Once you become a parent, people think they can say just about anything when it comes to your parenting. Almost every mom I know has experienced moments when someone said something so shaming they could only respond by crying, walking away, staring blankly, or, if they are like me, asking, "Did you seriously just say that?" Honestly, I think every mom should be armed with a few responses in case someone shames them, so I asked parents to tell me about a time when someone mom-shamed them and how they dealt with it.
From the moment I got pregnant with my first child, I experienced mom-shaming. Everything from questioning what I ate and drank during pregnancy, to how I delivered, seemed to be open to blatant judgment. Then, once my daughter was born, people wanted to know what she was eating, where she was sleeping, how often she woke up, and that I was sacrificing everything to be a perfect mom the way they did or were doing. Most of the time I had no freaking idea how to deal with it, though, and felt more ashamed then empowered as a new parent.
It took me a while to learn that the problem doesn't lie with us moms. In fact, most of us are doing the best we can. The problem is with people who can't mind their own business. If it seems like moms can't do anything right, it's because people are constantly shaming them. Whether you breastfeed or formula feed, co-sleep or sleep train, stay at home or go to work, eat vegetarian or buy your kids fast food, someone will always think you're "doing it wrong."
So what can we do? Respond with grace, wit, and maybe a few tears, because being a mom is freaking hard and it hurts. With that in mind, here are some real-life mom-shaming coping strategies you might want to try next time someone judges your parenting. I know I am keeping a few of these in mind.
"One day my anti-vaccine and anti-GMO neighbor was at my house with her kids. At snack time she asked, 'Oh, you let her eat that? We only eat organic. I prefer not to put poison in my kid's body, but we all have our own ways, I guess.' I responded by laughing and saying, 'We sure do!'
I don't like to get sucked into the mommy battles. Needless to say, that was one of the last times our kids hung out. She just said too many unkind things for me to want to deal with."
"One time my father-in-law took my husband aside and expressed a concern that I was 'turning our son gay' by getting him a play kitchen for his second birthday. I couldn't respond, because my husband told me after it happened. We definitely limited his contact after that."
"People totally freaked out when I took a week off after having my youngest. I got lots of comments about how unbelievable it is to leave an infant (with her father) so young. As if only a mother can care for a young infant. I typically responded that my husband takes fantastic care of our kids and I had no concerns. I would not have married someone I could not trust to parent with me."
"Some people have told me that I let my 20 month old get away with things and run the house. I try to remember that other people only see a window into our lives. They don't see that we save our energy for sleep issues and things that are life or death and don't sweat the small stuff. So, no, after I've fought to establish boundaries around bedtime so that everyone can get enough sleep, I don't give a rat's ass if [my daughter] gets her clothes dirty."
"I have a son with Tourette Syndrome. A family member told me I needed to beat him more or he'd never act right, and that I'm too soft and let him get away with acting that way. As if his tics were something he could control. I've developed the skill of staring blank-faced."
"I was a full-time working mom after my first was born. A fellow mom said, 'I could never go back to work and let a stranger raise my kids.' I wish I had a better response at the time, but I just said that I had no choice."
"My soon-to-be in-laws berated me for having two children under 2 on purpose, because we are on state assistance. I was still pregnant and cried. They also suggested we would be better off if I miscarried again. I handled it by talking it out with my therapist now, but what do you say to someone who literally told you they wished their unborn grandchild would die?"
"I'm a stay-at-home mom. I've been told, 'You're lucky your husband lets you stay home and do nothing all day, and spend all of his money.' I had no response. Seriously. What do you say to that?"
"I recently got mom-shamed by my own mother about sleep training. She told me I was abusing and traumatizing my child, and that I was cold and heartless for letting him cry in his crib. We were on week four of sleep training, and he sometimes whines for 5-10 minutes and then goes back to sleep. I explained to her that research shows sleep training doesn't affect the baby, but she wouldn't listen. I finally told her that I would raise my son the way I see fit and that I needed a break from her."
"I have three kids with ADHD, and my oldest has autism, ADHD, and bipolar disorder. I've been told that if their diet was better, I wouldn't have to medicate my kids. In general there is always a tone of medication shaming in many of my peer support groups. Some people would rather believe that I feed my kids junk or that they have vaccine injuries, than just realize that some issues are just genetic. I think they want to feel in control, and they would rather shame someone than admit that some things are up to a roll of the genetic dice. I have left all of the autism groups I was in as a result."
"We were switching cell phone carriers and a customer service representative in training asked me if I was nursing my 10 month old after she spit up. I said, 'No, we use formula.' She went on to tell me how her son always did much better with breast milk than formula. I responded that my daughter actually did much better on formula, especially considering I had low supply. She said that she thought she had low supply at the beginning too, but really it was a lack of education. I said nothing at the time. I just stopped speaking. I'm much more vocal now. I recently had a friend ask me why I wouldn't try to breastfeed with my second, and I told her that really wasn't any of her business. Friend or not, unless I invite you to discuss what I'm doing with my body, I don't owe you that conversation, and I'm tired from all of the explaining I felt like I had to do with my first."
"I took my daughter to church the first time when she was 9 days old. Someone said, 'Oh, she's so beautiful, what a shame you had to have a c-section, didn't you want to wait and try?' Um, yeah, I did, but my daughter having her heart rate bottom out, and my cervix being stuck at one centimeter kind of made that not a possibility. I'll take my live daughter, thanks. I hate when they start with a compliment, and then smack you with stupid."
