I was on my way to Target a few weeks ago when I noticed an odd bumper sticker on the car in front of me. It kind of looked like a face, with two large circular eyes and a small dot mouth or nose. Before I could really contemplate its significance (or read the small print below the image), the light changed, and the car turned left while I continued through the intersection. I was still thinking about it five minutes later when I pulled into a spot at Target and pulled Felicity from her car seat. Once she was settled in her stroller, we started walking towards the entrance, and I was surprised to see the same car parked just a few spots up from my own. Assuming that the owner had already headed inside, I paused to read the words printed below the image that I still assumed was a face. That’s when I realized that the face wasn’t a face at all, but was meant to recall bumper stickers for half-marathon and marathon runners (0.0), except this one mocked runners using very inappropriate language. I was shocked.
I was even more shocked when I realized that the car wasn’t empty after all. I looked away from the bumper sticker and found the car’s owner glaring at me. I quickly moved towards the store entrance, afraid of what the woman might say to me. Fortunately for everyone involved, we never crossed paths again, but that bumper sticker stuck with me. I never wanted to become so angry. I never wanted to be so ashamed that I felt the need to tear down other people. I never wanted to be so judgmental regarding the decisions that other people make. And I never wanted to just assume that I was being judged when I probably wasn’t.
I am sure that we have all felt judged at some point in our lives. In fact, I’m sure that we’ve all been judged at least once in our lives for the decisions that we’ve made. We’ve all been judged, we’ve all felt judged, and we’ve probably all judged another person as well. It’s a regular temptation, especially as mothers. We want to believe that we are doing what is right for our children, and it’s easier to assume that if we’re doing what’s right, then women who choose differently must be wrong. It’s harder to believe that we might both be right. It’s harder to accept that motherhood might be more complicated than ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’
Don’t get me wrong- of course there’s objective ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in parenting. It’s wrong to shake your baby. It’s right to feed your baby. It’s wrong to habitually drive your baby around without a car seat. It’s right to provide your baby with clean diapers and clothing. It’s wrong to hurt your baby. It’s right to love your baby. But is it wrong to feed your baby formula? Is it wrong to co-sleep? Is it wrong to skip purees when introducing solids to your baby? We might be tempted to believe that our choices are right, while everyone else’s are wrong, but it’s not always so simple. What’s right for me might be wrong for you, and vice versa. What didn’t work for my baby might work perfectly for yours. Motherhood is complicated.
Life is complicated. As I contemplated that sad, angry bumper sticker, I realized that we would all be so much happier if we weren’t constantly comparing ourselves to other people. Why should that woman hate runners so much? Do we all need to be runners? Do we all need to eat gluten-free or dairy-free? Do we all need to exclusively buy organic products? Do we all need eat salads? French fries? Kale? Chocolate cake? Quinoa? You love to run marathons? Good for you; I ran a 5k once. You’ve chosen to eat gluten-free? Good for you; now can you pass the pretzels? You hate salads? That’s fine, but I’m still ordering my favorite salad at Panera. I don’t like French fries or kale, but I do love chocolate cake and quinoa. I’m a woman of varied tastes.
None of these decisions are strictly moral. Being a runner doesn’t naturally make you a better person. You can’t run into heaven. Choosing a salad over a hamburger doesn’t bring you closer to sainthood. Neither does breastfeeding, co-sleeping, or baby-led weaning your baby. One choice might personally be better, but we can’t make blanket statements. Running makes me happy; it’s a form of stress-release. Running makes me a better wife, mother, and person. It makes me better, but that can’t be said for everyone. Formula-feeding made me a better mother, but that can’t be said for everyone either. We can’t make blanket statements regarding these decisions without wrongly passing judgment. In these cases, I have chosen not to judge, and I have chosen not to see judgment where none has been passed. I will do what’s right for me, and you do what’s right for you. In cases like these, our ‘rights’ might not be the same, and we’re both right.
But don’t get me wrong. I am not an absolute relativist. I just don’t think that eating a salad is necessarily better than eating a sandwich. Eating quinoa is not better than eating wheat. Breastfeeding is not the best option for every mother. Avoiding gluten won’t get me into heaven. Formula-feeding will not condemn me to hell. But there are plenty of choices that will impact our salvation, that are innately moral. Murder is always immoral. Rape is always immoral. Fornication and adultery are always immoral. Sodomy is always immoral. Theft is always immoral. Envy is always immoral. Blasphemy and apostasy are always immoral. These are sins. Eating a hamburger is not a sin. Eating a salad is not a sin. Co-sleeping safely is not a sin. Formula-feeding is not a sin. So if you’re not sinning, who am I to judge your actions? You walk; I’ll run. You breastfeed; I’ll bottle-feed. You eat your salad; I’ll eat my burger. But I might get a salad tomorrow. I might walk tomorrow. As St. John Bosco tells us, “Enjoy yourself as much as you like- if only you keep from sin.”
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!