How To Talk To Other Parents Without Sucking

shutterstock_149077094As a child of the 80s, I grew up in a world of “mommy wars.” That lovely term dates back to Jan Jarboe Russell’s 1989 Texas Monthly article “The Mommy War,” published back when I was the eight-year-old daughter of a divorced working mother. This family structure was not exactly en vogue at my Catholic elementary school, where most of the other mommies stuck with being mommies. My mom and all these fieldtrip-chaperoning, classroom-assisting, recess-supervising mothers with large suburban homes never quite figured out how to talk to each other. Fast forward to 2014 … and I find myself parenting in a culture that still gleefully pits mothers against each other.

Personally, I’m a weird mashup of parenting categories. I have a PhD, and some semesters I teach full time or more. I have lived separately from my family for months at a time. Other semesters, I write from home and am practically never away from my toddler and seven-year-old. I’m a homeschooling, homebirthing, breastfeeding mother. I’m a highly-educated professional and a committed feminist. I live in a different region of the US from my family and most of my friends, and I hang out online sort of all the time. As a result, I end up chatting with people whose assumptions about parenting are very diverse indeed.

Even in less quirky circumstances, every parent interacts with well-meaning counterparts whose lives and, like, basic senses of reality are different from ours. How can we abandon the tired script of “the mommy wars” in order to interact more productively and kindly across the abyss of really, really different parenting choices?

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  • Guest

    I like this. As someone with no kids I see people post questions (and I have myself) and the responses can just be nasty. I realize people have to learn to ask nicely but jeebus with some of the responses I see, I don’t want to ask at all!

    • Guest

      Perfect photo choice by the way :)

  • Crusty Socks

    “1) We can listen with interest and without making assumptions.


  • Kay_Sue

    “4) Finally, for all that is good and holy in the world, we can avoid handing out unsolicited advice. It’s so awful.”

    Can we just, as a species, commit to this for everything? Because we are the worst at it. I don’t want your advice for my parenting. I also don’t want it for my marriage, or my food choices, or my alien abduction coping techniques…or, well, anything. It’s one thing to share experiences; unsolicited advice is something else entirely. *sighs*

    • Crusty Socks

      Kay I completely agree, so let me give you some words of wisdom. You should just learn to deal with things like that. Also for dinner, feed your children some healthy snacks.

      (LOL ok, this is your second alien abduction reference… anything you wanna share?)

    • Bethany Ramos

      Crusty, you kill me every time!

    • Kay_Sue

      Well, what had happened was…

    • Valerie

      I’m sorry, but I will force tips on you for safety during the Zombie Apocolypse. I care about you too much as my twinsie to let someone eat your flesh. <3

    • Kay_Sue

      Oh no, Zombie Survival tips are the only good kinds of tips. Everyone is welcome to give me as many of those as they possibly can!

    • LiteBrite

      Actually I will gladly take any alien abduction coping advice because I’m guessing that my technique of screaming bloody murder would probably fail.

  • rrlo

    I am guilty of the unsolicited advice thing… I can hear myself doing it. I just can’t stop it… HELP!

    • Eve Vawter

      That is basically all I do.

    • sp83

      I am on the receiving end of the unsolicited advice, but looking for responses that will gently clue the advice giver to stop without directly telling them to go f*ck themself (my admittedly bad first reaction). Help?

    • Katia

      How about,
      If its just a short bit of advice, but you find it offensive, Say thanks (in a tone like I don’t give a **** what you just said) and change the subject firmly to something very different.
      If they are going on say, hey im really sorry to interrupt, michelle, but I’ve heard this advice before and it’s actually not the right fit for my child/ we do it another way which is actually perfect for us. ”
      Kind of depends on whether you still want to be friends for some reason or you’re unlikely to see the mom again. If you could care less about the person, say I’m so sorry excuse me, and go to your child as if they needed you.

      On the other hand, we’re adults. I admit I may not do it myself but it would not be that terrible to say, hey friend, I really disagree with the advice you’re giving because ive thought/ read a lot about this issue however I just don’t feel like discussing it right now. Yeah that won’t make the person feel awesome but in some cases I think it would be ok. And if they are going on and on about an issue that you haven’t even asked about maybe it would be a reality check about their (lack of) social skills.

    • sp83

      That’s a really good middle ground. Full disclosure, the person I’m having issues with is my MIL, so I haven’t been very comfortable just cutting her off, and instead just smile and nod and then seethe and vent to my husband on the way home. But since we’ve now gone over the same issue 4x, I think maybe it’s time. I’ll definitely try this :) Thanks!!

  • jane

    It’s like you’re trying to take away all my judging and snark with your logic and kindness. Are you sure you belong on the internet?

    • rrlo

      Johnny Lee Miller is adorable in Jane Austen mode.

  • Snickity Snark

    Basically the reaction to mommy wars is 4 simple words. MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS. Unless someone is about to microwave their baby – BUTT out of their parenting choices and shut up about your own. Tolerance is a revolving door.

    • Elisa Probert

      But, microwaved babies are delicious!

      Seriously though, most things could just be butted out of.

  • JustAGuest

    ” A lot of nastiness is born from assuming that others are Just Like Us until proven otherwise”

    I think it’s this plus the idea that if you’re doing something different, you must be doing it incorrectly (or must think I’m doing it incorrectly.) People don’t always seem to realize that different doesn’t necessarily mean one is wrong and one right; they can be applicable in different situations. (“This is what’s best for me,” not “this is what’s best for everyone.”)

    Also, bringing intersectionality in rocks.

    • Molly W

      “this plus the idea that if you’re doing something different, you must be
      doing it incorrectly (or must think I’m doing it incorrectly.)”–Yes. In my own personal interactions as a parent, the worst stuff has been when people experience my quirky choices as meaning I think theirs are bad. It’s hard to navigate sometimes! But, like, the cloth diapers you see in my diaper bag do not mean I’m judging your disposables: I do not give a crap, for real!

  • E. Marie

    I’d like to add to #4: keep in mind that most times, advice is not coming from a mean and spiteful place. People give advice usually because they want to help that person. They want to share something that made their own lives better or easier. Whether it’s Aunt Sally, who gives you unsolicited advice because she loves and cares about you, or the crazy old lady on the subway, who does it because she sees a young mother who needs help (which might not be true), very few people take the time to pass out advice with negative intentions.

    It was REALLY helpful to repeat this to myself through my recent pregnancy. :)

    • Molly W

      A fine and admirable mantra :) Especially for pregnant people, world champion unsolicited advice magnets.

  • Lee

    I have so much love for this incredibly well written article.

    • Molly W

      Thanks! You made my day.

  • Katia

    Honestly I don’t mind if people want to give me advice. Even if it was rude or the wrong time you can just be like “haha what a nice suggestion.. no thanks.”
    Advice can be really helpful though and some of it (to quote dick Cheney(!)) “you don’t know what you don’t know” so some advice that is useful is stuff you’d never know to ask.
    Ill have to protest your silly anti advice protest!

  • Esther

    This rocks, and what rocks the most was your discussion of intersectionality. We need more parenting writers to talk about this. Please write more about it!

  • radicalhw

    Kindness AND intersectionality in one essay? Molly Westerman wins the feminist internet.