Yes, I noticed your passive-aggressive jab, perfect stranger

By Gretchen

The zoo is the Roman Coliseum of mothering, where strollers are skillfully jockeyed for prime penguin viewing spots and picnic lunches are compared.

We go a lot. A family membership pays for itself in one visit when you have seven children, so I think of our local zoo as an elaborate park. There are beautiful gardens, towering trees, and sleeping lions. They never wake up, do they? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a conscious lion in my life.

I usually take pictures when we are at the zoo. Sometimes, as I snap away at the sleeping polar bear or the sleeping grizzly or the sleeping rhino or the sleeping duck, I wonder to myself if I really need to clog our hard drive with more photos of dreaming animals. I feel better about it when my children are in the photos. Even then, I get a little tired of being on Perfect Moment Patrol. I’ll put the camera away and enjoy the view with my own eyes.

I was in that place as we strolled around the zoo a few days ago. My camera was packed in its bag and I resolved to keep it there.

We were on our way out when we passed the elephant habitat, Sam’s favorite. We stopped for a minute to watch one of the elephants play with a barrel. There’s always a crowd when an animal is awake, so we were close to many other families. Sam asked if I could take his picture in front of the elephant.

I said no, not today. I was thinking of the dozen photos I have of Sam standing in front of elephants. I was thinking of disrupting a sleeping Archie in the stroller. The camera bag was wedged in the basket directly below. Sam was okay with my decision. He didn’t whine, cry, or in any way protest.

The woman next to us heard. I know she heard.

She took off her backpack and spoke crisply to two little boys, “Turn around. Move together. I am going to take your picture. It’s very special to be in front of an elephant, and daddy is not here to see you. I’m sure he’d like to see what you did today and how much fun you are having!” Then she dug into her bag and took out a camera. Snap and snip.

I tried hard to not to snort a little at this snide disapproval from a complete stranger. Women understand these subtle spoken jabs because we’ve spent our entire lives negotiating this weird competition thing we like to perpetuate. Words are weapons.

I’ll be honest. In the past, I may have commented about my brilliance in remembering a hat on a sharply sunny day. Jabbity-jab.

But then I felt guilty, petty, small.

Maybe we’d all be happier if we’d let water roll off our backs, like sleeping ducks.

Gretchen can also be found blogging at Lifenut.

18 Responses to Yes, I noticed your passive-aggressive jab, perfect stranger
  1. Carrie
    June 14, 2009 | 7:17 am

    This is funny, and yet not funny at the same time. I’ve done the same thing – “Oh, but I was still NURSING my baby at 10 months, so, you know…” 🙂

    It really is terrible. Like we have any clue what another person’s circumstances are, and we have any right to pass judgment. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Lifenut » Mothers are weird
    June 14, 2009 | 9:00 am

    […] Please go read about it at 5 Minutes for Parenting. […]

  3. Dorci
    June 14, 2009 | 10:50 am

    We women need to be kind to each other. Our jobs as mothers and wives are the most difficult jobs in the world and we’re all really in the same boat. Wonder if it would catch on if we all made conscious efforts to not only scrap the passive-aggressiveness, but to be intentional complimentary to at least one other woman while we’re out and about. Who knows, maybe kindness could become the new snideness.

  4. Marinka
    June 14, 2009 | 10:53 am

    Love passive aggressive parents. Yes, having a picture taken with the elephant is so very special. I don’t know why people bother having children in the first place, if they won’t photograph them with an elephant every single day of their lives. Thanks for the reminder!

  5. Cassie
    June 14, 2009 | 11:04 am

    I totally see this competition between women. I have one friend in particular that I compete with. Petty small un-important things. You made me re-think that today!

  6. Sheryl
    June 14, 2009 | 11:09 am

    Whenever I’m tempted to judge other moms or make those remarks, I try to remember that there is always a part of the story that I don’t see ( like here with you). I’ve often been the recipient of such comment and I always feel like I need to explain the “whole story” or the reasons why I’m doing whatever.

