in an elevator with my mother, and we saw the nanny of a boy in our apartment building hit him. Yes, hit him. And my mother felt that there was no way that his mother would not want to know that her nanny had abused her charge. So she called the boy’s mother, and guess what? The boy’s mother was very angry, not, apparently, at her nanny, but at my mother, for the violation of her privacy.

    So maybe we can widen the discussion a little: is this just an issue of class? Or is it an issue of privacy and judgment, irrespective of class?

    Here’s what I want to ask you, HBM: what would you have done if it was clearly a woman your age and of your approximate socioeconomic status, but yet the newborn was still in an umbrella stroller?

    Anonymous March 13, 2007 at 4:26 pm

    i probably would’ve talked to her about her baby.and probably would’ve asked her if she needed help to purchase a better stroller.i’ve never been one to get pissed off at people making comments to me about my babies.because you see i’m their mum and i know what i’m i don’t much care and everybody has an you know don’t beat yourself up about not speaking up,most of us wouldn’t have either.LAVENDULA

    BInkytown March 13, 2007 at 4:27 pm

    I surely would have judged, I’m not proud to say that’s one of my initial reactions to things, but then I would have reconsidered (because I am a mother and this is hard), because when it comes to all things child, I try and ask myself what did our great-grandmothers do? The ones without the Graco car seats? Surely a newborn has been through a bumpy ride or two through the ages. I would have tried to tell myself that every mother has the right to make her own way, and that the newborn would be big enough to handle that umbrella stroller in a few short months. I might have been tempted to speak up but I don’t think I would have.

    Elizabeth March 13, 2007 at 4:44 pm

    Well, because I talk to everyone, I know I would have caught her eye and asked how old the baby was, boy or girl, what is his name? And then I might have said something about how hard it is to take babies on the subway because there’s just no room for a bigger stroller, right? And then something like “when my boys were babies, their necks were always flopping over like that (not true, but still). Have you tried rolling up a receiving blanket and propping his head with it?” And then she might have glared at me or whatever, but at least I would have said it and hopefully put the idea in her head.

    Emily Clasper March 13, 2007 at 4:50 pm

    Hard to say for sure, but I think I would have told her how beautiful her baby was, asked how old, and I would have said something about how she must be so proud. It’s so hard getting advice and criticism all of the time, and I’m sure that she’s overloaded with that. What she might just need is some kindness and confidence. My comments might not have gotten the baby out of the umbrella stroller, but hey, neither would saying nothing.

    Elise March 13, 2007 at 4:54 pm

    First time I have ever commented here, but this post really struck me as well.

    My first inclination is to feel mad at you and sorry for the poor girl. She is sitting there, by your admission, 19 or 20 years old at best (do you remember what you were like at that age? how you felt?) and she is CONSTANTLY being judged by everyone.

    “She’s SO young”
    “Is she married?”
    “Did he leave her?”
    “Is her significant other an abuser?”
    “She’s probably abused”
    “She must be poor, look at her stroller”
    “I wonder if she’s on welfare”

    On, and on, and on.

    That is so horrible for her, really. Can you even imagine how you would feel, if every time you went ANYWHERE people looked at you and thought the worst? Felt pity for you? Maybe she was on her way to her mother’s house, because her mother had her good stroller. Maybe her husband forgot to remove the good stroller from the back of their SUV and she is annoyed at him for making her taking out the crappy one.

    You don’t know anything about her! And to immediately condescend to her, even with good intentions, is just so, so insulting.

    Nice piece, though. Very thought provoking.

    nomotherearth March 13, 2007 at 4:55 pm

    What a tough question! Honestly answered, I probably wouldn’t have said anything because I would be sure the answer would be “Mind your own f***in business beyotch”. But that does the other mother an injustice doesn’t it? Maybe she would have gladly accepted help/stroller.

    If I was feeling particularly outgoing/brave, I would have struck up a conversation and tried to see if she know umbrella strollers were bad.

    Sandra’s approach was beautiful though, and I’m going to file that away for future use. I love learning new things!

    merseydotes March 13, 2007 at 5:02 pm

    Sigh. I hate issues like this.

