I am That Mom. In more ways than one.

When my oldest kids were very young, I went through a very, very judgmental phase. I hung out at a website geared toward uber-natural radical attachment parents, the message boards (now defunct) of which were often used to attack anyone who dared 1) not to have a home birth, (unassisted home birth scored you extra alterna points, and holy cow, if you had an unassisted outdoor home birth and then ate the placenta you were THE COOLEST) 2) not to breastfeed, exclusively, without bottles or pacifiers or extended separation of any sort (“extended” meaning, to some, as little as a few hours) for years (the longer the better) and 3) to use child care–whether occasional or often, any frequency of “other-care” was frowned upon (yes, that included family members, and sometimes even fathers). I still remember a woman being lambasted for admitting she had a good time going out for an hour to meet a friend for coffee–without her 10-month-old.

(attention attachment parents: if you are ever befuddled about why anyone would think AP-ers are judgmental, it’s because of sites like that one. )

Anyway, some time spent as a single mom when the boys were preschool-aged did a lot to knock me off my shaky self-built pedestal, and since then (and adding my third child and beyond) I’ve chilled out quite a bit. I still breastfeed, exclusively, and for a pretty long time, but I don’t feel negatively about people who don’t. I have arranged my work life so that I’m available to my kids a lot of the time, but I understand why many moms can’t or don’t want to. I still have out-of-hospital natural births but your choice of where or how to give birth is of no consequence to how I view you as a mother or person. As long as your kids are fed, clothed and you aren’t beating them with sticks, we’re good. Live and let live, mother and let mother, that’s what I say. In theory.

I say “in theory” because I’m still human, and as much as I’d like to think I’m never guilty of judging another mom, of course I do. Oh sure, I don’t judge on the big issues anymore–I got that out of my system years ago. But I still make knee-jerk assumptions without even thinking about it sometimes–usually about really dumb, unimportant things–and allow myself to indulge in the dirty, low-down satisfaction of a moment (or two) of self-righteousness.

Today my fifth-grade son Jacob was involved a track meet. A big deal, apparently–the kids would be running on the track at the high school with kids from neighboring schools, and Jacob had been talking about it for weeks. With all his excitement, there was no way I was going to let him be the odd man out or in any way compromised on his exciting day. I bought him new shoes when his skater-style sneaks turned out to be inappropriate for running. I had him wear track pants. I made sure he had a big breakfast and gave him a carby snack for energy. Parenting-wise, I was all set. Right? I was feeling pretty darn proud of myself when I showed up at the meet, ON TIME mind you, with the two younger boys and the baby in her Ergo. Jacob looked confident and comfy as he bounced up and down at the starting line waiting to run his first event. He ran with determination and finished second. I was so proud.

Next to Jacob, I noticed another boy who did not look quite so confident. He was wearing jeans and looked uncomfortable and awkward. I felt a twinge of pity for him, and though I didn’t take the time to form a coherent thought, if you had put words to my feeling at that moment it would have been something like “Poor kid. Guess HIS mom didn’t even know about the track meet!”

Two seconds later I saw another group of kids walk up. Was that–

Yes. Isaac, my third-grader.

In jeans. Tight jeans, the Sears Rough Riders his grandma buys him because they have the double knee and the lifetime guarantee, and that she always buys in a size slim. You’re getting the mental image, right? Stiff, tight, double-kneed jeans. The sort that make running painful and running fast nearly impossible.

“Isaac!” I called over the fence, trying to keep my voice bright. “I didn’t know you were running today!”

He shrugged.

“Are you comfortable enough in those clothes?”

Another shrug.

What I really WANTED to say–what I wanted to make abundantly clear to his teacher, the other mothers around and heck even his classmates as they stood nearby–was that I’d asked him, repeatedly, if he was running in the meet. He assured me that he was not; that only certain kids had been chosen to run and he didn’t make the cut in part because his shoe flew off during the qualifying run. (Honestly, I should know better than to trust the kid who assured me, before his last field trip, that the teacher insisted they NOT pack their lunches in plastic bags. In fact, what she had requested is that they ONLY pack their lunches in plastic bags. I guess he got the entire sentence right, except for the most important word.) (as it turned out, the flying-off-shoe contributed only to his being left out of the relay. A single race in a day packed with after event after event. All of which he’d be running. In Rough Riders, double-kneed, slim.)

I wanted to turn around and excuse myself. “Really, had I known he was running, he’d have been wearing shorts or track pants just like the other kids! And running shoes and little cushiony, absorbent socks! And maybe one of those terrycloth headbands like joggers used in the 80s! And I’d have carb-loaded him! I promise!”

But nobody was looking at Isaac’s Rough Riders. Nobody cared. And if anyone in the bleachers was thinking quiet judgmental thoughts toward me, they didn’t give themselves away by looking in my direction or shaking their heads in pity. The amount of shame I was feeling over something relatively minor (Isaac didn’t seem to care or even notice that he was dressed differently from most of the other kids) was directly related to the fact that, not one minute earlier, I’d harbored (even brief) judgmental thoughts toward another faceless mother who wasn’t even there to explain herself.

Maybe that mom works two jobs and is exhausted all the time and forgot. Maybe she’s in the hospital with a sick child. Maybe she’s involved in a bitter custody dispute and her ex is deliberately sabotaging her by stealing the school calendar when it comes home in her son’s backpack. Maybe she just got laid off from her job and can’t afford a pair of running pants. Maybe the mother is dead and the brave widower is muddling by as best he can, trying to do a decent job at all the things his wife was great at. Or maybe, like me, this is simply a child who couldn’t care less about the track meet and didn’t even bother to tell anyone he’d be running in it.

It doesn’t matter. This revelation was about me, not the other mother. Yet one more lesson that the minute you start feeling smug about your kids’ angelic behavior at the grocery store or the fact that your lunches are a little healthier than the ones the other moms pack, that is the day your child will throw a tantrum in aisle 3 and you’ll have to flee the store, leaving you without the organic apples and sprouted wheat bread you were GOING to pack in your third-grader’s lunch the next day, so you have to send him to school with a bag of Chee-tohs and some corn-syrup-laden fruit snacks left over from Halloween.

Not that I’d know from experience or anything.

A few years ago I wrote an article on the “mommy wars” and came up with a step to help stave off knee-jerk judgment: find something positive. When you look at that kid with the snotty face sneezing all over the produce or throwing a tantrum in the cereal aisle and find yourself starting to judge his mother, try to direct your focus to something good instead–maybe she takes an extra moment to make sure the strap in the shopping cart is secured tightly. Maybe she gives him a special smile or talks to him about how you can tell when a plum is ripe. There’s almost always something good to notice if you look hard enough.

It was a good tip, and one I’ve tried to live by, but I’m human…sometimes I forget. And honestly, judging gives a self-satisfied little buzz that can be more pleasant than admitting to yourself I’m not a better mother than the rest of the women in here. Maybe not even that mom with the snotty-nosed, tantrum-having, dirty-kneed, foul-mouthed kid.

So I have to thank my son Isaac for being both clueless and unenthusiastic about track and field. It turned into a powerful reminder that judgment doesn’t just apply to the hot-button issues, but the little things, too.

For the record, I asked him if the jeans were OK when he got home, and he said he didn’t care at all.

Most likely, the other kid didn’t, either.

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