Since seeing her first musical—a snappy production of Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile—my three-year-old daughter has become obsessed with the scariest reptile on the planet. She has worn her crocodile costume (read: repurposed dinosaur suit) over her clothes every single day for three weeks, and I can’t figure out how to pry it from her claws long enough to wash it. She sits at the kitchen table for hours, crafting crocodile nests from play dough and lawn debris. Belly to earth, she waggles through the house in crocodile imitation. I am trying very hard to get her to stop greeting strangers by gnashing her teeth and yelling "SNAP!"
In the corner of the playroom, there is now a stack of crocodile-themed library books, and I am stuffed full of crocodile trivia. I now know that crocodiles consume insects during infanthood, and by adulthood, graduate to eating zebras. The largest crocodiles on record weigh nearly as much as my car (plug "world’s largest crocodile" into Google, and prepare to be amazed). Crocodiles can go for months without eating by burning the fat stored in their tails. And here’s another interesting fact I found in A Crocodile Grows Up: a female crocodile makes "a good mother."
Now what kind of value statement, I wonder, is that?
After all, we’re talking about a whole different species here. We’d have to climb the taxonomy tree past genus, family, order, and class to reach the larger limb of phylum where we’d find our common ground with a croc. As far as parenthood goes, I’d say the crocodile and I are playing pretty different ball games. A crocodile, for instance, will lay between 25 and 90 eggs in an eight-foot-high nest. Then she settles into a mud wallow, living off that tail fat, keeping a good eye on the eggs. When the babies are ready to hatch, they begin calling in their high chirping voices to their mothers, who hustle back to the nest, dig up the eggs, roll them into their zebra-killing jaws, and, with infinite delicacy, crack them open.
For a reptile, this is a lot of investment in seeing young reach adulthood; compare them with, say, the giant sea turtle, who takes more of a "lay 'em and leave 'em" approach. Reptiles typically invest little time but produce many eggs, laying odds that some will make it to maturity. Labeling the crocodile’s slightly more mammalian approach as "good mothering," well, that says something about humans. We’re quick to slap judgments on mothers, no matter the species.
I wasn’t even a parent yet when I started hearing value statements about what constitutes a "good mother." I remember one time when I’d shared my dream of having children and being able to stay home with them with an acquaintance, who swiftly warned me that I’d better be a working mom instead. If I didn’t work, she told me, then my children would never learn how and turn out lazy. Her message was clear: "Good mothers" work outside the home.
Once I actually had children, other people’s opinions just got louder, until they were buzzing constantly in my ears. There was the waiter who found my public breastfeeding so offensive that he walked away in the middle of my order. There was the friend who told us our two-year-old would be better behaved if we would spank her. Even family members, on occasion, have pushed me to change a rule my husband and I have agreed upon. And that doesn’t even touch upon the myriad judgments—both explicit and implicit—I hit on every day when I scroll through Facebook.
God forbid that you should make a parenting choice that is even slightly unconventional, such as my recent decision to keep my three-year-old home with me rather than sending her to preschool. I can’t take my daughter to the park anymore without someone raising an eyebrow when they discover her age and "truant" status. Even my pediatrician seems to disapprove. Once again, the message is clear: “Good mothers” send their children to preschool.
I feel like I’m constantly on the defense, quick to blurt my reasoning: I know what I’m doing; I used to teach preschool! She has plenty of social outlets! But beneath the defensiveness lurks a lingering fog of doubt: Am I doing it wrong? Am I a "good mother"?
Even in a vacuum, it’s difficult to make decisions for your kids, but the true challenge in this responsibility is maintaining faith in oneself when it seems like everywhere you go, someone’s holding up a scorecard. If I’m really honest with myself, though, I’m just as much a part of the problem as the people holding them, because I’m the one listening to the scores, craving affirmation. I get defensive at negative assessments while clinging to the good ones, patting myself on the back. On purpose, I seek out other people’s opinions; I want to hear people call me a "good mother."
In this New Year, I would like to find a way to transcend all that chatter, to find serenity and remain steadfast despite whatever I hear swirling around me. I want to stop seeking good judgments, doing things like fishing for compliments or clicking on articles that I know will affirm my particular parenting style. And I want to shrug off the bad ones quickly and without anger, just water off a reptile’s back.
As the year turns over, I find myself coming back to the crocodile. I don’t know whether she’s a "good mother" or not, but I’ll tell you this: I can’t imagine she cares what we humans whisper about her. Labels, good or bad, won’t stick to her skin. It doesn’t matter to her whether we boo or applaud. A crocodile in the literal trenches of motherhood strains instead to hear one thing: the chirping call of her children. It is their tiny voices to which she must listen and respond; everything else is just background.