How Our Judgments Can Become Our Prisons

My sister and I were chatting last weekend about ‘judgements’ and our respective learnings on why they are best avoided. We touched upon various reasons, ones we had read and ones we had experienced. Indeed there are different philosophical and moral reasons why judging others might not be a good idea. However, my own journey in becoming aware of judgements started only when I realized how these judgments were creating prisons for me. Prisons that limited me from living a life of possibilities. Prisons that limited me from exploring my fullest potential. Prisons that limited me from allowing my dreams to blossom.

My wake up call on the effects of my own judgment came when my son was nearly two years old. However, the story of the formation of the ‘judgement’ in question started much earlier, when I was a little girl. My mother was a teacher and my father had a very demanding career in a steel plant. When I was about seven or eight, my father asked my mother to stop working so she could be a full time mother and look after us better. By no means had my mother not been looking after us well till that point. She had been a most amazing mother even while she was working. However, my sister and I (greedy at the thought of having more of her to ourselves) both vehemently seconded his request and made emotional pleas like, ‘we want you to be at home and greet us when we come back’, etc. etc. At least that is the version of the incident I remember and for the sake of this story it does not really matter what the truth really was. What is important for the formation of the ‘judgment’ that I will discuss is how I framed and remembered the whole incident (as opposed to what actually happened). So the important point for this story is that I bought into a belief right then (at the tender age of 8) that ‘Good mothers should stay at home to look after their kids’.

My mother agreed to our wishes (much to the disappointment of several students whose lives she was otherwise touching in a most amazing way) and she has ever since been a stay-at-home mum. She never again worked full time and let go of her otherwise wonderful teaching career. She was a devoted mother and she left no stone unturned to make sure that my sister and I were brought up with all the attention and love she could give us. With years, the belief in my head only grew stronger and stronger – ‘good mothers should stay home to look after their kids’. Perhaps I also needed to buy into this belief at that time to justify my own selfish involvement in asking my mother to give up her career for us.

Fast forward 20 years into the future and I now become a mother myself. I was two years into my PhD when I got pregnant. Intellectually I was sure I would want a career and I had initially decided to take eight weeks off and then go back to school. However I had no way of predicting how I would feel emotionally after my son was born. The little cherub soon had every aspect of my being wound around his little finger and my plans went for a toss. The eight weeks stretched to three months. Come the end of three months, I still was not ready. My return to school became a moving target, 6 months, 1 year, a year and half and almost 2 years. By now people in my school as well as at home were all starting to get concerned. Would I never get back to finish my PhD?

As the months passed, a part of me started yearning to get back to my studies. I was also yearning to have some independent time to myself, to start walking out, to meet people, to do some creative and meaningful work other than parenting. Intellectually, the option to resume my studies made sense to me. Yet, I kept coming up with excuses why it was not yet okay for me to go back to my studies. I even realized at one point that my ‘Good Mother Belief’ was coming in the way of allowing me to give myself the permission to get back to studies.  However I could not find a way to dissolve this belief. There seemed to be something more sticky, more strong, and more binding that was keeping me away from going back.

Sid & Me - Turtle..In those days, I lived in London and every morning and afternoon I would take my son out to one of the local libraries, play-groups or parks. We lived in an apartment with no garden so I had created a choco-block schedule for my son and myself. Monday morning – St Johnswood church playgroup, monday afternoon – Violet Hill park. Tuesday morning – take the bus to Swiss Cottage Library and tuesday afternoon – regents park. Wednesday morning – Maida vale playgroup and wednesday afternoon – Paddington park, and so on. There were a regular set of other mothers who also had predictable schedules like me and soon I got to make quite a few friends (all of whom were stay-at-home mums). After the playgroups or library rhyme sessions we mums would group up and chat while the kids pottered around. I noticed during one such chatting session that we were almost ‘gossiping’ about the lack of care shown to kids by working mothers. It hit me suddenly how judgemental I had become by then of ‘working mothers’.

