Big Bad Mama

I had a conversation with a neighbor today, a mom whom I have not spoken to for more than a few moments in passing for several years. She needed to spill some resentments she’s had towards me.  Her point-of-view did not surprise me, but it helped me connect some dots. 

Since becoming a mom, many of my weaknesses have been unveiled, but I have also realized some surprising strengths.  For most of my life I have been a push-over and a people pleaser.  I have never been good at sticking up for myself.  But when it comes to my children, I’m a big bad mama bear.

I would die one thousand times for my kids. I would (and did) alienate friends and neighbors because of my parenting ideals. For instance, I did not want my children watching TV and certain movies, sitting at a computer at the age of four, or left unattended with peers on the beach while a dad went surfing.  This all seems reasonable in retrospect, but many times it meant separating my kids from the herd, which to other parents was viewed as judgmental of their own parenting.

I am told that other parents were afraid of me, which, even as I say it, is so hard for me to believe.   They were afraid of me, a person who has always made herself as humble and non-threatening as possible, a person who would rather be liked, or at least not disliked, than be admired and respected.

When I began taking my baby to RIE parenting classes, I knew I was onto something.  My gut told me that I had found exactly the guidance I’d been searching for, even though I was unaware that I had been searching. The fundamental truths I perceived in the RIE philosophy gave me the conviction to go against the grain.

I could no longer tolerate a stranger touching my baby in the supermarket.  If friends or family members wanted to hold her, I would not let them near without the sense that my baby was leaning towards the person, or in some other way indicating her consent.  I may not have expected others to respect me, but I demanded respect for my baby. As much as I wanted to be liked and accepted, I wouldn’t compromise my child. I was a push-over, but she was a person not to be messed with.

So, though I understand why other parents may have felt judged by me, I wasn’t judging. I was determined and focused. I was learning exciting new theories and applying them to my life with my children each day.  I was fully engaged, and I never doubted the process.

I have made lots of mistakes as a parent, as we all do, but I am proud to say that my children are not people pleasers or push-overs.  They stick up for their friends and are surprised and dismayed when others don’t do the same.  They have a strong will, a sure sense of themselves, and they don’t dim their brightness to please anyone. I hope they stay that way. And I’m grateful to them for showing me the strength and success that I never knew I could have.

“We are all meant to shine, as children do. We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us, it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” 

– Marianne Williamson


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. angela mancuso says:

    this is really well said. People, especially those without kids, but even many with kids, forget that kids are in fact people, from the very moment they are born. I applaud your decisions and this article

    1. Great. Great blog. Encourages me to hold strong in the years ahead.

  2. Jill Flyer says:

    I remember asking Magda once about my mother’s interactions with Benjamin, feeling she was “manipulating him” both physically and emotionally in ways that were antithetical to RIE principles. Like you, I had embraced the RIE philosophy with a passion! Magda asked, “How long will your mother be visiting?” I replied, “Three weeks.” Assuming (my first mistake) that Magda would say, “Oh, that’s not good, you mustn’t let her ‘walk’ him around the house,” she surprised, and honestly, disappointed me (but, only because I was so invested in hearing the answer I wanted). She said, “Let her do what she wants to do. Don’t worry so much.” Prior to her advice, I alienated many people, including family, with my rigidity. It wasn’t so much what I did, it was how I expressed it. I’ve owned up to that now and apologized, but I know that I couldn’t have done it any differently at the time. It was all so new to me. It made complete and entire sense to me. And, I learned through that experience to “protect” and “stand up” for my child in a way that was never done for me. Like your children, my kids have pretty solid boundaries…for now. Life is certainly subject to change, but their sense of themselves appears to be firmly intact. Thank you for the beautifully expressed articles, Janet. You are a gift.

    1. Thanks Jill! I also remember Magda saying that grandparents should do whatever they want (within reason!) And I also may not have been as sensitive to others as I could have been. Being a new mom was overwhelming, period, and when I was focusing on my baby, I couldn’t look out for everybody else all the time. I love your story. Thank you for sharing it here!

      1. Jane Hanson says:

        Thank you for sharing these words about letting grandparents be grandparents. I am a grandma who has experienced being scolded by my daughter for such things as changing a diaper and holding a hand ( to prevent a fall). I was not familiar with RIE philosophy at the time though I have now read your book. At the time I didn’t understand what I did wrong. It was a painful lesson. I hope your readers will be kind and gentle with us; grandparents are doing their best and love your children too.

    2. Jill thanks for sharing this!

      I’m dealing with similar issues, and I’m torn as to how to balance philosophies between my mother and I. Often, I turn into Mama Bear, but I’m learning that “Let her do what she wants to do. Don’t worry so much.” makes a lot of sense sometimes.

  3. great post, janet! this one really resonated with me 🙂 thank you for writing and sharing…

  4. I was often labled as “overprotective” because I wouldn’t offer up my kids freely to people and situations that I wasn’t sure about. I was probably overly cautious at times, but I had to stick to my parenting ideals. I remember feeling a bit defensive and I know that others felt insulted, but looking back I think that was a tiny price to pay. Thank you for encouraging parents to put their children first even if it annoys other people.

