One of the scariest transformations of early motherhood is the sudden, stark understanding of how vulnerable babies and young children are. Not just my kids. All kids. As I wrote this, waiting for my flight at 9 pm at the Los Angeles airport, a baby too young to lift his head cried on the dirty gate-area floor. His young father slouched in a plastic chair nearby, looking bored, as the baby burrowed his head into the stained carpet. Should I have done something? Like what, exactly? Fortunately Slacker Dad shook himself out of his daze and picked up the baby gently, cooed softly, changed his diaper and made the baby giggle, suddenly transforming into Father of the Year.
Which bring us to Nadya Suleman. One reason the Octomom story has captured national media is that we feel for her babies, all 14 of them. They did not ask to be born to a fertility-crazed, emotionally troubled, impoverished single mother. Almost all of us who have followed the story feel some maternal tenderness for the children and the lives ahead of them. The latest media tidbit are several 9-1-1 calls  from the Suleman home to the police. In one recording Suleman repeatedly threatens to kill herself, and you can hear her children in the background. It is painfully obvious that even with only six children at home, the family exists in a state of chaos and hysteria.
But what do we do? Donate money to the Suleman family? ABC News reports 90% of Americans polled said no thank you. Do we offer to adopt the children? (I personally have reached my limit with three of my own; I’m not sure how much more stability I could offer vs. Suleman.) Do we call Child Protective Services? Disparage Suleman and her choices? Expect the hospital to care for the eight new babies indefinitely, supported by California taxpayers? Do we look away from the glossy magazines and TMZ reports, and return to our lives?
One of the truly great American cultural values is our deification of motherhood. Along with baseball and apple pie, mothers are worshipped – and burdened – with high expectations. Seeing another mom berate her toddler at the supermarket brings me to tears of fury; my reaction to Suleman runs to disgust. But I have to admit – sometimes I have been that apparently unbalanced mom others stare at as well.
If we are going to judge other moms’ abilities to care for their children, we have to confront two unpleasant realities. First: we have an obligation to help the moms do better. At the very least we need to protect their babies. We cannot just look away if we think abuse or neglect is occurring.
But it’s not easy to help someone who doesn’t want help. Ever try to intervene between that angry mom and tearful child in a public supermarket? The best you can do is diffusing the mother’s anger temporarily; then you wonder what’s going to happen once they’ve left the store. Additionally, our country’s laws strongly favor custodial parents unless there is undeniable proof of damage. A few years ago, I was sufficiently concerned about a young child in my life that I couldn’t sleep at night, and cried randomly out of fear for her well-being. I consulted a lawyer experienced in removing children from a parent’s custody. What he told me was terrible but true. “We all see children being treated in ways we think are wrong. I don’t like how Michael Jackson raises his kids. But unless you can prove a child is being physically harmed, there is absolutely nothing you can do. ”
The second dicey reality is that judgments are not one-way streets; if we condemn other moms, we all open our mothering skills to public scrutiny. And that is a Pandora’s Box I do not want to unlock.
I shudder to think of moms with different values judging me. Without blinking, I can conjure dozens of practices I am perfectly comfortable with that others might consider grievous failures. My kids watch lots of t.v. They eat frozen fish sticks, French fries and tater tots at least twice a week. They see naked parts of me fairly regularly. They’ve never set foot in a religious establishment; my six year old recently asked me what a church was for. I yell way too much, pretty much every day. I could go on, but it’s time to take the Fifth here, because I’d like to stay my children’s primary caregiver.
My point: be careful when you judge Nadya Suleman. She’s no perfect mom, but none of us is. Child Protective Services plays a productive, invaluable role in our society when children are in danger. But random, widespread societal judgments of one particular mother can boomerang back onto mothers everywhere.