Know Your Backstories

By Melissa Stefanec

Parents live in a world of incessant judgment and feedback. We get it from family, friends, acquaintances and strangers. We receive it while basking in the bluish glow of our smartphones or standing in the checkout line. Whether or not we want or need it, feedback is as pervasive as the tune of “Baby Shark” in our tired minds.

Most of this feedback comes from people who don’t know our backstories. The best advice doesn’t use a one-size-fits-all approach, but often it’s delivered from just that perspective. If you find yourself wanting to judge people and offer criticism, ask yourself this: What would your feedback look like if you knew the whole story? Would you change it? Would you stop your feedback altogether?

I pose these questions because I would like to start a conversation in the parenting sphere about how judgment divides us. Judgment from others fuels that little voice in the back of our minds that says, ‘you aren’t enough.’ Being kinder to ourselves and each other is the best way to quiet that voice. If you are interested in progress, don’t judge before you have a person’s backstory.

I am going to offer two very specific examples of how knowing my family’s backstory might have changed the way people perceived my family at two events — shopping for groceries and trips to urgent care. But, first, here is a little backstory.

The Backstory

My daughter recently had ear surgery. She is 7 years old, and it was not the highlight of her year. You see, my daughter has had a few health blips. She was born with two holes in her heart and a heart murmur, both of which quickly resolved themselves but still required testing. She had so many ear infections that we lost count. She eventually had a bilateral myringotomy, which is a fancy way of saying she had tubes inserted in both ears. She still got a lot of ear infections (tubes only help the ears drain during an infection; they don’t keep infections at bay), and those infections were pretty severe. Then, when her tubes finally fell out, she was left with two perforated eardrums — only one of which healed naturally. Then, at the age of 3, she was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis. To get that diagnosis, she endured a lot of painful and scary tests, in addition to a hospital stay. Most recently, her doctor recommended grafting her eardrum to heal her perforation.

Before I go on, I would like to note two things. First, I am in no way looking for pity by sharing this. Second, I know things could be a lot worse and am thankful for a relatively healthy daughter. So, now, the scenarios.

Scenario 1

After all of her doctor’s visits and testing, my daughter had negative feelings about medical exams and medical professionals. Her primary doctors understood this, but she wasn’t so lucky when we visited places like urgent care or got new nurses at our usual doctors’ offices. I can vividly recall the negative reactions I got from a number of medical professionals when my daughter didn’t want to be examined. They wrote her off as a brat or overly emotional, the disgust on their faces evident even to her. It got to the point where I told anyone who was going to touch my daughter with any medical device (even a thermometer) her backstory. If I didn’t, everyone in that room was going to leave more upset than they needed to be.

If those professionals had taken the time to ask a few questions or just read her chart a little closer, they would have known my daughter’s story. Then, they might have offered a gentle smile and condolence when she started melting down, instead of glares or disgust.

Scenario 2

After my daughter’s recent ear surgery, she was quite ill. As she is already very petite, I wanted to get as much nourishment in her as possible. On our way from the hospital, we stopped to pick up groceries for the next few days. She wanted to go into the store with my husband and I, so we let her. It was my hope that picking out her own food would mean she was more likely to eat it. When we got in the store, we let her pick whatever she wanted. Some of it was healthy, but most of it was not.

If you were a shopper witnessing this scenario, you might have judged us. As I asked my daughter to pick whatever she wanted, you might have thought I was raising a spoiled brat. If you had seen us in the checkout line (where we looked especially haggard after a long day), you might have judged us for all of the junk food in our basket. You may have even labeled me as a poor parent. However, knowing the backstory, I doubt you would judge me as anything other than a compassionate mother who didn’t want her child to be sick for the next three days because she had an empty stomach after anesthesia.

The Takeaway

Next time you want to write another parent or their child off as deficient, pause before you issue a judgment. Remind yourself that everyone has a backstory, and you likely don’t know all (or any) of it. Taking this pause might just make this world a kinder place–for yourself and the children you love.