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 a.m. 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 $20 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, they would 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.
This 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 doesn’t weigh the bunch of bananas at the grocery store before letting my older son devour one? Would I be the type that doesn’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 were 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, at times, make me so wary 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.
This 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?