Between the two of us L. and I have four kids under the age of four. Which is why our latest meeting had to be over breakfast at 8 am: when you take everyone’s nap time into consideration there aren’t many time slots left. 

Our husbands were present and the kids were on their best behavior, but an uninterrupted conversation was a thing of dreams. Everyone kept getting up to ask for a spoon or napkins, shuffling around the table in search of the best arrangement, eating in turns, giving kids to each other over the table. “I want porridge. I don’t want porridge. I want hoppers.” And when the hoppers are there: “Can I have your granola, mama?” “Of course, bunny.”

We ordered coffee. When the waiter brought our cappuccinos, L.’s four-year-old asked for a sip. So L. gave her a teaspoon of coffee, then turned to me: “It’s just that she’s always been so insistent, so we gave her a little bit of foam first, but now she asks for actual coffee, so I only give her a teaspoon”. 

I didn’t know what to say in the moment. What I should have said is “You don’t have to explain yourself to me. You are a good mom”.

Because I have done it too: the explaining of my choices because I anticipate judgement. I do it every time I have to say that I sleep with my baby. I start by assuring people that I have tried, really, I have, to sleep separately. I struggled for a full month trying to make my first son, Kroshka, sleep in the cot and it was torture. But ever since I put him in my bed he sleeps through the night. So you see? It works for us. Please, don’t judge me! And that is before the person I am talking to says anything or gives me the look. And maybe they wouldn’t even think of giving me the look, but if they had, I beat them to it. 

I watched another mom explain why she’s giving a chocolate pudding to her two-year-old: they live with grandparents who love to spoil their granddaughter so she demands sweets now.

More than one of my friends felt the need to add “otherwise I won’t be able to do anything” when switching on cartoons for their children.

We anticipate judgment and defend ourselves before anyone even had the chance to attack us. It doesn’t matter that you only switch on cartoons once a day for fifteen minutes. Now you are the mom whose kid has too much screen time.

It doesn’t matter that you make every meal from scratch, carefully balancing proteins, carbs and fats. Now you are the mom who gives chocolate pudding to a two-year-old. No-one will praise you for your best moments: the healthy meals, the bed-time stories, the my-kid-threw-a-tantrum-but-I-totally-kept-my-cool-and-handled-it-calmly. But you do one thing wrong… 

But is wrong even the correct word here? Because giving a two-year-old vodka would be wrong. But a chocolate pudding?

What’s wrong with showing my kid a cartoon when I am so tired I am about to explode and take it out on him? What’s wrong with showing him a cartoon even if I am not tired but just want to have a cup of coffee in peace?

And let me be clear: I am adamant there’s nothing wrong with sleeping with my baby.

So it’s not really about what’s wrong, but rather about everyone’s idea of what’s wrong. There are very few things that are absolute wrongs: vodka for toddlers being one. Everything else is perspective. 

Once, I was at a coffee shop with Kroshka, who was two months old at the time. A lady sitting next to me considered it an abomination that he was wearing a hat, but no socks. She made sure to tell that to me. My unforgivable mistake was that when Kroshka kicked his socks off five times in a row, I only put them back on four times. 

You might be thinking: oh, but of course that lady was silly, it’s obvious! But what’s obvious to one, is not quite so obvious to someone else. Take safety on the road, for example. It is obvious that one should always transport a child in a car seat. To be considered a good parent, that is. 

Then you come to a developing country like Sri Lanka. First of all, there’s no law regulating how children should be transported. Second of all, good luck finding a car seat for sale. Imported goods have always been scarce, but it’s become even worse after the recent economic crisis. Third, when you do find that car seat, you’ll have to save up for months in order to buy it. Unsurprisingly, the absolute majority of kids travel without car seats. Should we assume their parents are bad by default?

And there it is. The root of all evil. The fear we all share: that someone will think we are bad parents. If someone said I am a bad dancer, I wouldn’t care much. But if someone said I am a bad mother, I would probably crumble to pieces. I wonder why? Both statements are wrong, I know that for a fact. But only one of them would make an impact.

Perhaps because parenting is one of the most selfless and vulnerable acts of all. As Fredrik Backman would put it: it doesn’t require much, only everything you’ve got. And then someone sees you for about five seconds, makes a snap decision on the kind of person you are and the type of life you lead and uses it to hit you right where it hurts most. 

What kind of mother would leave her newborn child to freeze without socks? What kind of mother doesn’t bother to read a book to her toddler and gives him a screen instead? The irony is that what-kind-of-mother questions usually come from mothers. I know that because I am a mother and I judge other mothers. 

Before you throw rotten tomatoes at me: I recognize it’s one of my worst qualities and I am working on it. But if you just thought: how could she! That means you are doing the exact same thing: judging a fellow human being.

I have the common sense not to tell a mom that I think she’s doing something wrong, but that doesn’t mean a quick thought doesn’t cross my mind. In such cases I pause and remind myself that I am only seeing five seconds out of a twenty-four-hour day of this mother. 

I hope other moms extend the same courtesy to me. They have been in fact. Barely anyone told me off for not caring of my children well enough, to my face at least. The sock lady was one. A friend who learned that I sleep with my baby and said: “You do you, of course, but it’s actually dangerous” is another. That is why to this day I feel the need to explain our sleeping arrangements. 

Brene Brown in her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead had the following to say about judging other people:

“…research tells us that we judge people in areas where we’re vulnerable to shame, especially picking folks who are doing worse than we’re doing. If I feel good about my parenting, I have no interest in judging other people’s choices. If I feel good about my body, I don’t go around making fun of other people’s weight or appearance. We’re hard on each other because we’re using each other as a launching pad out of our own perceived shaming deficiency.”

When you hear someone say: “How could she let her children eat at McDonald’s?” The thought behind that sentence is: “At least I don’t feed my kids burgers and French fries. That must mean I am a good mom, right? Right?” The problem with this kind of validation is that it doesn’t last long. Soon enough, you are searching for a new victim.

As always, one should look inward, not outward. The question is not: why does this mom do things the way she does? The question is: do I believe I am a good mother?

It also helps to remember that all of us whether we breastfeed or formula-feed, co-sleep or lay the baby in a cot, put socks onto a kicking and screaming child or let them go barefoot, read books together or switch on cartoons to have a cup of coffee in peace, want only the absolute best for our children and do only our hardest to achieve that.