    I recently sent an email to lots of friends about the importance of keeping their kids in a five-point harness carseat with a high weight limit, citing the example of Kyle David Miller whose story I had recently seen on a listserv. A fellow blogger wrote a whole post about my email (though didn’t name me), in which all the commenters all pretty much skewered me for being a Betty Buttinski who made her parenting decisions on the basis of fear. I feel a bit burned by the experience and would probably keep my mouth shut to the woman with the umbrella stroller. Even though it’s unsafe. I would just remember the baby and the mother in my prayers and hope they never have to learn firsthand how unsafe those umbrella strollers are for newborns.

    Redneck Mommy March 13, 2007 at 5:10 pm

    I was that young mother. Barely 22, with two small babies…And not two pennies to rub together. Boy, has things changed…

    I understand your reaction, and ultimately the path you chose. But I think if I was faced with that situation now, almost ten years and three kids later, I would have said something.

    I probably would have stammered and sputtered and said the absolute wrong thing, leaving her to think all the things you worried she would think, but I would have tried.

    But then I am very comfortable with the taste of my own feet. Seeing as how frequently I insert them into my mouth….

    Great post Catherine.

    Lisa March 13, 2007 at 5:50 pm

    Great post. I don’t have much to elaborate on as the other commenters have said a good deal and said it well, but I do want to add that I think you have to choose your battles in this realm. There’s a fine line between actual mistreatment and proprietary parenting (see mittens: not wearing, and thumb: still sucking). I believe the universe will provide, and your note that despite having an inappropriate stroller, the mother was showing care and love for the baby — well, that’s more than enough for me to decide to mind my business.

    It’s a good topic, though. Thank you for making me think.

    margalit March 13, 2007 at 6:06 pm

    I have found that as a much older mother, I have more leeway to talk to very young mothers because I don’t look judgemental or competetive. And since I belong to an organization that often has young mothers that know little to nothing about parenting, I usually start conversations with a few baby-questions, like “oh, how old is she?” and “How are you doing?”. “Is she sleeping at all? How is she eating? Are you nursing? Oh, no formula is just fine if you can’t nurse. Is her daddy involved? Oh, you’re doing this alone. That must be so hard. Have you heard about xyz organization? I’m a volunteer there, and we visit brand new moms weekly just to talk and see how you are doing. THe focus isn’t on the baby, it’s on you. Because we realize that while you were pregnant, everyone paid total attention to you, but once the baby arrived, you’re just pushed to the side. That’s normal.”

    And then we’d chit chat for a bit, and I’d say, “You know, I’ve got a stroller that reclines that is just sitting in our attic. I’ve been meaning to give it away to someone that would use it. Do you need a real stroller? Because those umbrella strollers aren’t made for infants. Please, tell me where I can drop it off and I’ll bring it to you.”

    If she refuses, then at least give her the information about a parenting organization that might help her.

    Mostly, new moms are kind of desperate to talk. Remember? Like real grown-up talk. So if you address it as about her, and not so much about the baby, I’m guessing you would get a positive response.

    Robin March 13, 2007 at 6:11 pm

    I think I would have tried to strike up a conversation, and eventually dropped in something about how hard it is to position them securely when they’re so little. Then, if she seemed receptive, and only if, I might add something to the tune of “I found it much easier when I was able to use a reclining stroller” (using “I” statements, rather than “you” statements).

    It’s a difficult call though. You can never truly know what’s going on inside someone else’s life.

    Sarah March 13, 2007 at 6:35 pm

    quite thought provoking. I think it’s easy to assume. It’s easy to assume the worst. I am all about safety, but we have to remember that many of us rode on our mama’s laps or in laundry baskets as babies. I have a hard time believing an umbrella stroller is going to harm a babes spine forever. Would I do it? No. But I don’t know that I would assume that this is the babe’s primary ride every day.
    How many times I have I been judged for the babywearing/’crunchy’ look that I have? Of course, in this time and place that makes me a ‘good’ mother but among others Im a hovering needy mom who can’t let her baby be.

    None of us can win, can we? We are all muddling through, some of us genuinely ‘better’ or better equiped…

    I think it is worse than class that seperates us…we are women/mothers/sisters and we can’t have a simple conversation about a stroller without it throwing us into inner conflict. HBM: I have no idea what I would have really done. Your honesty has sparked a great discussion.
    Why can’t we women unite? Our culture totally sucks for women right now.