  7. Kelly
    June 14, 2009 | 3:50 pm

    What else can you do but laugh and let it roll? Life is too short to be upset about such eye-rolling behavior.

  8. amy
    June 14, 2009 | 8:29 pm

    I know this game. Sometimes I think it’s not intentional though, like two weekends ago when we saw people throwing food to a seal, living in the wild, and my kids wanted to know why they couldn’t throw food and I said “because it’s not good for the animals.” I knew right away the other parents, if they cared at all, probably felt reprimanded, but I didn’t really know what else to say. . .

  9. Kristink
    June 14, 2009 | 9:13 pm

    Hm, the last commenter made me think about times I have said that I don’t care what other kids are doing it, we don’t behave that way. And felt a little guilty for something and now I know what. I didn’t mean to reprimand the other parents but I didn’t want my kids behaving that way.

  10. melissa
    June 15, 2009 | 5:59 am

    incredible how silly we canbe but its true

  11. Minnesotamom
    June 15, 2009 | 7:59 am

    I’m pretty sure Minnesotans have perfected the art of passive aggression. It’s rather disheartening.

    Whenever I sense a Mompetition going on, I steer clear.

  12. Laura
    June 15, 2009 | 12:53 pm

    I notice these little comments all the time, too – I think we get the lion’s share of them (no pun intended!) because we have big families, which seems to be an anomaly in this day and age. More kids, more opportunities for people to disapprove of what we’re doing!

  13. Julie
    June 15, 2009 | 3:14 pm

    I can honestly say that I’ve never done this on purpose, but I do it all the time. When my kids ask why they can’t do something that other kids are doing I say, “No, you both can’t ride the car – the sign says the weight limit is 40lbs and together you are well over 50lbs”, or “No, you may not drink out of the fountain – you have a water bottle” – my son gets infections at the drop of a hat and they last for months! I don’t want to chance it. I never thought how it may look to other mommies. I don’t care though. I see things in black and white and it is my job to teach my kids right. I hope other moms don’t see me as trying to ‘teach’ them a lesson – but if they do, I hope the Lord allows them to see my heart at the same time.

  14. Angela Nazworth
    June 15, 2009 | 5:53 pm

    excellent post. Thank you. As mothers, we really are all in this together and would so benefit from support instead of jabs and competition.

  15. Veronica
    June 15, 2009 | 10:01 pm

    I read a book about the mating habits of ducks. If a mated female duck wanders away from her nest without her male during nesting season, the rest of the male ducks attack her. Sometimes they drown her.

    So even duck mothers get judged.

  16. gretchen from lifenut
    June 16, 2009 | 9:57 am

    Julie, I understand your point well, because I do the same thing. I like to look at the situations we encounter daily as opportunities to teach my kiddos various lessons, etiquette, etc. I know other moms do, too.

    I love a mama who is a teacher and I find her lessons charming, edifying, and important.

    But there is something different and petty about the intentional jab…for example, needless or excessive detail when the woman is (ostensibly) talking to her kids and the volume of her voice. Like the woman in front of the elephants could have just taken out her camera, told her boys to turn around, and taken a picture if all she wanted was a photo.

    Oh, well. All this stuff we obsess over is silliness in the end. 🙂

  17. looneyjen
    June 17, 2009 | 2:42 pm

    there’s a big difference too in whether the offending mother is the initiator or the answerer. answering a question posed by your child, “because it’s not good for the animals” for example, is honest, fair and fine. (this is provided it’s not shouted with pointed looks in the direction on the other mother). also, being clear about rules is another instance where if another mother is breaking rules and feels offended? oh well. to me, the worst offenders are those who pointedly start a convo with their kids, other peeps, etc. to make their point. they’re the initiators and generally, they’re out there to self-affirm their choices with a self-righteous angle. moms are always going to do things differently than other moms, but it’s all about how you approach the differences

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