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August 08, 2017

Mom shaming: Six in 10 mothers have experienced this. But why?

More than half of all mothers in America have been mom shamed, according to a new report. A recent study by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital says that six in 10 mothers have experienced criticism about their parenting, mainly concerning their children’s discipline, diet/nutrition and sleep. This condemnation is coming mostly from family members and friends rather than strangers at the coffee shop. For most of us parents, this comes as no surprise.

I have been mom shamed a few times. The first was when a mother in a playgroup I attended told me in no uncertain terms that starting my 4-month-old son on rice cereal would lead him to develop food allergies. She acted like I was feeding him poison. I listened to her thoughts (read: judgmental diatribe) on the subject, knowing that she has kids with a lot of allergies, which was most likely coloring her opinion. But I was angry as I listened to her lecture me. I wanted to ask where she obtained her medical degree (she is not a doctor) since she was obviously better informed than my son’s pediatrician. I wanted to snap, “Your so-called knowledge is completely outdated and wrong!” Instead, I changed the subject and let it go. If I am being honest, I still feel some resentment toward this woman. She acted like I was a bad parent. I have pretty thick skin, but her denigration cut deep.

There was another time when a friend who I really like started talking about her decision to delay her son’s vaccinations. I know a few parents who did the same and did some research about whether it was the right option for my son before my husband and I decided to follow our pediatrician’s advice and the CDC’s recommended schedule. What started as a lighthearted conversation turned a little sour when she mentioned that she knew way more about this topic than anyone else in the room. That’s when another friend piped in and made her pro-vaccination feelings known in equally certain terms. I found a reason to leave the room rather than stay in a conversation that had no upside.

When we are trying our best, listening to our doctor’s advice and giving our all to our children, any kind of negative feedback can really sting. The moms who have shamed me for my choices have probably experienced the same type of unwarranted criticism from others. I know I have silently judged other parents even though I think it is terrible behavior, which begs the question, why are we doing this to each other?

There are some theories about why parents seem to enjoy tearing other parents down these days. Have we become a society of know-it-alls who condemn and judge at will? Perhaps our own self-critique is manifesting into external judgment to make ourselves feel better? Has social media made it easier for us to weigh in on a stranger, friend or relative’s parenting choices? Or has mom shaming been around forever but now is simply more quantified and discussed?

I asked my mother, who had her children in the 1980s, if she ever experienced mom shaming. She said that she was never told directly that she was doing something wrong, but there was a constant competition about whose child was better. She said it was more common that people would comment on the behavior or development of her daughters, which was an indirect critique on her parenting skills. She might hear, “Well, my child sleeps through the night,” or “My child was riding a bike at 2 years old.” My mom thinks people talked more behind someone’s back rather than to their face when she was a young mother. So mom shaming is not entirely new, it is just now more direct both in-person and online.

Aside from the sheer number of mothers who are reporting a personal experience with mom shaming, I was most disturbed that they said friends and family members are the most critical. This is the exact opposite of what all humans need and desire from those closest to them! I am lucky that I have really supportive friends and family. My parents tell my husband and me all the time that we are great parents and that they are very proud of us. This kind of praise is priceless to my self-esteem, especially coming from the two best parents I know. Their encouragement tells me that I am doing well by my son and doing right as a new mother. It is like they are cheering me on as I am running a marathon, giving me an extra boost during moments when I need it most. Like many parents, I have questioned my abilities and wondered if I am as good of a mom as I am striving to be. If I was only hearing criticism about my efforts, I would feel demoralized and probably a little depressed. This would be entirely counterintuitive to the kind of support that we parents need.

While I think critiquing in the form of mom shaming is wrong, that is not to say that I do not want advice. In an effort to be a great mom to my precious baby boy, I actively seek guidance from parents who I respect and admire. I am constantly asking my parents for their opinions about everything from teething troubles to nap time, from sippy cups to swim lessons. When my son was born, my mom said that she would keep her opinions to herself. I said, "Please don’t!" I need her help and I value her input. Part of why I enjoy sharing my experience and writing this column is because I think a dialogue with other parents has been so helpful to my learning over the past year and a half since I found out I was pregnant. I want to hear what other parents think and what has or has not worked for them and their children. I want to expand my understanding and knowledge. But there is a way to present helpful information in a way that is not criticism. We can understand that some parents choose to do things differently than we personally prefer. I think this distinction is so important, especially because many new parents – especially mothers – are dealing with a lot of stress and upheaval of emotions. As long as a child is not being harmed or negatively impacted in any way, I like the sentiment: “To each his own.”

I know a mother who has been criticized because she is no longer giving her baby girl breast milk after nursing her for the first several months of her life. On the flip side, occasionally when I tell people I am still nursing my 10-month-old son, they look at me as if I am crazy. Sometimes it feels like people are going to find fault with whatever you are doing. But pay no mind. If you are following the advice of your doctors and your child is happy and thriving, who cares what the critics say! When you receive a judgmental lecture from someone, I recommend changing the subject, telling them that you appreciate their insight (even if you don’t) or simply saying you agree to disagree. Make like T. Swift and shake it off.

Moreover, how about we as parents collectively decide to stop this trend. Let’s end mom (and dad, and guardian, and grandparent) shaming. Let’s stop shaming altogether! We live in a great nation that allows our freedom to be individuals. There are lots of different ways to be a good parent and take good care of your children. Let’s accept that it is OK to be different and remember that what unites us is a common need for support and love – not only for ourselves but for our kids, too.

Have you experienced parental shaming? What advice can you provide to others? Share your thoughts with me and other parents in the comments section below or tweet me at @ThePhillyVoice and @KathleenEGagnon.

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