Why I Won't Write Another What-Not-To-Say List

by Christine Organ
Originally Published: 

A couple months ago I wrote a post about what not to say to a mom of boys. I tried to be witty and funny, insightful and informative, with just the right amount of snark.

Just think of all those cases of foot-in-mouth I’m preventing, I told myself as I wrote it. Someone has to put these people in their place, I justified. The post might as well be an NBC “the more you know” commercial, I hoped.

In order to write it, I drew on my own experiences. I vented and complained. I chewed on every slightly annoying comment I had ever heard until they had turned into a bitter pulp of offensiveness. And then when I ran out of my own reserves of acrimony, I turned to friends for theirs.

Certain that I was onto something, that I had the next viral post in my back pocket, I looked for any gender-specific comments that were in any way uncouth, naïve, judgmental, or pugnacious.

And I made myself miserable in the process.

For several days, I harrumphed from my high horse about all of the inconsiderate or just plain stupid things I had heard as a parent, and more specifically, as a mom to boys. And what’s more, I had been looking for annoying and offensive where there may have only been naïve gaffes — for quite some time.

The what-not-to-say lists are everywhere these days. What non-parents shouldn’t say to parents. What parents shouldn’t say to non-parents. What not to say to new moms. What not to say to stay-at-home parents. What not to say to working parents. What not to say to parents with one child. What not to say to parents of many children.

It’s no wonder why these lists have become so popular and pervasive. They are fun and funny, dripping with just the right amount of comeuppance. And they are relatable. I mean, what parent – what person, really – hasn’t had something stupid or insensitive or offensive said to them? People say stupid things all the time. I know I’ve made more than my share of stupid remarks. In fact, I’ve nearly knocked my teeth out with the number of times I’ve put my foot in my mouth. But here’s the thing: none of the stupid or naïve comments I made ever carried ill-will or malice. Yes, they may have been rash and unwise, but they were not mean-spirited or cruel. And therein lies the difference.

In some cases, this trend toward what-not-to-say is incredibly helpful, particularly in those situations where society needs a healthy dose of awareness and acceptance. But I can’t help but wonder if this trend has moved so far in the what-not-to-say direction that we’re all left feeling a little scared, confused, and uncomfortable. And what’s more, we’ve become so sensitized, so acutely aware of society’s susceptibility to offend that we have started to actually look for the aggressive, offensive, annoying, and obtuse. We assume bad intentions and hostility, where there might only be naiveté, lack of awareness, or feeble attempts to make conversation.

But at some point, we need to just chill the fuck out. At some point, we need to give each other the benefit of the doubt. At some point, we need to consider the possibility that someone might not have read each of the gazillion what-not-to-say lists.

As parents, we are inundated with information – parenting websites, blogs, and the media all create platforms for people to share their opinions and their experiences in order to increase awareness. But these things also make it easier for people to get on their digital soapboxes to whine and vent and look for cruelty where there may be none. The wealth of information available to parents provides much-needed support and camaraderie; it increases awareness, exposes us to different opinions, and has the power to change lives. Yet the constant barrage of information can also exacerbate insecurities and make it easier to publicly shame and ridicule, even if it is done in the abstract.

I second-guess myself as a parent on a daily basis. I often feel like I have no idea what I’m doing and that I am completely ill-equipped for this job. Parenting is hard, dirty work and sometimes it kind of sucks. And believe me, I am no stranger to unsolicited (and just plain dumb) advice.

I am all for truth-telling, awareness, and having the hard conversations, but I wonder if I – if we – have conditioned ourselves to see everything as an us-versus-them or me-versus-you attack; if we haven’t gotten so used to the prevalence of competitive parenting that we see everyone as a potential competitor and fail to realize that we’re all on the same team.

We are, aren’t we? We’re doing the best we can with the tools we have. We’re trying to be the best parents we can be. We’re trying to be the best people we can be.

Sure, there are assholes out there. There are people who say and do really offensive and mean things, but for the most part, I believe that people are good and kind in spite of (or maybe even because of ) our inherent imperfections and occasional cases of foot-in-mouth.

Maybe we would all be a little more comfortable as parents – as people – if we chilled the fuck out a little, assumed good intentions, and carried on. Maybe there are times when we might be the teensiest bit overly sensitive. Maybe not every comment carries malice. Maybe some things aren’t necessarily a personal attack or a cruel injustice. And maybe – just maybe – we could save our energy and our spitfire for the real injustices out there. Maybe we could use our energy to build each other up, instead of criticizing each other down every chance we get. Maybe we should focus more on what we can say, instead of what we shouldn’t say. Things like you’re doing a good job or how can I help? or I know it’s hard.

So just what was on my what-not-to-say list?

Well, you’ll have to look somewhere else to find out. You won’t read that list written by me. At least not today.

Though I can’t say I’ll look away the next time a “what not to say to…” headline runs through my Facebook newsfeed or graces the front page of a popular parenting website. Because, really, those lists are freaking, spot-on hilarious.

Related post: What a Mom to Boys Really Wants to Hear

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