Commentary: From COVID-19 to parenthood, judging each other is back with a vengeance
Just as new parents respond viscerally to others behaving differently, so we are equally agitated by those taking a different approach to the virus, says the Financial Times' Robert Shrimsley.
LONDON: An old friend has a theory. The way we look at other people’s responses to the COVID-19 regulations reminds her of the early weeks of parenthood.
Just as new parents respond viscerally to others behaving differently, so we are equally agitated by those taking a different approach to the virus.
One of the reasons we react so strongly to those following a different path is that to the judgmental — and if there is one thing this virus has made all of us it is more judgmental — the actions of others stand as a rebuke to our own choices.
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FEAR AND RESENTMENT
Of course there is far more to it. The primary responses right now are driven by fear, anger and notions of fairness.
The most frightened resent the less cautious; those more concerned with the social cost resent the fearful. Those struggling to cope resent the well-heeled demanding restrictions whose impact they cannot comprehend.
But there is definitely something to my friend’s theory.
Her argument runs that in the first weeks of parenthood you feel you are being constantly judged by others, often people you do not know. Strangers feel entitled to advise you where you are going wrong and you sense disapproval everywhere.
DEBATES OVER CHILD-REARING
As a new parent you are hurled into a world for which you are little prepared and your child-rearing choices feel like a statement of who you are. From the debates over epidurals to the arguments over breast milk and sleep training, every decision is a cause of angst.
I remember the cult of Gina Ford, the maternity nurse whose regimented regimes and Contented Little Baby Book were gleefully adopted by a number of friends while we endured six sleepless months with the all-night party animal.
But rejecting the obvious appeal of, you know, sleep, meant we also had to discredit (at least in our own minds) those adopting the techniques. They were control freaks, putting their own needs ahead of the baby, slaves to preposterously specific feed and sleep schedules.
They, in turn, viewed us as hippies. (Personally, after several wrecked nights I was up for a bit of military discipline but fortunately for the spawn my wife did not view Full Metal Jacket as part of the accepted parenting canon.)
I can’t say who was right. All the kids came out fine in the end. But both camps were pretty preachy at the time, as if we somehow sensed the other path was a negation of ours. It was not enough to disagree. They had to be wrong. Then again, perhaps we were just tired.
But there is something of the same feeling now. The pandemic response has trained us to be more self-conscious. We judge and feel judged.
The global nature of the crisis means everyone feels they have a stake in everyone else’s behaviour and we see the verdicts in the glances of others. Not wearing a mask, standing too close, being too fussy. Crowding the beach or going for an eye test. All are appraised.
Those who are blasé or cavalier about the COVID-19 restrictions are signalling to those who aren’t that they are too anxious and perhaps too controlling. The spawn judge us for our caution; we judge them for their insouciance.
It is further complicated by no two families behaving in the same way. One couple who assured us they “weren’t that fussed”, then admitted they had not been in a shop since lockdown. Another friend tells us we are too easy-going (trust me, we aren’t) but then mixes far more freely.
Then there are contrarians who delight in the superior pose of insisting the whole thing is overblown. This, too, has turned into a judgment on each other. And on top of all this, people are getting tired and irritable.
Over time, parents become more confident and comfortable in their own judgment. Viewed by weeks, this virus is barely at the stage of potty training.
But with lives at stake, it may take time for tolerance to triumph.