I have two sons --- just two, so I'm only marginally experienced at this motherhood gig --- ages 5 and 2. I take my boys to Mass every Sunday. Like many other Catholic parents, and as is the norm in Catholic churches, I prefer that they, and I with them, remain in the pews during Mass.
It's easy with my five-year-old; by now, he knows how to behave and rarely requires correction other than a reminder to sit, stand, or kneel. The younger one can be tricky. If he squirms or drops a book noisily or points to the crucifix and yells, "There's Jesus!" I'm usually able to hush him in situ within a few seconds, whispering in his ear and pointing out various interesting things to look at. On principle, I always try, at least for a few moments, to settle him down where we are. I prefer to leave only if he becomes disruptive and only as long as I need to, returning promptly to the pew once he settles down. I'm willing to do this several times during a Mass if I have to. How's he going to learn if I spend the whole time in the nursery, watching Mass on closed-circuit TV while he and six other children play with Legos?
We moms realize that the people around us don't want to be disturbed (that's one of the things I'm whispering into those little ears). Still, it's not as simple as "just leave." Even the goal of minimizing disturbance to others requires constant evaluation of a specific dilemma: Which is going to be more disruptive to the people around me, spending a few more seconds trying to distract this little guy here in the pew, or hustling him AND his big brother AND my pregnant belly AND all our stuff out into the aisle and to the back?
I think that most people in most parishes understand this. In our parish especially, with its many large families. So it's not surprising that I can count on my fingers --- maybe even on just one hand --- the times when someone has either commented to me on, or glared pointedly at me because of, my very young (<3yo) children's "misbehavior" or noisiness. You know:
Can't you WHISPER, please?
You know, they DO have some chairs in the back for when he misbehaves.
Stuff like that. Doesn't happen often. Nevertheless, there's a pattern:
No one has ever commented to me or my husband about my children's misbehavior when my husband was with us.
At least five times in five years, when I have attended Mass with a young child but without my husband, I have received negative comments or glares regarding my child's misbehavior or my breastfeeding him.
Isn't that interesting?
Without any further data, the obvious explanation would be that my kids are prone to worse behavior when their Dad isn't around. Maybe my husband is a more effective disciplinarian. Maybe they think that with me, they can get away with more.
But I don't think that's it. I might, if I were discussing my older son's behavior right now. He's five and would be capable of that kind of calculation, and he also knows how to behave by now. But I'm talking about my 2-year-old, and my older son when he was a toddler. Kids too young to have much self-control or even to have learned the etiquette yet. And I'm pretty vigilant about their behavior in church (I have to be --- see the second paragraph). I'm confident that my toddlers aren't systematically better-behaved when my husband is there with me.
So what's up?
I'd like to impute charitable motives, but I can't figure out any way that it is MORE charitable to reprimand a woman struggling to parent by herself than a woman who's got her husband there to help her. And I don't, for example, notice a lot more people offering sympathetic "I've been there" smiles when I'm alone with my children. I don't hear more kind words or complements or even a knowing, "You've got your hands full," or even an offer when I arrive --- "You look like someone who would appreciate an aisle seat --- do you want me to scoot over?"
(And no, "We DO have a nursery, you know" isn't a helpful offer. It's a reprimand disguised as a helpful offer. Not sure? Practice saying it out loud and see how it sounds.)
So I always am left wondering: Are these women (it's always been older women) subconsciously trying to punish me for looking --- somewhat --- like a single mother?
Or do they silently respect my husband's authority in a way they don't respect mine? Does the same behavior that merits reprimanding a mother alone, become acceptable if a father is there radiating his tacit approval?
Or is the message simply, "You shouldn't have come here and sat where you did, because you should have known you'd be unable to control them by yourself?"
I'm not sure. I can't read their minds. I do know that my husband approves of and supports the way I mother my children in public, which is not very different from most of the other families in our parish, I might add. He's glad, not ashamed, that I'm still able to breastfeed my two-year-old discreetly in the pew, especially since it's such a sure-fire way to stop a meltdown in its tracks. He, like me, strives to teach by example, which means staying in the pews as much as we can. I think it must be obvious to bystanders that he has confidence in me. It's certainly obvious to ME. So maybe it's not just that I have A Man By My Side. Maybe that confidence is contagious.
And maybe when I'm there with my two kids and my big belly, wondering how on earth I'll carry the toddler out if he has a rare, real meltdown --- maybe they can smell fear.