Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
On Judgy Moms and Plugged-in Kids

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Dear Marjo,

What in the ever-loving hell is wrong with people? A few days ago I dropped off my kids at school, as usual, and stopped for coffee on my way home. There in the coffee shop I saw a woman with two toddlers, both of whom were staring at iPads, while she was staring out the window. She was obviously tired, but I could tell that it wasn't a new experience for those kids. They were tapping and swiping away while their mother daydreamed, and it wasn't until one of them spilled something that she paid any attention.

I know this sounds terrible, and I'm not usually so harsh. But this really bugs me. I have made my share of mistakes, but shoving a screen in my baby's face isn't one of them. I thought about saying something, but I didn't want to come across like a busybody. Then I thought about offering to entertain the kids while she drank her coffee. But that seemed creepy. So I settled for looking pointedly at her—though she never did look my way.

I'm sure it won't be the last time I see her and her kids, or at least someone else doing the same thing. So for next time, what should I do?




Dear Unplugged,

The answer to your question is easy: Nothing. Believe me, I know it's tough. If your kids are in school and hers are not, you're probably a more experienced mom. You know what you're talking about, and she'd be crazy not to listen to you. In this case, you know what it's like to be exhausted, and how hard it is to find a way to keep the kids occupied while you get your footing back. Maybe you know what to do, or maybe you don't, but your ideas are almost certainly better than using screens. And the kids might be better off if you share your experiences with her.

I'm in a similar position. Now that my kid is in high school, I wear my mommy diploma proudly, and I'm only too happy to share my hard-won knowledge with younger moms. In fact, I just did, when I told a newly pregnant and morning-sick friend all about the miracles of ginger tea. I ignored her fake smile and plowed on about dehydration and electrolytes before she touched her mouth, shook her head, and backed into her office with a firm shut of the door. The worst part? I didn't stop. I marched out and bought my favorite ginger tea, tied a ribbon around it, and left it in her mailbox. Isn't she lucky to have a Mom Mentor like me?

Like you, I am guilty of wanting to give unsolicited advice, and I'm surprised at myself. When I had a baby, I heard no end of comments about sunscreen and breast-feeding and cosleeping and potty training and on and on. At best, the advice was well meaning, and at worst, it was judgmental and heavy-handed. But now I'm on the other side of the mommy trenches, and I'm shaking my finger right and left. Isn't it strange how determined we are now to give exactly what we didn't wish to receive only a few short years ago? Have we really forgotten what it's like to feel exhausted, unsure, and judged at every turn?

Here's the tricky part: Unsolicited advice is usually the exasperating crap that we think it is. For example, should babies have painted fingernails? You might have an opinion about that, but it's easy to bite your tongue and think, "Each to his own." Sometimes it's not nitpicky crap. Sometimes it's a warning of danger. For example, if you see kids left alone and trapped in a hot car, call 911 and damn the torpedoes. Between those two extremes, though, are a thousand other debates about things that are more important than painted fingernails and less dangerous than hot cars. Like screens.

I admit, I share your bewilderment about screens. Smartphones and tablets weren't around when my son was little, so it's jarring to see an iPad attached to a bouncy seat, or a mom reading an e-book to a toddler. I have opinions about it, and sometimes I worry for the health of the next generation. On the other hand, I clearly remember the day I realized that Dora the Explorer was an excellent babysitter, and—bonus!—my son would learn some Spanish! Of course she wasn't and he didn't, but the world didn't come crashing down. He was entertained and I had a chance to stare into a cup of tea and zone out. The couple of people who lectured me about it got the "fuck you" stare. And that's probably what you would get if you said or did anything to the mom in the coffee shop—and rightly so.

We are all guilty of judgmental mothering. Maybe we should try compassionate mothering instead. Perhaps you could offer to buy the coffee-shop mom another drink, or simply offer a sympathetic smile. In my case, my friend at work probably would have appreciated a hug and a simple, "It gets better." Looking back at my own early motherhood, I can see so many times when I needed a figurative squeeze on the shoulder instead of a slap on the face. Maybe you can do this, too. So let's pinky swear, you and I: Less judgment and more compassion. Less advice and more support. The simple fact that you have survived early motherhood intact and—hey!—can go to a coffee shop alone is enough to make that mom feel more hopeful, push the coffee aside, and pull the plug.



Do you have a question about the joys, complexities, or challenges of being a mother? Email askmarjo AT and I'll do my best to answer it. Please do not bend, fold, mutilate, or otherwise contort this column into anything it's not meant to be: friendly advice from one mom to another. My opinions and thoughts, no matter how heartfelt, are not a substitute for professional counseling or medical care.

Marjorie Osterhout is a writer, editor, and storyteller. Her essays and articles have appeared in anthologies like It’s A Boy (Seal Press) and magazines including Parents, Parenting, and ePregnancy. She also spent a whirlwind three years travel writing for Disney. She is a former managing editor, columns editor, and columnist (“Dear Marjo”) for Literary Mama.

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I appreciate both sides of this topic. It rankles me too when I see moms using screens to entertain their kids (though I admit to doing it myself in a pinch). But I have grown so tired of what seems like open season on ridiculing parents. It happens to me so often with my kids (4 & 6 years old) that I even gave it a name, "drive-by parenting." So I'm with Marjo on this one. More compassion, less judgment! p.s. I have just entered into the world of coffee shops without kids in tow, and I can attest it is INCREDIBLE. Hang in there, mamas. It gets so much better.
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