On 'Bad' Mothers

07/06/2016 10:33 | Updated 07 June 2016

Before having children, nobody warned me about the crazy strangers offering unsolicited advice about your own children. I have now heard of and experienced much of this madness with all my children, my first experience while standing at a bus stand on Tottenham Court Road a few years ago.  A woman came up to me and offered me her shawl saying, "Your baby looks cold." I replied, "She is fine, thank you." After she insisted several more times, I invited her to use her own scarf since apparently she felt cold.  Another time a man looked at my child sitting in a sling I wore and he said, "Does that thing hurt your baby?" I explained that he was comfortable.  He insisted that he looked uncomfortable (my child was asleep) adding, "Can he breath?" Wanting to end this exchange I responded, "No, he is suffocating." A friend told me of a complete stranger who started screaming at her in a car lot while she considered buying a used car for her family, claiming that she was risking her children's lives.  These are just a few of the stories that parents--especially mothers--experience.

After a rather nasty person aggressed me with yet more unsolicited advice about my child, I came across Wendy Molyneux' "Hello Stranger on the Street, Could You Please Tell Me How to Take Care of My Baby?" which not only gave me some solace, but also made me laugh out loud:

First of all, should he be sleeping, ever? If so, should it be at night? Should I keep him in a bassinet or crib or should I let him just sleep in the yard, or the toaster? And when he sleeps, should I just let him sleep as long as he wants, or should I wake him up every fifteen minutes or so for a "baby party" where I give him hard candies and play loud music? Being a new parent is confusing, and there aren't any books or internets about it, that's why I have to rely on kind strangers like you.

The irony of our experiences as mothers is paradoxical of course. On the one hand it is still assumed in society that we are biologically programmed to know everything from from how to raise children, wear stilettos, and have an innate appreciation of Hello Kitty. On the other hand, once a baby is produced, our "female points" mystically drop back down to zero. And suddenly we are assumed to be in need of help by complete strangers who willingly pop into our lives to raise our children, irrespective of our own knowledge.  Should we have any, of course.

This past week we witnessed the story of a mother, Michelle Gregg, who "let" her three-year-old son enter into the cage of Harambe the gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo and the parents of the seven-year-old boy who was left on a mountain road in Hokkaido, Japan, as a punishment for throwing stones at passing cars by his father, Takayuki  Tanooka.  The interesting thing about these two cases is how differently the media and the public treated Gregg in Cincinnati and the father in Japan.

The fury directed at Gregg in Cincinnati focussed on an eventuality that has happened to all parents, namely that of losing track of your child for a split second.  Anyone who has children--especially a three-year-old--immediately understands that what this mother needed was not the condemnation of people whose closest proximity to children is Modern Family, but empathy.  Instead, some rather mean-spirited people have pit this woman's life against that of the sadly deceased Harambe in a nonsensical petition, "Justice for Harambe," which is a racist attack on the Gregg, a black women, flimsily attempting to link the boy's having entered into the gorilla enclosure to neglect at home: "We believe that this negligence may be reflective of the child's home situation."  Such surveillance of black mothers in the US is not uncommon and Dorothy Roberts notes that the racial imbalance of black parents being reported to social services has resulted that "one in ten children in Central Harlem is in foster care, a rate of child removal experienced by few other poor communities."  The petition, after having been called out for its racism, has since been redacted, its author now sharply back-peddling and denying that she did not want to break up the child (despite having addressed the petition to Child Protection Services). Eyewitness accounts repeatedly back up Gregg's story that she was vigilant over the child, that the young boy had said he was going to go into the gorilla's habitat to which she repeatedly said, "No, you're not, no, you're not." Yet, Michelle Gregg, the boy's mother is exclusively vilified in both mass and social media. Little is said about his father, Deonne Dickerson. Of course.

Conversely, Tanooka, whose parenting skills would make any child long for military school, received media coverage which was far less judgmental than the avalanche bestowed upon Gregg.  Even Guardian columnist,  Deborah Orr, was quite forgiving of Tanooka and notes the social shame that parents feel for not being in control of their children, essentially orientalising  parental shame in Japan as somehow different: "social shame has the name sekentei and is a very big deal, that pressure probably feels much greater."  Any mother outside Japan knows that Orr's statement is complete bunk.  The social pressure to parent is especially felt by women around the world who are microscopically held to impossible levels of excellence, always wrong for being too this or not enough that.

Tanooka, having made a media apology and admitted having gone "too far" with a punishment, will now face no investigation.  Michelle Gregg was not so fortunate and not only faced a police investigation but was also subjected to racist taunts and aspersions of her parenting to include a bizarre video by Anonymous.  Two very similar situations: one in which a child escaped his parents and dashed off into an animal enclosure and another in which a father exercises a cruel punishment causing his son to be lost for six days in the wilderness.  The female parent is critiqued, while the male parent is sent home with his family intact.

Plus ça change.