The Type of Parent I’d Be If No One Else Was Watching

The ATM inside the Cumberland Farms is no more than 20 feet from my Jeep, which is parked just outside the front of the store. It’s 9:45 AM on a Thursday—the part of the day that’s safely sandwiched between the morning rush and lunchtime—so there are only a handful of other patrons present, some pumping gas, others running inside for a pack of smokes or a mid-morning Red Bull.

I weigh my options: I can extract each child from his respective car seat and haul them inside for the 13 seconds it will take me to swipe my card, agree to the exorbitant transaction fee and collect my twenty dollar bill. Or I can leave them sleeping in the back, lock them safely inside and use the remote starter to keep the air conditioner running while I watch from the window.

I’ve never done this before—actually gone through with it—but I’ve thought about it maybe a thousand times. About how much easier it would be to just run inside and leave them in the car while I buy the one item I left off my shopping list. About forgoing the 27-step process of successfully entering and exiting a store with two small children in favor of a three-minute transaction. But, every time, when push came to shove, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it, for any number of reasons. Because my older son might wake up and realize I’m not there. Because the air-conditioned car might suddenly overheat. Because someone could hot-wire my SUV in 90 seconds and drive off with my most precious cargo in tow.

But the biggest reason I never went through with it?

The fear that a perfect stranger would see my children strapped into their car seats through the tinted windows and, upon my return, berate me for endangering them. Or worse, call the cops and recount for their benefit how I put my children in harm’s way.

In this moment, sitting in the driver’s seat analyzing these absurd potential outcomes, I realize just how much I let the fear of being deemed a bad mother by total strangers dictate the way I publicly parent my own children.

Which, naturally, leads to me to wonder: what type of parent would I be if no one was watching?

I’m genuinely curious. Would I be the type that didn’t weigh the bunch of bananas at the grocery store before letting my older son devour one? Would I be the type that didn’t keep up a constant stream of chatter with my very disinterested infant for the sole benefit of complete strangers? Or would my infractions be more serious? Would I be the type that drank a glass of wine and nursed my suddenly starving baby in front of a restaurant full of people? Would I be the type that confidently fed my firstborn Enfamil instead of suffering through five long months of exclusive pumping just to avoid judgment?

If I were being brutally, unabashedly honest, I’d answer yes to every single one of those questions. And, if no one was watching, I wouldn’t even feel bad about it.

So, if I truly feel this way, why do I let total strangers have so much sway over my decision-making as a mother?

I think it’s more than just one easy, cookie cutter answer; it’s a lot of little factors that make me so wary, at times, of going with my gut and doing what I think is best for my children. Part of it is that we are living in a time of swift and unyielding judgment, where we as parents are put on trial in the court of public opinion seemingly every moment of our lives. Someone is always waiting to tell us that we were wrong, that they know better, that, in the same circumstance, they would have made the right choice (and yes, there is always a right choice, which just so happens to be the one we didn’t make.)

Another part of it is that a judgmental stranger sees only a snapshot of my life as a mother, not the whole lovingly compiled photo album. It’s the reason I look over my shoulder when I hand my phone to my son during a meltdown in a restaurant or let him eat McDonald’s in the stands at his father’s softball game: because those types of parents were the ones I always said I’d never become and I still fear being judged for that momentary decision.

It doesn’t make sense, I realize, but the fact remains: for me, fear of judgment has an undue influence on the choices I make as a mother.

So, when I hurry into the gas station and hastily punch the buttons on the ATM—fast cash, no receipt—I worry the entire two minutes. Not about my children safely cocooned in the backseat of an air conditioned car, but about the passenger in parking spot next to mine who is mere feet away from finding out my secret. In her absence, I’m confident that I’d have no qualms about my choice. But, there she is, completely unaware. And there I am, just 20 feet away, but with my hair-trigger mind making it seem much farther. Just as so many times before this, I’ve given a completely unknowing stranger the power to make my decisions for me. Or at least the power to make me feel bad about them. 

Which begs the question: If a mother leaves her child in a safely-locked car and no one else is around to judge her, does she still question her decision?

