We need to banish the phrase “That’s what you signed up for when you became a parent”

If you’re spent any time on the “mommy internet” (forums, blogs, etc.), you’re bound to have come across the self-righteous mother.  You know, the one who made all the “best” choices in pregnancy and birth and parenting and can’t imagine that—gasp!—other people’s lives might be different.  One of Ms. Self-Righteous’s favorite things to say is this: “Well, that’s just what you signed up for when you became a parent.”

Kid wakes up every 45 minutes all night long?  “That’s what you signed up for when you became a parent.”

Bleeding nipples from trying to breastfeed?  “That’s what you signed up for when you became a parent.”

Feeling stuck at home and missing adult interaction?  “That’s what you signed up for when you became a parent.”

It’s bratty, it’s common, and it needs to be banished forever.

For one, it rests on an utterly ridiculous assumption: that the person in question “signed up” to be a parent.  Some people do.  I did: the pregnancy that brought me Little Boy was very carefully planned and sought after.  But half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned, so chances are good, when you’re speaking to a strange woman on the internet, that she didn’t actually “sign up” to be a parent.  For some people, it just happens.

Second, do you know what this attitude reminds me of?  Hazing.  “You can’t complain about having to run around campus naked in sub-zero temperatures,” says the bro.  “It’s what you signed up for when you pledged this fraternity.”  We don’t allow that kind of excuse when it comes to college students, why should we allow it with new parents?

Third, while all parenting necessitates sacrifice, there is essentially no one specific hardship that is required by 100% of all parents.  Some women (me!) breastfeed with minimal pain.  Some babies actually do go to sleep easily, and some very lucky parents can afford a night nurse or postpartum doula to help when they don’t.  Heaps and heaps of parents balance parenthood and working, or parenthood and community service.  There’s no checklist of things you could “sign up for” to be a parent, even if you wanted to.

Fourth, it’s just plain mean.  Becoming a parent is a huge adjustment, and people need safe spaces to talk about that.  Even if someone is venting about something that seems completely shallow to you (“I can’t go out to the bar as often anymore!”), don’t be a brat.  They’re going through a major life transition and they need empathy, not self-righteousness.  If you can’t muster up any empathy, STFU.

Fifth and finally, this phrase and its variants tell us something very important about the speaker:  When you say this, what you’re really saying is that you’re insecure about your own parenting choices.  You’re angry and bitter about other people taking the “easy way out.”  That’s why one of my husband’s relatives was so insistent that formula-feeding mothers were “selfish”—she couldn’t handle the thought that it would’ve been OK if she’d switched to formula and skipped the hardships she’d faced while breastfeeding.  (For another example along the same lines, see this comment.)  It’s again very much like hazing: “I did it, so you must too, or else you’re not worthy.”

Look, sometimes you have to own your own decisions and accept that you did things the hard way.  We, for example, played a crazy game of alternating shifts to keep Little Boy out of daycare until he was eight months old.  In retrospect, that was unnecessary (except possibly for the money side of things).  We could’ve put him in daycare several months earlier and maybe been happier, without any sacrifice at all to his well-being.

You know what we don’t do?  We don’t go around trying to justify our decision by telling everyone that babies need to stay home with their parents for the first eight months.  We’re OK with the decision that we made, even if we might do it differently in retrospect.  Because here’s the thing: when it comes to parenting, if you really made the best choices for your family, then other people’s choices don’t matter.*  So take responsibility for your decisions and don’t be a smug jerk to compensate.

*Except for vaccination.  You’re putting my kid at risk if you don’t vaccinate yours.  Vaccines are awesome.  Make sure your children get them all.

What other parenting-related phrases should be banned forever?

5 thoughts on “We need to banish the phrase “That’s what you signed up for when you became a parent”

  1. It blows my mind…in my opinion it should just be a golden rule…just because you’re a parent doesn’t give you the right to pass judgement on other parents….especially mothers. My sister in law faced this very “hazing” you speak of by her own sister….boils my blood…like seriously where do you get off criticizing you own sister’s ability to be a mother? As somone who does not have children…another thing that boils my blood is you read in some places how it’s “selfish” to choose to have no children and regarding your point about choice…some people do not “choose” to go without children….some people are not able to so how insensitive is that!? Also, 8 years ago…I suffered a miscarriage…I was in a bad relationship so I now see it as a blessing in disguise. I miscarried at 2 months…I remember one of my “friends” at the time actually had the nerve to say she’s not sure whe would have been as upset as me because it was so early in in the pregnancy….this coming from a women with 2 girls….one not even in her custody and the other always with babysitters….needless to say she’s no longer my friend…but yeah this sort of thing needs to stop!


  2. HA, love how you compared this to hazing. This is true, we don’t “sign up” for children with high needs, yet many parents have high needs children. We don’t “sign up” for health issues, yet we end up with them sometimes. Can we just banish people being aholes?

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  3. YES YES YES! This phrase is so snarky, and it completely disregards the difficulty someone is going through. Even if you did “sign up” to be a parent, it doesn’t mean that some parts of parenthood are effing HARD.

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