In my own head, the world of women had got unknowingly divided into ‘Them’ and ‘Us’. ‘Them’ were the working mothers who were selfish and uncaring. ‘Us’ were the wonderful people who gave all our time to our children. ‘Them’, were the working mothers whose children would be less stimulated and developed while ‘Us’ were the awesome mums who were sacrificing our own preferences to make sure our babies got all the exposure they possibly could. Today I know none of these points are logical or true, but for this story it doesn’t really matter if it was or was not. What matters is that I had fallen into a pattern of ‘judging’ working mothers and judging them quite harshly at that.

Once this judgement surfaced into my awareness it was not rocket science to figure out why I had resorted to such extreme judgment of working mothers. First, I had carried an initial belief from 20 years ago which read something like ‘you can’t go to work and be a good mother’. To add to that, in the last year or so, because I had stopped every other activity of mine (except being a mother), I had felt a need to derive all my self esteem from being a mother. As a result I had added to and bought into the ‘working mums are no good’ story even more fiercely.

It dawned on me that day that, I could never hold the ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’ paradigm in my head and fiercely criticize ‘them’ (in this case working mothers), and then also simultaneously give myself the permission to be a happy and fulfilled working mother. I had to make a choice. Either I ‘eat my words’ and take back that strong judgment I made, or I resign myself to a life where I always remain a full time mum.

Now I really really wanted to get back to my studies and my career. I wanted to go out, and live a life of adventure and exploration. I wanted to engage in creative projects and I wanted to meet new people. So that night I sat down in meditation and I brought into my mind one by one, various women whom I had previously judged in my head (because they were ‘working mothers’). There were ‘aunties’ from my past, there were relatives, there were batchmates from college, there were co-students, there were neighbours, and there was my very own dearest sister. I blessed and honoured each one of them for the love and dedication with which they raised their kids. I gave to each one of them an invisible medal for being an amazing mum. I acknowledged their sacrifices and their contribution. Most importantly I respected their choices.

This was not easy to do. It was an emotionally challenging exercise and tears rolled down my face as I realized the harshness with which I had judged each of these wonderful women. I had judged them partially to feel better about myself in comparison and partially to justify my own decision to stay at home. However, once I let go of these judgements, I started feeling more ready to take the next step towards continuing my studies. My single line take-away from this experience is that I had to first dissolve the judgemental barrier that I had created between ‘them’ and ‘us’ in my inner world before I could take my own steps towards becoming one of ‘them’ in the outer world.

I must clarify here, that this essay is not about the superiority or inferiority of ‘working mums’ versus ‘stay-at-home mums’. Undoubtedly there are pros and cons to both side. The point of this essay is to highlight the way our judgments can become our own prisons. The exact same logic can apply to someone who might have been a working mum and might have judged stay-at-home mums. If this person wants to give up her career and stay at home at some point in her life (for the sake of her children) she might have to first dissolve her own judgements about stay-at-home mums.

A second clarification to make is that I have given this example only because for me it was a potent revealer of my private judgments and how they had imprisoned me. By no means am I suggesting that every stay-at-home mum holds working mums in judgement or vice versa. This would be akin to suggesting that every one who belongs to a certain group necessarily judges those who do not belong to that group and that is definitely not true.

However, this brings us to the most interesting question of this essay which is are there some groups that you might be part of where you judge others who are not part of that group? Might there be a ‘them’ versus ‘us’ barrier that you have created in your own head? Are there people (or types of people) whom you have been in judgement of ? How might this have now become a prison for you? A prison that might be limiting your potential and thwarting your dreams.

Have you been in judgement of the wealthy? Then without even realizing it you might have limited yourself in the possibility of earning more money. Have you been in judgement of those who are successful? You are most probably then limiting your own potential for success. Have you been in judgement of those who seem to really enjoy their life? Then your own internal scripts might prevent you from enjoying yourself or worse still make you feel guilty when you do accidentally enjoy yourself. What would it take to drop that judgment and set yourself free? Does it feel like a trade-off you are willing to make?

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