Like What You Just Read?
Subscribe via email to get more posts like these delivered to your inbox!
Follow Me

Melissa Mowry

Melissa Mowry is a stay at home mom to 3 year old Chase and the slightly younger guy, Sam. She is the main voice behind One Mother to Another, which she started in July 2014 as a way to connect with other moms who felt just as lonely as she did some days. She is married to her high school sweetheart, Adam, and they live in their home state of Rhode Island. Melissa's work has been featured on the Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, Mamalode, Coffee + Crumbs and Mamapedia, among others. Her book, One Mother to Another: This Is Just Between Us is for sale on Amazon.
Follow Me

Latest posts by Melissa Mowry (see all)

11 Responses to The Type of Parent I’d Be If No One Else Was Watching

  1. Autumn Leopold September 23, 2015 at 9:30 pm #

    This is a fabulous post! I have had the same conversation with myself over and over about running into the store or atm! However, I am 40 and my son is seven so I think me being an older mom made it easier to say to hell with it and not worry about being judged as much. I think younger moms actually have it harder and are maybe more hard on each other sometimes. Either that or I really don’t notice people judging me, or better yet, maybe no one is and it’s all in my head! Great topic! Sharing!

  2. Kayla September 23, 2015 at 9:52 pm #

    I think the problem is that there can be very real repercussions when someone thinks you’ve made a bad parenting choice. I’ve heard of CPS getting involved when children were left in a (locked, A/C on) car for 3 minutes while the mom ran inside a store. I honestly don’t care about what anyone thinks of me but I DO care that they might think I’m a bad enough parent to involve the authorities. I wish we would all give each other a little more leeway!

  3. Amanda Decker September 23, 2015 at 10:10 pm #

    Talk about real. Yes. I have had these thoughts, and I wonder what life would be like without sanctimonious people. Once when we stopped at a store, I hopped into the back seat of our mini van to nurse my baby, with my two older kids playing around, while my husband ran into the store. But, that woman… She saw my husband get out, kids stayed in, and she started circling my car and shaking her head. At one point she put her hand on the glass to peer in, but I guess she didn’t hear or see me or my exposed boob. I knew what she was thinking, that they had been left unattended in a running vehicle. And although I tried desperately, baby latched, to lean my face close enough to the pop out window to holler at her that there was indeed an adult in the car… Even though i had my son roll down his window and ask her to come over to the car… She apparently couldn’t hear us from ten feet away… She walked away into the store, and I knew what was coming next. But nobody came. Then, she walked out of the store, stopped again and circled my car… So I scrambled to a window that could roll down, baby screaming in my arms, and I yelled, “There’s an adult in here!!!! I’m in here!! I see you circling, and I appreciate your concern, but these kids are just fine! I’m nursing my baby!!” She explained she just “didn’t know” and that she was an ex cop… ? And twenty seconds later, here came the manager of the store. “Just checking.” But… If that lady was really concerned about the kids… Wouldn’t she knock on a window? Or stay until a parent returned? Or, if you were truly concerned for their well-being, try to open the door… And if it’s locked…. Break the window?!? Nope. She just wanted to tell on somebody. Like a child. She wanted it to look like she was really concerned, but her actions said to me she just wanted recognition for catching somebody “breaking the rules”. I have mad respect for people who save sweaty little kids from overheated cars…. But there’s a fine line between being a hero and rescuing someone, and just being a tattle-tale. Wow. I’m so sorry I just wrote a novel in your comments section!! But this really struck a chord!! 💗

  4. Jennifer September 23, 2015 at 10:45 pm #

    Great post, although I didn’t get “Would I be the type that drank a glass of wine and nursed my suddenly starving baby in front of a restaurant full of people?” A glass of wine won’t hurt a baby, and why not nurse in the restaurant. Not your circus; not your monkeys. I’ve done both. lol

    • Melissa Mowry September 23, 2015 at 10:50 pm #

      See, the thing that’s kept me from doing it is that, while I know it’s 100% OK, some people are really uneducated about how little alcohol actually gets into the breastmilk. Yet another thing I need to just get over already. I am very comfortable nursing in public now, which definitely feels like a big hurdle. I’m a work in progress!

  5. Kim September 23, 2015 at 11:31 pm #

    My oldest just turned nine and I have 2 younger ones. I started leaving them this summer for small things like running in the convenience store for milk or grabbing money from the ATM. No way am I wrestling 3 kids out of the car when it is a 90+ degrees out to be out for just a few seconds. I leave the car running, brake on, air conditioning on, and have the oldest lock the door.