"I'm trans, but am always read/seen as our baby's mother. Once, when she was a newborn, my partner and I went to to the store to pick up a prescription. I was in line waiting for it to be filled. Obviously I was busy, and my partner had the baby. She started crying and screaming, because she was a newborn and they do that sometimes. He was trying to give her a pacifier, but she wasn't having it. I turned to look at them. Everyone else around was glaring at me. Not at my partner who had her at that moment. Me. One of the employees was, too."
"I've been shamed for formula feeding. I had a child who was diagnosed failure to thrive at a month because she hadn't even gained half a pound. I was told I don't deserve to be a mom because I gave her formula, and that breast is best. I always tell everyone it's none of their business. But, also that breast is not best when it comes to my family."
"Recently, I was explaining to my mother-in-law why 'breast is best' isn't true for some women. She said that it was sad that women are being pressured to breastfeed at all costs, but no one should starve their babies because they should follow their maternal instincts. She then told me that I 'allowed' my daughter to starve for three days, because I just wasn't a 'tiger mom' like she was, and I let the doctors, nurses, and lactation consultants (you know, all the people I should be deferring to in keeping my daughter and myself safe and healthy) walk all over me. I was so shocked by her statement that I just shut down and let the conversation change on its own.
She then looked at my daughter and said, 'We'll just have to teach your mama to be a tigress.'"
"I'm a single teen mom (18 when [my daughter] was born, 19 now), so I feel like with everything I do I'm being watched like a hawk and people think I can't be trusted. The main thing I'm shamed for is doing anything for myself. I'll be out to dinner with friends in my small town and someone I hardly know will ask where my baby is and why I'm letting her grandparents raise her. The only response I give to any criticism is resting b*tch face and not letting it get to me. Easier said than done, but it's so important to let it all go so it doesn't eat you up on the bad days."
"One time when I took my boys to the school playground on the weekend, one of my kindergartner's classmates was there with her mom. While the kids played, the mom started telling me all about how she volunteers in the classroom every Wednesday and kept sliding in these passive-aggressive comments about how she'd never seen me there and how important it is to be involved at the school. I run multiple businesses and there really aren't enough hours in my day as it is. On top of that I struggle with social anxiety and don't especially want to have to take a Xanax during the day to go visit my kid. I'll gladly send cupcakes and volunteer in a multitude of other ways, though.
Of course I didn't explain any of that to her. I just nodded and smiled. But now at every school event I see this mom and feel like the worst mother in the world, even though I know we all have different strengths in our mothering and that's perfectly OK."
"One day, a woman at the store said, 'He's so cute" (about my baby). I responded, 'Thank you, I think she looks really good in blue, don't you?' The woman replied, 'She? It's a girl? Why would you dress it in blue if it's a girl?' I thought, WTF, lady, yes, she is wearing blue. Don't call my baby it."
"I was mom-shamed by my own mom for supplementing with formula while I was breastfeeding my twins. She was a La Leche League leader when I was little, and she seriously could not comprehend that I couldn't keep up. I had to tell her to put a sock in it."
"When I was pregnant with twins a random woman asked me about my birth plan. I told her my doctor recommended that I get an epidural so that the chances of complications were minimized. She asked me if I really wanted an epidural because 'your feelings are important, too.' I had to explain to her that my goal was two healthy babies, and a healthy mother, and that I'd be following my doctors advice."
"The worst was this nurse at the hospital during my second miscarriage who told me that God was taking my babies away from me due to my being a lesbian. It was the same hospital where they refused to allow my partner in the ultrasound room because of homophobic bullsh*t. I didn't really deal. I mean, we left as soon as they gave me meds and all that, but we also switched after that to a midwife practice."
"I was mom-shamed by the nutritionist at WIC when I decided that I needed to switch to formula after a myriad of issues with my middle child. I believe she said something to the effect of, 'Plenty of mothers deal with those same issues and continue to breastfeed. You are choosing not to.'
I cried. Then told her, through tears, 'Yes. I'm choosing not to. You're right. I guess those other mothers are stronger than me.' That seemed to satisfy her. I was only 25 years old, and had no problems nursing my firstborn. I had already explained the jaundice, reflux, poor latch, and three rounds of thrush treatments for both of us. My nipples bled and hurt for weeks! I felt like a complete failure. If the same thing happened now I would handle it in a completely different way, I'm sure."
"I may have been shamed, but I am tough, mean, and impervious to that kind of sh*t, so I always remember those occasions as the times I made people cry. I was once fat-shamed and mom-shamed by our pediatrician, who said, 'You need to guard your child from your genetics, so always keep an eye on his diet.'
I told her, 'I am his mother, so the only way of guarding my children against my genetics would have been to use birth control, and that ship has long sailed. If you don't know that much about basic reproduction, tough, I know the Dean of the medical school, and he'd be glad to take you back.' She never mentioned it again. I also keep seeing her, because I think it made her feel uncomfortable and awkward."
"I suspect my resting b*tch face and bad attitude probably shields me from being mom-shamed. I can't recall anything. I sort of wish someone would mom-shame me to my face, or mom-shame anyone in front of me. They'd get an epic verbal beat-down."