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Sanctimommies have made me afraid of asking a mom a simple question

Katherine Clover is a painter, writer, activist, queer, sometimes interfaith lay preacher, always animal lover and full-time mama. She lives in beautiful Detroit, Michigan, with her wife, their baby, and three cats. Her favorite food is ...

I may never ask another mom a question about her kids again

It all started when another mother, with a child only two weeks older than my own, said very matter-of-factly, “Well, we actually have only given her two baths since she was born.” I simply nodded along (oh, yeah, your 1-year-old has had only two baths in her entire life — no wonder she’s nervous about going in the water!).

It was only afterward, when I started thinking about it, that I had questions. Was this some new parenting trend I hadn’t yet heard of? I’d heard of delaying the first bath, but was there some reason that some parents might avoid bathing as much as possible for the entire first year?

I Googled my little heart out. I found nothing.

Perplexed, I asked a few other parents. They weren’t totally sure either, though a couple said their kids just didn’t have many baths early in life because it wasn’t necessary (which caused me to have a minor existential crisis, staring down the possibility that some babies might not put as much peanut butter as possible directly into their own hair). As we tried to puzzle out the various reasons it might be, someone rather innocently asked what the actual mother had said about it. It made sense; go back to the source — right.

“Oh, I didn’t ask her.”

And that got me thinking. I was just curious; I don’t actually care how often anyone bathes their children, provided they don’t cross the line into abuse or neglect (and this child looked fine; clean enough, happy, nothing to be concerned about). And yet, I still didn’t feel like I could ask this mom. I still didn’t feel I was allowed to say, “Oh... Huh... That’s interesting. Why?”

Why in the world would such an innocent question feel taboo?

I think the answer lies in our experiences as parents, specifically our experience of being constantly judged, constantly given unsolicited advice and constantly shamed for doing it “wrong.” The fact is, even though our bath-time routines might be different, I practically am that mom. Our kids are exactly the same age, and as such, we are going through a lot of the same bullshit right now, both with the exciting developmental stages toddlerhood offers and the reactions we get — from other people — to our parenting. And other people, parents and non-parents alike, are constantly reacting. I know firsthand what it feels like to be judged just because I broke down and got disposable diapers or because I did baby-led weaning or because I’m still breastfeeding... or whatever.

Because I’ve gone through all of that, I also know that simple, “innocent” questions are often anything but. “Oh, why did you choose to do it that way?” might look just fine in text, but most of the time, when you have it said to you as a parent, it definitely does not sound fine. It sounds like an accusation, and it sounds that way because it is. The person is trying to be polite, but really they’re asking you to defend your parenting choices because they think your choices need defending.

Depending on who the asker is and how close they are to you, what may seem like an innocent question to the uninitiated can quickly turn into either a lengthy lecture or a passive-aggressive jab (“Bill and I just didn’t feel we needed to do all of that”). Ditto for “oh, that’s interesting.” Sure, "interesting" can be good, but imagine the word “interesting” the way your great-aunt says it because she’s been taught that it’s rude to say “that’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard!”

I empathize with that mother. If she has an extended family that’s fairly mainstream in parenting practices, she’s probably already gotten an earful about how often her child ought to be bathed. She’s probably, like me, dealt with enough backlash for her various parenting decisions. Her hackles are probably up. I mean, of course her hackles are up!

So I didn’t ask. I do not ask. I do not ask other mothers questions about their parenting. Unless I know for a fact that I can be super clear that I am enthusiastically only asking for more information because I support them, as in, “Wow, you cook everything from scratch? Can I have your homemade graham cracker recipe?” I keep my mouth shut.

Because however curious I might be, I don’t want to ever become part of the endless noise of judgment. Mothers, you see, we are up against enough of that, and I’m scared of adding to it. So I’m going to keep right on not asking those questions.

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