    Her Bad Mother March 13, 2007 at 6:37 pm

    These suggestions are all so helpful. One thing that I probably did not make clear was that I *really* struggled with trying to NOT judge her, because, as Elise said, I didn’t know her, didn’t know her situation. I felt profoundly guilty about my assumptions once I saw that the child in the stroller was newborn, and was well conscious of them *as* assumptions. And that was what stopped me from speaking – I didn’t want to condescend, I didn’t want her to feel that she was being regarded by me as everyone must regard her – young, poor, disadvantaged. But in this concern for politesse, I may have missed – I almost certainly *did* miss – an opportunity.

    But then, mightn’t this be said for any nosy parker? I get my back up at any story about mothers being accosted about bottle-feeding, about *drinking*, about whatever, and think that everyone should mind their own business. But aren’t such people often only trying to be helpful? Is it always only that they are abrasive in their helpfulness? Is the intervention itself that we take to be an expression of judgment, or just the manner in which the intervention is expressed?

    Even if I was the kindest, gentlest communicator in the world – even if I was fully self-reflective in approaching that young woman – would there not still remain the kernel of judgment? In approaching anyone with the message that ‘there is a better way,’ no matter how helpfully, kindly, is there not still the whiff of judgment?

    Gah. Will feel guilty about this one to the end of my days.

    Her Bad Mother March 13, 2007 at 7:23 pm

    Forgot to address your question, Slouching Mom – what if she had been my age, etc, etc, more obviously a *peer*? Tough one. Because this had everything to do with class, as I was well aware at the time. Her youth caused me to make a great number of assumptions, which I was aware were only that, assumptions, but still, they fully informed my reaction.

    I suppose that I would have been fully confused at seeing an older, better-appointed (!) more obviously middle-class mother with a newborn in a cheap umbrella stroller. I probably would have wondered what was up, what the story was, because I would have assumed (!) that she would have had to have known ‘better,’ and that she could afford ‘better,’ etc, etc…

    Would I have been more inclined to talk to her? No. My confusion – and my desire to NOT put words to my assumptions, to NOT judge – would have shut my mouth, as it did with young woman. But that’s the problem, is it not?

    Karen March 13, 2007 at 7:34 pm

    There you are screaming inside for her to see the real you but the idea of you out in front of the real you just can’t seem to make way for connection to happen. You are probably right, her idea of you would have prevented her from being able to be helped by the real you. It’s so hard to get out in front of the idea of ourselves that walks around this world. I wonder what her real self was saying inside at that moment? It makes me sad all up one side and down the other about how isolating life and circumstances make us.

    Heather March 13, 2007 at 7:47 pm

    Ah the ever careful how not to offend those you think may want/need help. I’d probably have asked her about the little one and said how beautiful s/he is and said that I had an extra stroller that wasn’t getting enough use as my (hypothetical of course) little one got older, and would she have any use for it? That kinda gives her an out at least.

    Amber March 13, 2007 at 8:10 pm

    I would have said something because that’s just how I am. But I wouldn’t have been abrasive, probably would’ve started with an ice-breaking joke. Then DELICATELY said, “Hey, there are so many ins-and-outs to this mom stuff” and then mentioned the stroller.

    krista March 13, 2007 at 8:22 pm

    Oh Catherine,

    I was that girl beside you. On the bus. 20 years old. Extremely poor. And women like you, richer, older, wiser- did say things to me like, “I have a stoller you can have” and I hated them- but I took the free strollers, and I creid because I hated them so much, but I took the free stollers.

    Heather K March 13, 2007 at 8:28 pm

    In situations like that, I just acknowledge my judgmental thoughts and do-gooder instincts and try to say something warm and make a connection. I mean what else is there more simple than to care for another mother as a mother and let the “I would have done different/better” stuff fall by the wayside.

    Her Bad Mother March 13, 2007 at 8:43 pm

    Tan said this: “It hurts my heart that, in general, people fear embarassment or a little hostility or God forbid, being wrong, so much so that they won’t intervene in what they believe to be someones best interest.”

