I remember the first time I read a passive-aggressive parenting blog post.
The author was decrying the stranger at the bank who'd asked her how far along she was in her pregnancy. After venting her considerable indignation in stylistic prose, she concluded with the decidedly forceful admonition to "F*ck off. My pregnancy is none of your f*cking business.”
Oh, shame, I think. You aren’t supposed to ask that? I have – numerous times. Suddenly I fear that I am the very stranger at the bank in question.
Chagrined by my apparent lack of social awareness, I begin devouring a flood of similar blog posts in an effort to educate myself in the art of not offending anyone. I read each essay determinedly, striving to absorb all the things I should not say to parents and their children. I subscribe to several online parenting publications and read diligently, taking detailed mental notes.
The list of what not to say to parents, it turns out, is rather formidable:
Don’t ask me when I’m due. (It's none of your business.)
Don’t ask me if I want kids. (We’ve been trying for eight years.)
Don’t ask me if I plan to have more kids. (We can’t/don’t want to/my husband is dead.)
Don’t tell me to enjoy these years because they go fast. (You minimize my current frustrations!)
Don’t tell me my daughter looks like me. (She’s adopted.)
Don’t offer my son a toy truck. (It's gender stereotyping.)
Don’t smile and tell me my baby bump is cute. (It's body-shaming.)
Don’t ask me how breastfeeding is going. (It shames bottle-feeding.)
The list stretches on and on, quickly attaining Titanic proportions. If I learn enough, I reason, I can keep myself from inadvertently crashing on the rocks of offensive and sinking into the dreaded waters of shaming.
I don’t want to be a bad person. I just want to talk to the other moms at the park.
The more I read about what appears to qualify as body-shaming, pregnancy-shaming, birth-shaming, and all-around parenting-shaming, though, the greater my own shame grows.
I have said many of these apparently offensive things! Why, just the other day at the local park, I’d asked a fellow pregnant mom when she was due. She’d seemed eager enough to compare pregnancy dates but, suddenly, I’m not so sure. Had she gone home, tucked her toddler into bed, and sat down to write an angry article addressed, “To The Nosy Mom Who Asked Me About My Pregnancy?"
I’ve always thought rudeness was limited to just the obvious things. Meanness, impatience, insults, judging. Obviously, avoid those ones. What baffles me is that well-meaning questions and comments are now apparently blacklisted, too. The internet seems spattered with the angry gore of offending and being offended.
I stop talking to moms at the park. It’s a sad side-effect of not offending anyone, the lack of conversation. The moms I meet also seem edgy, tense. Perhaps they’ve been reading parenting blogs, too. One day, after sitting in silence beside another mom for half an hour, it occurs to me how isolated I feel, avoiding conversation by day and devouring blogs by night. I turn to the woman next to me. She’s also pregnant and here with a toddler.
“Do you know if you’re having a boy or a girl?” I ask, tentatively.
“Yes!” she blurts, “A girl! How about you?”
We spend the next hour in relieved, animated conversation, discussing due dates, birth plans, and pregnancy cravings. Before we leave, we exchange phone numbers.
Once home, I decide to rethink my commitment to the art of not offending anyone. Connecting with a real human being is exhilarating. It's also a bit scary. At some point in our relationship, I’m likely to offend her, and she’ll probably offend me. I decide it’s worth the risk. Hopefully we’ll be able to disagree in person and not resort to blogging about each other’s wrongdoings.
I’m bored with passive-aggressive articles, anyway. Over time, I’ve noticed a pattern – they all condense into a basic formula. Like beer, tailgates, and tan lines in a country song, they contain predictable elements.
Basic formula for a passive-aggressive article:
To the (body-shamer/bottle-shamer/etc-shamer/ nosy person/stranger) who (gave me advice/ asked me x/told me x) ... f*ck off.
Passive-aggressive articles are fun to write. They publish well, give one a nice sense of authority, and fan the embers of resentment in a warmly satisfying way. I know – I’ve even written one.
But is it possible that we are taking this too far? Internet-delivered disagreement has replaced face-to-face disagreement. Maybe that’s why we’re so lonely. We smile sweetly at each other and then go home and write a scathing blog post.
Is it because we're a society becoming less and less comfortable with human interaction? Social media has become our preferred form of confrontation. We just don’t have the guts to disagree in person, and now we don’t need to. The whole wearisome coven of offense-taking and -giving has left the human world and is now unleashed in the realms of the internet, flapping about drearily in the sky of the world wide web, draping itself ominously across parenting websites and blogs.
Or, is it that we are just bored and looking to be scandalized, hunting for a morsel of offense in the sterilized wasteland of a polite, white-collar society? If we perceive no real threats to our food, water, or shelter, we can devote ourselves fully to the aggressive care and keeping of our increasingly-fragile psyche.
Perhaps it’s a combination of the two.
But let’s ask ourselves – how much psychological damage can a stranger’s well-meaning comment afflict upon us, really? Insults and judgments, yes – those are damaging and decidedly inappropriate. Always.
But is someone asking me if I plan to have more kids really going to ruin my day? I don’t owe them the truth, or even an answer. And – breaking this gently – they really don’t care. Likely, they're asking me to be polite, or to pass the time. We’re a fairly selfish lot – most of our conversation is really about us, anyway. The elderly lady asking me about my pregnancy is just using it as a springboard to breach the topic of her grandchildren.
I – like you – have been irritated by well-meaning strangers. The man at Costco who suggests I do kegels, the old woman at the park who declares my baby needs a hat, the friend who tells me childbirth will be painless if I just breathe right. Authenticity offers me two choices in these moments: brush it off (truly and completely) or disagree. In person. In the moment. Not two weeks later in an online news publication.
So, yes, you can ask me that. Yes, you can ask me if I want more kids. Talk to me – acknowledge my humanity, and your own. I'll smile and answer honestly if I want to. Or I won’t.
You can look at my newborn and compliment me on my sweet little girl. He’s a boy, actually, but how important is it to me that I convey this to you? Your intentions are good, your compliment is received, and you’re only trying to be nice.
Just a human, connecting in person with another human. Being vulnerable or naive or good-naturedly stupid. Flinging a lifeline of human connection over the chasm of an increasingly-distant society.
I’ll hold on if you will.