  5. I like. I like. I have a lot of battles with Hudson (3) these days. When I don’t stand up for what I believe is best,when I give in and people please him, I feel terrible, like I’ve really let him down. These are good reminders. Thanks, Janet.

  6. Joyce LaRonde says:

    Interesting irony how quickly we moms are prepared to selflessly and viciously protect our chidren from the bogey man, but when it comes to protecting them from the pokes, prods, tickles and unsolicited hands of friends, neighbors, relatives and even strangers… Well, we can be pretty gutless to avoid offending. Next time one of my neighbors wants to bring my 5-yr old to a PG-13 movie, this big bad mama is going for the jugular!

    1. Joyce, Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. I also understand how hard it is to risk offending others and demand respect for our babies and their boundaries. Parents in my classes are always asking me how to politely handle those situations. Sometimes saying “He (the baby) doesn’t like that,” or “He’s sensitive to touch” works. Most people would not want to risk making a baby cry.

      Dealing with our children’s exposure to inappropriate movies will have to be a future post. I’ll never get over hearing one of my children scream in terror while running home from a neighbor’s house…Grrrrrrrrr!

  7. As always, a wonderful article Janet.

    My early years as a father was replete with criticism for the strict manner in which I raised my son. My son has always been a favored person in the lives of everyone who knew him. As he grew and began his transition into a man, he and I butted heads ourselves without the need of outside opinion. Today however he is incredibly accomplished at a very young age. He is happier with himself than I have ever seen, and that is growning as he excels in his person. And those who once criticised me are now patting me on the back for a job well done.

    Our children make their own way eventually. My son made his own choices appropriate for each stage of his life, and until he reached each milestone, I made those choices for him. Today he makes all his own choices, he comes to me now only as a sounding board, someone who he learned to trust and would give him honest judgment, whether it be approving or disapproving.

    When our children are young we are responsible “for” them, when they mature we are responsible “to” them. I’m glad to have done my job and applaud every other parent who does theirs. And for those who feel intimidated, perhaps they need to look inward rather than outward for an explanation for their feelings.

    Great job Janet!

    1. Ed, you are so full of wisdom, and your experiences are rich. You should be writing a blog! In the meantime, thank you for contributing your wonderful insights to mine. You are obviously an excellent dad. I love hearing your stories, and you are so generous to share them.

  8. Yes, Ed Stagg. Take Janet’s advice to write your own blog! I will be your #1 reader and fan. You are my kind of man, Ed Stagg… I mean, my kind of parent.

    – Grace

  9. Huh? Did my mom write this under an assumed name and not tell me? 😉 Good for you for sticking up for what’s right. Just because you’re surrounded by bad parents doesn’t mean you have to be one. If only more people knew that!

    (Fortunately, I was a very early speaker, and by 1 1/2, I could shout, “EWW, DON’T TOUCH ME!” at intrusive strangers.)

    1. Hi Maria!

      Thanks for the vote of approval…you’re funny! I approve of your mom’s work, and I’m so glad you could stick up for yourself. Some of us have a hard time with that, even as verbal adults.

    2. Popsicles says:

      Maria, just because others have different parenting styles than our own does not make them bad parents.

  10. “I could no longer tolerate a stranger touching my baby in the supermarket. If friends or family members wanted to hold her, I would not let them near without the sense that my baby was leaning towards the person, or in some other way indicating her consent. ”

    Would like to hear how to handle this….

    I have an increasingly social 6 month old that people everywhere seem to be drawn to…when he was younger and not as animated i could shield him from people and say “oh he hasnt been vaccinated yet…” or “oh he just woke from a nap so he a not necessarily social right now…”….but now that he is laughing and talking with everyone…complete strangers feel like it is their right to hold him…..i never let it happen because i could come up with an excuse…..and after almost passing out after witnessing my mother cave in and hand my baby over to a complete stranger (a hairstylist in a shop where i was get a consult) ….i vowed to never let this happen again….

    the problem…?……my little one is now starting to reach out towards people and lean over and people take this as a cue that they are entitled to hold him……it is hard for me to flat out say no because i dont want to alienate people…but i dont feel comfortable inventing little “white lie” excuses….

    1. Mary Ellen, I agree that it is difficult to handle the kinds of situations you describe, and I wasn’t always successful at it. We walk a fine line between offending others and respecting our babies.

      Please read psychologist Miven Trageser’s guest post: Protecting Your Baby When It’s Easier Not To.

      And here are some more of my thoughts on the subject: Can Babies Love Too Much? (Teaching Children To Give Affection With Respect)

      1. Janet, I know this is an older post, but I have a question about the above comment re: the social little boy who is now leaning out to people. When I first read that comment, to me it sounded like the little boy may enjoy having strangers hold him. Am I misinterpreting this? If he’s leaning toward them and they hold him and he enjoys it, what is the harm? I guess I don’t understand what the need for protection in this situation is if he seems to enjoy himself (maybe he likes being closer to their faces to see a new person up close, etc.). I’m still learning about all of this, so I’m genuinely curious. Thank you! As always, I loved this post!