  6. meredith September 24, 2015 at 10:30 am #

    Amen to this! Why is that people will turn their heads and say “it’s not my business/problem” when something truly wrong is happening (domestic violence, texting while driving, etc…) right in front of them but they see it fit to judge others when it comes to things like this. My kid is only 2 and I already hate feeling like I have to find some secret perfect level of “hover” in order not to be considered a helicopter mom but also not be called out for “neglecting” her… where’s the line and how are we supposed to find it? Great post.

    • Melissa Mowry October 15, 2015 at 10:24 am #

      YES!! This is exactly it. People are SO concerned with the wrong things. I think social media has really exacerbated that problem to an extreme level–everyone always knows what’s going and feel like they have license to just offer up their opinion on anything and everything.

  7. Mere September 25, 2015 at 9:02 am #

    This applies just as much to pregnancy as after the baby is born and is one of the biggest reasons I’m grateful that we’re having our first child in Spain. We’ve been living here for just over a year and I recently went home to have a baby shower thrown by my parents in the States. The amount of questions I was asked and comments I received about my medical treatment so far and which choices we should or shouldn’t make about delivery were overwhelming. Doctors in Spain are much more relaxed (the 6th best country to have a child in when it comes to the health of moms and babies) about pregnancy. You get a “Mother’s Passport” which you carry with you everywhere and it lists out your visits to see a midwife, local doctor, local nurse and hospital doctor for periodic x-rays. They put you through a careful system of checks and give you plenty of attention without the scare-mongering and do’s and don’ts I so often read about from American bloggers. There’s not as much choice when it comes to birthing plans, but I’m actually okay with that. Plus, they say navigating the world in a second language makes you more rational so I’m looking forward to going through the whole thing in Spanish. Most importantly, I’ve really been enjoying the freedom of not being judged when I’m out and about. I decided to have one glass of wine at my birthday dinner this summer — my first in the entire pregnancy– while in the last week of my second trimester. I knew it was safe and no one even batted an eye at the Spanish restaurant. There is no way I would have allowed myself to do this at a restaurant in the US. We don’t have a car and as I find the 45 minute walk to town exhausting, I often ride my bike to my doctor’s appointments– even at 7 months. My doctor thinks it’s fine, as do the Spanish people I pass on the street. Yet, every American friend I have was horrified to learn I still got on my bike and were anxious to have me stop (we have a really safe off-the-road bike path here that goes along the beach all the way to town). Scandinavian women ride right up until delivery and it’s up to every woman to choose when she feels she can or can’t maintain balance. Right now I still feel fine, maybe tomorrow I won’t and I’ll start walking exclusively. I really liked your post and can’t tell you how happy I am that we are raising this baby in Spain (until he’s 9 months and we move back to England where my husband is from) as opposed to Massachusetts. It makes life a whole lot easier when you don’t have to worry so much what others think of you because it frees you to focus on the choices you think are best for you and your family.

  8. Kerry September 30, 2015 at 8:07 am #

    Thank you for writing this. It’s nice to not feel so alone in my worries. When we were in the process of adopting our son, we had to have supervised visits every month for six months. We had flown home with him at 11 days old. I lived in sheer terror that I would mess up somehow, and do something that would jeopardize our adoption. Sheer, unadulterated fear was my constant companion. Those six months felt agonizing. Every month, the agency would come. I spent the whole time “dotting my i’s and crossing my t’s ” for fear that I would do something silly or harmless that could be misconstrued by a stranger. I mean, I was in full blown paranoia. Was the baby warm enough? Was the baby put in car seat perfectly etc. My husband thought I was nuts! I wanted to be a mother so desperately after ten years of horrible infertility. And now, even though our son is three and legally ours in every way, I still can’t shake that worry sometimes. It’s like it is ingrained in me.

    • Melissa Mowry October 15, 2015 at 10:21 am #

      Wow, I can’t even imagine how stressful that must’ve been for you. My cousin is going through the exact same situation right now and, even though she is a fantastic mother, she still has to worry that they’ll find some tiny thing and misconstrue it. You almost have to be paranoid to ensure you’re not missing anything. She’s been at it a year and a half, with no end in sight 🙁 I’m so glad you finally got to make your little boy part of your family!

Leave a Reply