Tuesday, July 11, 2006


The mommy wars, in person

Over the last year and a half of blogging, I've seen a lot of conversations the 'mommy wars'. In five years of mothering, though, I don't think I ever actually felt judged by another mother about my parenting skills - until yesterday.

We have, in our community, a wonderful resource for parents of children under the age of six called an Early Years Centre. It's funded by the province of Ontario, and each community's centre is a little different, but mostly they have things like a toy lending library, a schedule of parenting courses, often a daycare centre, and the part I always loved: a drop-in playgroup. I loved the drop-in at the Barrhaven EYC so much that before I lived in the community, I'd drive 10 km just to bring Tristan in when he was a toddler. They have high quality play sets, like fully equipped kitchens, dress-up clothes, puzzles, train and lego tables, and a crafts centre. Each drop-in ends with a story and song circle.

When Simon was a newborn and Tristan was a busy toddler, the EYC was a lifeline for me. I'd put Simon in a sling or bjorn carrier, or even leave him under a mobile on a soft mat in the babies-only section, and follow Tristan around as he burned off energy and played with the other kids. The staff were well-educated and helpful, and would happily entertain Tristan while I sat with my back against a wall and nursed Simon. Tristan christened it the 'ladybug playgroup' because of the big red ladybug on the mats in the crawling baby section. I've often encouraged Beloved to bring the boys there during the day, because they always loved it and always napped well after a morning of play with fresh toys and new faces.

In the year and a half since I've been on maternity leave, the EYC has moved a mile or so up the road into a new facility. I've booked off Mondays through the summer to have extra time with the boys, and since the skies threatened rain yesterday, I brought the boys in to try to recapture some of the old fun. Turns out, like in so many things in life, you can't go back again.

The first thing that struck me was a plethora of new and strict rules. No matter what we did, we were breaking a rule. First, I got the evil eye for letting the boys play in front of the doors as we queued up to take a number to get in. (Only 30 people allowed, and when we arrived three or four minutes after they started handing out numbers, we were the last few to get a ticket.) Then I got an outright scolding for letting them be in front of the door again as we inspected a cricket to pass the time. Then Tristan got scolded for running through the door. Okay, I get a rule about no running, but by this point I was starting to feel a little prickly.

They read out a list of house rules, and we were informed that there was to be no carrying toys from one section to another. No lego in the craft area. No puzzles in the book area. No kitchen toys outside the kitchen area. We're talking about a room full of preschoolers here, in a room a little larger than the average classroom, and they aren't supposed to carry the toys around? Poor Simon was distraught when he couldn't use the spatula and the wooden spoon in the big box of cornmeal. I'm just glad he didn't do what he usually does - fixate on one object and carry it around like a talisman everywhere he goes. (He actually shoplifted a yellow plastic spoon from the Children's Museum last time we were there, because I forgot he had been carrying it around with him all morning. I'll bring it back the next time we go, I promise!)

We had to fill out a registration form, and as I completed the form, one of the staffers and I chatted. She asked why it had been so long since I had been back to the EYC, and I mentioned working full time but that I had been encouraging my husband to bring the boys. I wish I were exaggerating when I tell you that her whole demeanor changed when she realized I was not a stay-at-home mother. She looked from Simon to Tristan, both happily engaged in separate play areas, and I swear I could read on her face that she saw a direct correlation to their high-spiritedness and my working. It's the first time I've ever felt judged for working outside the home, and it was like a shock of cold water.

So I was feeling a little tense to begin with, and every time the boys showed any energy or spunk or enthusiasm, I felt like the two women staffers were giving me the evil eye. Sometimes it seems like my boys are a little more wriggly and noisy than their peers, and I worry about it. They aren't bad, they just exhuberant, and in Simon's case, relentlessly curious. So when I raised my voice because Simon wasn't listening to me telling him for the third time not to dissemble the aquarium while I tried to complete the registration form and mop up the paint Tristan had dribbled onto the table, I was actually impressed with myself for not screaming outright. And when I say I raised my voice, I mean exactly that. "Si-mon," in the singsong-y getting his attention voice, followed by "Simon!" in the abrupt, I mean business voice, followed by "SIMON!" in the are-you-deaf-or-just-ignoring me voice. I hadn't even made it to the "SIMON!!" you are risking imminent death voice.

That's when one of the other mothers decided I needed an intervention, and she approached me using that calm, soothing voice that you use on angry dogs and people about to go postal. If she had approached me collegially, with laughter and empathy, I would have likely welcomed her solidarity. Instead, she actually initiated the conversation, without even so much as a 'hello-how-ya-doing', by asking me if I'd ever taken any parenting courses on how to speak to my children. I was floored, and so taken aback that I could only sputter. I was far more polite to her than I should have been, and listened patiently while she recommended a course and two books on the subject. I managed to disentangle myself from her to 'help' Tristan with some markers, and spent the rest of the morning actively avoiding her.

In the end, the boys had a great morning and were resistant to leaving. After speaking to no-one for the entire morning except the two judgemental women and feeling more than a little like a social leper, I was more than happy to get out of there, and told Beloved when I got home that I would no longer pester him to bring the boys back.

Maybe it's just the new culture of this particular EYC, but I'm disappointed to lose something that we had so enjoyed. I'm not sure whether I'm more surprised that it took this long for me to come face-to-face with this kind of bias, or how much it bothered me. It drives me crazy that I'd let the opinion of a couple of strangers undermine my confidence in my own parenting skills.

I think I'll stick to playdates with friends from now on.