The Hat Police Are On My Case: No Advice, Please!

Yes, it takes a village to raise a child. But does it require an entire city?

One day this spring, as I was struggling to convince my 1-year-old baby girl Jesse to sit inherstroller,aneighbor stopped to interrogate me. “Do you think the baby is warm enough? Where’s her hat?”

“What are you, the hat police?” I snarled as my daughter arched her back angrily. It hit me suddenly: Why did I need to justify myself to a single middle-aged man who has no experience with children?

Perhaps it’s because I’ve always been one of those people who devote too much energy to caring about what other people think of me. Now that I’m a first-time mother, I want the world to know that I’m competent at my new job. And it seems that everyone from the waitress at the local Polish restaurant to the lady who runs the Laundromat across the street is judging my performance.

While I’m usually a rather affable person, my patience, as well as my confidence, has been whittled away as neighbors, friends and total strangers continually question my mothering abilities. They won’t stop to help me as I struggle to carry a stroller up the subway steps or try to balance a toddler and a bag full of groceries, but they don’t hesitate to tell me what I’m doing wrong at any given moment.

For one thing, New Yorkers seem to be fixated on the idea that, regardless of the weather, all babies must wear hats. Fellow moms and I joke that nobody will make a peep if you’re smacking your children around in public, but don’t put a hat on your kid and you’re risking arrest.

I once had a homeless man call out to me as he pushed a shopping cart filled with soda cans and beer bottles, “That baby needs a hat!” Thanks, mister.

I smiled wanly and continued strolling. What choice did I have? The close quarters of urban life make this city ripe territory for speaking one’s mind. In fact, I have always preferred the unapologetic bluster of New York to the hushed behind-door gossip of suburban Westchester, where I was raised. But now that I’m faced with a constant onslaught of unwanted criticism, I occasionally find myself pining for the strained etiquette of the suburbs.

It’s simply a question of proximity. Whereas babies in suburbia are chauffeured from pre-school to playground to fast-food restaurant in minivans, here they ride the same buses, eat in the same restaurants and stroll on the same sidewalks as everyone else. In the isolated culture of suburbia, people without kids rarely have an opportunity to observe mothers interacting with their children. Here, they watch. And they heckle.

With the baby boom in New York showing no signs of slowing, most non-parents now have at least one friend or relative who has a baby. Having been acquainted with a newborn, these non-parents now feel they are experts on the subject and, as such, have the right to tell other people how to handle their children. Understandably, they feel even more compelled to share their child-rearing wisdom when faced with a crying baby who seems to be pleading for help.

During her first few months of life, my daughter experienced nasty bouts of colic where she would scream inconsolably for hours. Not even the most learned pediatricians seem to be able to define what colic is, but they all agree that it’s extremely unpleasant. In our most fatigued moments, my husband and I confessed our biggest fear to each other: We had spawned the demon seed.

In desperate attempts to soothe our wild beast, my husband or I would strap her in a Baby Bjorn and roam the streets of the East Village-sometimes into the wee hours. Inevitably, well-meaning strangers-whose ranks often included vagrants and stoned clubgoers stumbling home after an ecstasy-fueled night-would call out suggestions and criticisms: “Maybe she’s hungry,” “I think she’s tired” or “What’s that baby doing out so late?”

“Thanks for your concern” I muttered through gritted teeth. And I had always thought that motherhood was going to make me a more patient and accepting person.

In fact, as a group, mothers are among the most judgmental folks to cross my stroller path. Where is that utopian community of women I envisioned sharing maternal wisdom and supporting each other through long sleepless nights, diaper rash and the terrible twos?

What I’ve found in its place is a disjointed group of people who form high-school-style cliques based on their parenting styles. The breast-feeding, stay-at-home moms in one corner of the playground and the bottle-feeding, working moms (or more likely, nannies in their place) in the other.

Among moms and non-moms alike, the hat issue seems downright insignificant compared to the hot-button topic of breast-feeding, where, it seems, everyone is an expert. Following those news reports a few years back about how breast-feeding can raise children’s I.Q.’s, boost their immune systems, help prevent breast cancer and, one might assume, promote peace in the Middle East, strangers now feel it is their civic duty to ensure that I am breast-feeding.

In addition to inquiring about my baby’s age and name, people now think it is perfectly O.K. to ask me if I am breast-feeding. Sure, nursing is a natural thing to do, but so is sex, and strangers aren’t stopping me on the street to ask if I got any last night.

Of course, breast-feeding moms suffer their own indignities.Inevitably, when I breast-fed my daughter in public, a gaggle of concerned citizens glared at me or shook their heads in disapproval. “How long are you going to breast-feed her for?” one older woman inquired, clearly worried that I was going to be nursing my daughter into her high-school years.

Breast-feed,don’t breast-feed. Hat on, sweater off. Feed her, carry her, put her down. I walk the streets dodging a hail of suggestions. Perhaps I should give up trying to please these concerned strangers-especially since it seems there’s no way I can win, except maybe by keeping Jesse permanently protected by a hat-or permanently indoors.

When I recently complained about the barrage of critical comments I get on a daily basis, another mother reassured me that it gets easier with time. As my daughter gets older, she said, strangers will no longer question my parenting decisions. I guess they figure that if I haven’t killed her by the time she hits adolescence, I must be doing something right.