        1. Interesting, Kim! I’m not sure what the baby wants in this situation. Perhaps he is interested in getting a closer look at people or touching them, but I would not assume he wants to be held. And even if he did, I don’t think we can leave these kinds of choices up to babies and toddlers. What message do we send our children when we allow strangers to touch and hold them? I’d love to hear more of your thoughts…

          1. Huh….that seems like an odd response, given that one of the core tenets of RIE is…respect your children’s choices.
            So, a one year old should be allowed to make the decision about what she can & cannot climb, but should not be allowed to make the choice about who she would & would not like to be held by?
            If the child is leaning in, it seems disrespectful to assume that I know better… Of course, if she leans in, is picked up & then wiggles to be let go, she should be let go…
            Who gets to say which choices should be left up to babies & which ones ‘we know better’?

            1. Those are good questions to ask, Kendra. Do you think that a baby “leaning in” is aware that this might be considered an invitation to be held? Babies live in the moment…they don’t understand the implications of their actions. And I don’t think we can presume that a baby is comfortable just because he or she isn’t crying or wiggling. There are many levels of comfort and discomfort…And I would rather err on the side of caution in situations like these…

  11. Ditto what Ginger said. (Only instead of “I” – “We”. Hubby and I are in agreement on these ideas.)

    I don’t recall anyone sharing what they thought of me like your neighbor did. I could only guess…With this post, however, I am feeling pretty good – thinking that it was our protection of our children that helped them develop self-confidence. Thanks for that, Janet! (And that bear photo is really scary.) 😉

  12. I love the bear!!! New Year’s Goals: one year from now everyone is using “genius” to mean something that each of us has (a la Williamson). in 5 years everyone is putting pressure on schools to focus our energy on bringing out that genius. In 10 years all kids love to go to school.

    1. Rick, thank you and I love your goals! It would be wonderful if the focus of education shifted to honoring the unique gifts the children bring into the world. I’m sure it would be far more enjoyable and rewarding for teachers, too, because I know it is a million times more fun to parent this way. When we stay open to the genius in our children, we have many divine surprises.

  13. I love this post! Thank you!

  14. Ah, Janet- what you express here, the judgment from other parents when you try to be gentle and honest and respectful, is exactly what I’ve been getting in a work context. Other childcare professionals find my strong moral and professional compass deeply confronting, no matter how kindly I try to express my views.

    I’m totally unsure how to overcome this; I’m certainly not intending to drop my standards, but what use are standards if people don’t want to give you work because they’re threatened by you? This seems to be the price of living in a fairly remote and (if the truth be told) somewhat behind-the-times country area.

    1. Aunt Annie, I think it’s time you opened up a center of your own…even if it’s small. In fact, better if it’s small. Is that possible?

  15. One limiting condition there- $$$$! And sadly my home isn’t even located in a suitable place for family day care.

    1. Maybe a goal for your excellent blog could be to get backers?

  16. oh I love that you included a quote from Marianne Williamson. I just realized how much A Course in Miracles relates to Magda Gerber’s theories and RIE. I love them both!

  17. Well said Janet! I can completely relate. Since day one as a mom I’ve had the very same instinct to protect and respect.. and what’s interesting to me is that I learned about RIE through your site less than a year ago. (My girls are 6 and 2.)

    When I learned that there was actually an established philosophy for what I was feeling and doing I felt somewhat relieved and validated.

    Thank you for your site and bringing awareness to this very natural and important mindset.

  18. Lindsey H says:

    I love the last paragraph! That is just how i want my kids to be, allthe more because i wish i had been more confident growing up (and still today)! This gives me encouragement to support them even more as their advocate!

  19. Thank you! This describes my emergence into my own mamabeardom. She came out of hibernation the day my son was born.

    1. “Mamambeardom”, how I love that! Thank you, Wren.

  20. Francesca says:

    Hi Janet, love this. Can I ask where you went with the no TV as your children got older? My daughter is 3.5 and doesn’t currently watch any TV, but she is the only one of her peers who doesn’t and I must confess I’m a little worried about her feeling left out when she starts school.

  21. Erin Leck says:

    Hi Janet,
    Do you have suggestions for
    1. How to handle TV viewing if you’re at a gathering with adults and children alike?
    For example a gathering with family and whoever is hosting turns on a movie for the kids. Do you have suggestions for how to keep your child away from the screen without making them feel left out or awkwardly kept in a different room?
    2. How to keep people from touching your baby or toddler? I get a surge of anxiety when I realize I didn’t step in in time and someone has touched my son without his permission. It’s especially awkward when it is a family member. Sometimes if I am holding my son, in order to stop the touching from happening, I would have to step back. It would probably seem dramatic – maybe this is why people seem offended…when we have to physically get our child out of arm’s reach of them?

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