    But isn’t this the problem with how we treat the issue of judgment? We get all pissed off when people do exactly this: make suggestions about breastfeeding to total strangers, suggest to pregnant women that they not have that glass of chardonnay, suggest to *mothers* that they not have that glass of chardonnay, etc, etc. Why do women judge each other so much, we ask? Why do mothers judge each other? We judge because we think we know better, we get angry when we think that others think they know better – isn’t that a terrible catch-22?

    What would have made me – intervening in this case (and, for the record, I still feel bad for NOT doing so) – any different from the person who asks a bottle-feeding mother whether she understands that breastmilk is better? From asking the pregnant woman with the chardonnay whether she mightn’t be better off putting it down? If I believe those things to be her in best interest, *shouldn’t* I say something?

    Or is this really, as slouching mom suggested, really a class thing? That is, that perhaps I *should* have intervened because all the signs pointed to that young woman *not* knowing better, because of all of the hallmarks of class. But isn’t that, as others have said, the height (or depth) of condescension? It’s okay to judge those who seem to deserve/need to be judged?

    Gah gah gah gah.

    Her Bad Mother March 13, 2007 at 8:44 pm

    And, oh, Krista, break my heart.

    Fairly Odd Mother March 13, 2007 at 8:54 pm

    I don’t have much to add—your post and the comments have left tears in my eyes. Krista, your comment—your experience— is heartbreaking.

    NotSoSage March 13, 2007 at 9:17 pm

    Go home and nurse the bruises on the backs of my legs from kicking myself the whole way home. And probably donating a stroller to a shelter to try to rebalance my karma. In other words, I don’t know.

    You Are My Sunshine March 13, 2007 at 9:20 pm

    I would have probably bit my tongue, just like you did, even though I’ve worked with a few young mothers in the past.

    Interestingly, I found that many of them, as young as 16, managed to find places which gave them support, education and many, many free things for themselves and their babies. New and used. And sadly, in many cases, young mothers don’t use those services, not because they don’t know about them, but because of their pride. I had such a hard time understanding that.

    toyfoto March 13, 2007 at 9:45 pm

    It seems as if there’s a certain amount of nature-nurture at work here as well as social positioning.
    We balk at talking to others because we don’t want to overreact, judge or otherwise be the bad guy. But what ends up happening is that we seem to lose the ability to talk to one other.

    We all feel judged. People told me all the time of the things I was doing wrong: kid doesn’t have enough clothes on; shouldn’t bring a newborn out in this weather; kid’s head flopping forward in the snuggly sent some grandmotherly sorts in a rage, as did ears folded over (and sticking out) by an illpositioned hat.

    We also tend to think we are right, even when the majority of children we are seeking to “save” will likely survive their stupid parents without our intervention.

    When these well-intentioned people spoke to me I wanted to tell them where they could put their assvice, but I knew the BIGGEST reason I was bristling was because a part of me thought I was a horrible mom. I don’t get as upset by “judging” anymore because I know that sometimes people can’t help themselves, but underneath it all they’ve made 1000s of mistakes, too.

    I don’t have any solutions, but I have to think that if we adopted just the right tone, had just the right smile we could put each other at ease and make our points without animosity.

    metro mama March 13, 2007 at 10:03 pm

    I don’t know what I’d have done in your situation–I suspect I’d have been paralysed. I like Sunshine Scribe’s approach and will use it if I’m ever in this situation.

    I do think speaking up in this circumstance is different from chastizing someone for having a glass of chardonnay, or breastfeeding vs bottle. In this case, the consequences are much more severe and it is most likely she didn’t have the right kind of stroller because she couldn’t afford it.

    Lisa Giebitz March 13, 2007 at 10:22 pm

    I’m 21 and in my third month of pregnancy with my first child. I have the blessing of living on an Army base, where it’s not really remarkable to be young and pregnant.

    I’m going home to Austin in May for a couple of weeks. Despite knowing that ‘I really shouldn’t care what others think’, I’m worried to death about it. I’m fully expecting people I’ve known for, well, forever to start giving well-meaning advice. Will I listen politely? Sure. Will I take all of it with a grain of salt? You betcha.

