We've all heard of secondhand smoke and the terribly destructive health effects. The American Lung Association tells us that there are hundreds of chemicals in secondhand smoke. That even a short-term exposure can trigger a heart attack. That thousands of people die each year from the results of secondhand smoke. That there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke.
And yet what is secondhand smoke. Smoke breathed in by people who are not even smoking. People who are innocent bystanders. People who live with, work with, hang with, the smoker. Or sometimes perfect strangers. How many can remember a meal ruined at a restaurant before the glorious No Smoking laws of recent years?
Yet I think I have hit upon something just as damaging. Secondhand judgment. As I see it, secondhand judgment is judgment that isn't spoken, verbally or non-verbally, directly at you but it nevertheless effects you, much life secondhand smoke.
Here is a painful and/or humorous, depending on the mood, example.
I am a realtor. I have been in thousands of houses with hundreds of clients over the past 15 years in the business. Sometimes it is obvious that people have spent months of time and boatloads of money to prepare their house for the market. Either that or they are full on Perfectionist Champions of the Homeowner Stratosphere. Sometimes the house is totally trashed, smells of dog urine, and looks like the 2 year-old has been in charge of housekeeping or maybe keeping the family hoarder under control. And then there are the Average Joe houses. These are the houses where they obviously haven't had the time or the money or the HGTV-level ooomph it takes to sparkles their houses up all shiny. These look like houses people live in.
Here is where it gets hard. I have buyer clients who will be totally grossed out at the Average Joe houses. They will see the fingerprints on the trimwork, the coffee stains on the carpet, or the dingy bathtub that hasn't seen a Magic Eraser in months or maybe years. They don't not say, "Hmmm. I think I would need to hire Merry Maids to clean this place up a bit" or "I would want to replace this carpet." They don't say, "I can see that by the amount of Little Tykes crap in this house they must have small children and therefore don't have time to keep up with the avalanche of housework." No. They make judgment. "How can anybody live like this! This is disgusting! I can see they don't take care of their house." Sometimes even, "Who lives like this?" That is where it gets awkward and painful. Me.
Me. I live like this. My house gets away from me. Our carpet is 12 years old and we don't have the money to replace it. The dogs have eaten it up and why replace it while we have a Monster Puppy still living here anyway? I have a bathroom shower stall that, no matter how much I scrub, it forever looks dingy and gross. We have exterior maintenance issues, such as a 28 year-old roof, that would signal to the more militant types that our house is in an advanced state of disrepair. And none of this is because we don't try. We do. But we have limited resources of time, money, energy. We have different priorities. We have different lives.
Where am I going? Secondhand judgment looms large on Facebook and even in personal conversation, particularly when it comes to mothering. We are sometimes (and only sometimes) careful to not criticize a mother to her face. But the comments. Oh, the comments! The comment you make on Facebook about the kid acting up in the restaurant and the obviously dud mom who wasn't getting her act together? That directly effects the mom reading the post, who is now afraid to take her kid to a restaurant, fearing the same level of judgment. The comment you make about how your kid will never have an iPad or wear a short dress or eat sweets, that comment directly effects the mom who, for whatever reason has made different choices.
You don't have to go up to a person and say, "Hi. You are doing it wrong. I am doing it right. I am better than you," for it to be judgment that damages and can even destroy.
Some of the most painful parenting moments in my life have not been said directly to me about my performance, but have been made about the performance of others in my presence. Much like with Picky Perfect Homebuyer, I want to say to Superior Parenting Guru, "Don't come to my house."
I say these words to myself as much as to anybody else as I know that I can be excessively opinionated. You learn the best lessons the hard way. Through pain. I hope that I am learning that my words matter, not just to the people I speak them, but to others who hear them as well. May they be gracious ones.