Every mother has experienced it. You’re minding your own business, trying to read your grocery list off your phone with one hand, pushing your cart full of preschoolers and produce with the other, when it happens. A kindly grandmother-type looks you up and down, takes a step toward you, and immediately you bristle, knowing what’s coming. No matter how sweetly she offers you that uninvited piece of advice, you feel defensive and annoyed.
“Treasure every second of this time, because it goes by so fast.”
“I think your little baby needs some socks for those cold little toes!”
“He’s a big boy now! He doesn’t need that pacifier anymore!”
This generation of mothers takes our parenting very seriously. We read books and blogs about it. We do research, adopt philosophies, and make decisions long before our babies are even in our arms. We take classes and form online groups of like-minded others. (Crunchy Mamas who Enjoy Volleyball? There’s a group for that.) The second we encounter any obstacle or difficulty in our parenting journey, we are online seeking advice in how to solve it, often before we’ve even had the chance to discuss it with our partners or spouses. We have opinions, certainly. So when a real human being in our actual physical lives dares to offer even the gentlest piece of advice, it can feel like an affront to our game.
“Um, I’ve got this, thank you very much! I know my child better than anyone, and I’m the mom so I make the decisions.”
Look, those thoughts are not wrong. You are the mom. You do know your child better than anyone. And yes, you’ve got this. But is it possible that our defensive feelings are not the result of an offensive intent? Could it be that what these “Grocery Store Grandmas” are offering us is not advice or judgement, but connection and camaraderie? We may feel strongly about our parenting decisions (we should!), and unsolicited advice can be annoying (for sure!), but I believe if we shift our perspective a bit, we may discover an untapped depth of relationship and community that is often lacking in this day and age.
When you hear the phrase, “It takes a village to raise a child,” does it bring to mind thoughts about how nice it would be to have dozens of babysitters at the ready? Physical support is certainly part of it, but that village can be extravagantly more meaningful and complex than just a supply of babysitters. We need diversity of thought, ages, opinions, perspectives. If we shut out every person who doesn’t share our views precisely, we will be decisively alone, with no village to speak of. Being surrounded by a diverse community of people, whether strangers or family, and being open to their ideas can provide a structure and security to your life.
We mamas need to be part of a village, a tribe; community is fundamental to the human experience.
We need old grandmas and gossipy aunts and chatty grocery store clerks and tantrumming toddlers and intrusive in-laws.
We need wisdom and ideas from those that have gone before us.
We need to know that we are not alone, not invisible, not isolated.
We need support to fall back on when we’re hurting, or struggling, or overwhelmed.
And you know, I think they need us, too.
When someone offers you a piece of advice, instead of responding (even internally) with defensiveness and disdain, try to see the intentions behind it. In all probability, Grocery Store Gertrude just wants to be helpful. Maybe she remembers feeling very alone when she was in your shoes, and taking the time to chat with you is her way of letting you know that you aren’t invisible. Aunt Sue is just trying to connect with you. She knows your job right now is immense and intense, and she grasps for words that might offer you a little something to ease your struggles. Your mother-in-law doesn’t remember every single detail of her own time with young children, and certainly lots has changed since then, but she wants to share in your experience and offer you her wisdom. You don’t have to agree with it, but you can choose to accept it graciously.
Of course, you and your partner are the ultimate decision-makers in the life of your children, so you absolutely do not have to take every piece of advice that every onlooker offers. Heavens, no. But you can smile and say thank you. Find the right balance of politeness and assertiveness. (Countless relationships have been saved by honing this very skill!) Ask about what things were like when she had young children. Make a joke. Laugh. Share a little bit of yourself. Believe that her intent was to make a connection with you, and find a way to reciprocate.
I firmly believe that our rugged individualism can be balanced by the beauty and powerful support of community. We can have both opinions and open minds. Let the Grocery Store Grandmas be part of your village. Connect with your unsolicited advice-giver, and I suspect you will find you have an ally, not a judge.