Mom shame: we've all experienced it. Whether it's a random stranger clucking her tongue over the bottle of formula we're giving our infant, a mother-in-law questioning how we've dressed our toddler, or that social media "friend" giving us a tactless lecture on car seat safety in the comments of a picture, all of us have been judged and diminished for the the ways we've chosen to raise our children (and the things we very reasonably didn't know). And, admit it: you've done it, too. But why do we mom shame? Is there a psychological reason for it? Is it sheerly sociological? And what can we do about it?
The 2017 C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health sheds some light on just how prevalent mom-shaming is. In a national sample of mothers with children between birth and 5 years of age, 61 percent reported having been criticized for their parenting choices. The "hottest topic" among respondents was discipline, but moms also get an earful about what their kids eat, how/when/where they sleep sleep, safety, childcare, and, of course, breastfeeding versus bottle-feeding.
If we're being really and truly honest with ourselves, even though we know how crappy it is to be on the receiving end of mom-shaming, it can feel really good to put on our comfiest pair of judge-y pants and snark at (or about) someone.
These results hit close to home: between two children, I have been criticized, with varying degrees of diplomacy, for literally all of these things. My grandparents thought I was "too soft" on my son as a toddler. My cousin's girlfriend turned her nose up at what I was feeding them. "Friends" on Facebook not-so-subtly (and at times overtly) told me I was being reckless for co-sleeping. A mom at preschool drop off let me know just how "surprised" she was that I'd "already" chosen to turn my toddler from rear-facing to forward-facing in her car seat. Child-free coworkers questioned how I could ever send my oldest to daycare. As for breastfeeding and bottle feeding? I've done and been judged for both by everyone from strangers on the internet to in-laws who wanted to know if I was "still nursing... isn't that weird at their age, though?"
Of course, if we're being really and truly honest with ourselves, even though we know how crappy it is to be on the receiving end of mom-shaming, it can feel really good to put on our comfiest pair of judge-y pants and snark at (or about) someone. Or "help" them by letting them know what they could be doing instead.
"As much as I hate getting unsolicited parenting advice, I've given it," says "G," 34, who understandably wished to remain anonymous (even though we have all been her at some point). "I don't to it to hurt someone anyone else's feelings; I'm trying to be helpful. Or I'm so interested in promoting my way of thinking that I don't stop to think whether it will hurt someone's feelings." But it's not just the unsolicited advice, of course. "It doesn't feel good to admit it, but I've gossiped about other moms. I've always felt icky about it afterwards, but in the moment I guess it felt good to be in a self-affirming echo chamber with someone else."
Gone are the days when you had to leave your house to be accosted by other people's unsolicited opinions.
From a psychological perspective, says Alexandra Sacks M.D., a reproductive psychiatrist and coauthor of a forthcoming book on the emotions of pregnancy and new motherhood, the smug satisfaction one gets from mom-shaming makes sense. “I think that mom-shaming is a psychological reaction to the feelings of pressure and chaos that are natural in motherhood," Sacks, who is an ambassador of Plum Organic's "Keeping It Together" campaign, tells Romper. "Shaping a vulnerable human who you love with all of your heart is a huge responsibility."
When faced with these high stakes, Sacks explains, mothers sometimes get "black and white" in their thinking. "To reassure themselves that they’re a 'good mom,' they may judge different parenting approaches as 'bad' or even shameful," she says. "This black-and-white thinking may lead to a temporary boost in confidence, but it’s usually short-lived and often has the unfortunate consequence of putting someone else down."
And, in these fast-paced modern times, there are so many venues open to mom-shaming. Gone are the days when you had to leave your house to be accosted by other people's unsolicited opinions. From the comfort of your own couch (or, in the spirit of honesty, bathroom, because it's the only place you can hide from your children for five minutes), you can experience a barrage of snide judgment from the hellscape of social media (so many platforms...) or the even lower circle of Hades that is anonymous Internet comments.
What's worse is that even as we beat ourselves up for not being perfect we start to take it out on other moms, who are also just doing their best.
While mom-shaming is nothing new (ask your moms and grandmas: they will have stories), the way it manifests might look different. "We’re in the information era," Sacks says, "where we have the illusion that knowledge gives us more control over everything, including biology, than we really do. Social media is an aspirational platform — some of us like it because it’s unrealistic, which can be fun, like watching an escapist movie. But, she warns, "The problem with unrealistic idealized images of motherhood on social media is that some moms may think that there’s something wrong if their life doesn't look like that, and then they feel shame."
One such mom is Ashley F., 32, who tells Romper she made the decision to quit "online mommy crap."
"I post pictures of my kids, but I don't follow mommybloggers or lifestyle bloggers or go to parenting message boards anymore," she says. "It's a cycle: [lifestyle bloggers] show you a perfect life. Then you feel like you have to do that, so you create an ideal narrative about yourself online, and then other people see that and they try to do the same, so they go back to the Instagram 'experts' to get inspiration and tips and none of it is real life. But what's worse is that even as we beat ourselves up for not being perfect we start to take it out on other moms, who are also just doing their best."
... We need to let go of the idea that there is One Ideal Mother out there who we're not living up to. And even if there were, she would screw up sometimes, too.
And yet, for many, the pressures to live up to that idealized version of motherhood are real. In fact, in a survey of 1,000 new parents conducted by Plum Organics, 65 percent of new parents said they downplay the challenges of parenthood in conversations with others and 72 percent do the same on social media.
So what can we do about it?
First of all, we need to let go of the idea that there is One Ideal Mother out there who we're not living up to. And even if there were, she would screw up sometimes, too.
“A marker of psychological wellness is being able to accept that none of us is perfect," Sacks tells Romper. “If we can talk more about good-enough mothering — because perfect mothering is not a realistic option — I think that women would start to speak more openly about the complex real feelings that we’re all having, which would help us all feel less ashamed.”
So speak up! The greatest tool we have against mom-shaming is our truth.
“Sharing a more honest version of your story," Sacks says, "in person and on social media, may help you realize that your imperfect experience is more common than you think.”
Yes: on social media, too! It turns out that, in this modern age, the source of so many of these ills may have a role to play in making things better. It's like Beyoncé said: "my torturer became my remedy." Oh that Beyoncé, so wise, so wonderful... but not perfect.
Not even Beyoncé, you guys. And if Beyoncé can't be perfect, none of us ever will be. So let's stop trying, and focus on what we can do to make this motherhood thing better for all of us.
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.