    Your predicament made me think of cringing every time I see a 6-year-old in a rated-R movie. Or every time I see some 10-year-old girl dressed up like a hooker. I’m not even a mom yet and I want to scream at these people, “What is WRONG with you?” However, I’m also aware that my judgments are purely values-based. It’s totally not my place to say anything there.

    But when it comes to something like physical safety, is it a different thing? Would I be more inclined to say something if, say, I saw lots of bedding in a crib? I think so. I’d try my best to be polite and considerate. I’d say something like, “Are you afraid he/she’s going to be cold at night?” and try to get to talking about SIDS.

    I’m going to be a young mom, but we’re definitely middle class. I’ve been reading everything I can find about different areas of concern (safety, feeding, etc). However, I know lots of other young moms (even ones on this same Army base) don’t do stuff like that, probably because it never occurs to them to do so. Or they lack the resources.

    In the end, I’d say offer the advice in a friendly way. She may think you’re a bitch or she may be so grateful. Either way, you’ll know that you had the best of intentions for doing a ‘good deed’.

    Vancouver mermaid/Montreal photographer March 13, 2007 at 10:28 pm

    Wow. What a good question. I’d probably not have said anything either. We are taught from early on that “if you can’t say something nice….” but still, I wonder. Maybe in this case, we should speak up.

    Chances are she wouldn’t have listened. But you’d have probably felt better about it afterwords.

    This way, by sharing the story, you are now helping other moms (young or old) to get the knowledge out. Kudos on that.

    kgirl March 13, 2007 at 10:28 pm

    i probably wouldn’t have said anything, for fear of inciting the ‘wrong’ response in the mother, but i would have gone home and cried for the baby.
    i donate most of bee’s outgrown/unused stuff to a shelter nearby to hopefully help the moms that wanna, but can’t.

    Julie Pippert March 13, 2007 at 10:49 pm

    This is where the Southern US thing comes in handy. We are absolute masters of offering charity and making it (a) seem like it is YOUR idea and (b) making it seem as if YOU are doing ME a favor.

    “Oh my such a TINY baby!” I’d say, “I remember mine at that age…so sweet. How old? Boy or girl?”


    “Oh yes! Such a blessing and curse, the newborns. So precious but the sleep deprivation!”


    “You know…looking at your sweetie and how cute he/she is…it reminds me, I’ve been wanting to have a garage sale, but (cluck cluck) such TROUBLE. I just don’t have the TIME. It’s like PROVIDENCE meeting you today. We’re so limited on space, and have SO MUCH we just don’t need any longer…if you needed anything, well, it’d be such a FAVOR to me…you know…how about if I give you my number and a few things we’re trying to find new homes for…you let me know…if you would like any of them? We got them from friends, ourselves. They’re just taking up space at our place these days. I hate to just give them up…I’d rather know they went to a good home…you know…and your baby is so PRECIOUS!”

    Tone. Smile. Desperate facial expression. Little bit of pandering.

    But you’d be surprised, maybe, at the culture here.

    I don’t know.

    It’s unique.

    I can say that, having lived so many places.

    People here just STEP IN. No questions. No judgments. It’s just what you do. Period.

    And then…you take that help RIGHT BACK when it is offered.

    One NEVER scoffs at pride and dignity. EVER. Or need.

    I have bought groceries for a lady who turned around and found me a double stroller just when I needed it most. None of us have much AT ALL but we give what we’ve got, even if it is mostly just heart.

    Julie Pippert March 13, 2007 at 10:59 pm

    Oh Catherine, you are so CANADIAN in this post LOL. Liberal guilt, LOL.

    So many of these responses just leave me feeling…sad…wistful.

    I don’t understand this judgment thing.

    You don’t tell her what to do! GAH!

    You don’t judge her! You don’t offer advice! You don’t intervene!

    You ask her what SHE wants!

    You identify. You relate. You extend kindness, caring, friendship, camaraderie. You give her the chance to help you out by taking something she might need off your hands. It’s a total honest win-win.

    Honest abe she likely knows better. And likely is doing the best she can, with rationalizations trying to outyell the reservations.

    It’s not a class thing!

    It’s a mom thing.

    However, subway, okay. Bathroom, not so much. ;)

    flutter March 13, 2007 at 11:44 pm

    You know what struck me most? You were going to offer her your stroller. What a beautiful heart you have

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