Every mom has been there: a stranger suggests that you ought to be feeding your kids differently; or a friend makes clear that her preference for bedtime needs to be yours as well. No matter what the situation or the intent of the person dishing out the unsolicited opinion, these instances serve to make mothers feel as though they are not good enough at being a mom. The scenario is so common that it has a term: mommy shaming. “I think it has to do with the fact that there is no perfect mom and we can’t know if we’re doing it right,” speculates Joanna Chambers, M.D., psychiatrist at Indiana University Health. “This generates feelings of insecurity, and in some cases, it leads to criticizing or preaching to other moms.” Though Dr. Chambers notes that there is no published research that addresses why this phenomenon of mommy shaming has developed, she has some theories on how it has evolved and what mothers can do to quell it.
“We are dealing with a generation of mothers who are used to the instant feedback of technology and the immediate recognition that comes with trophies simply for participating, but you often don’t get that immediate reward with parenting,” says Dr. Chambers. “There is no trophy for motherhood.” In fact, motherhood can seem downright unrewarding at times. “Our kids don’t tell us if we’re doing it right, and what works for one child often doesn’t work for another because our children are born with different needs,” says Dr. Chambers. The result is that many moms are left searching for validation that they may not get from their children. Instead, they turn to other moms to make themselves feel better. “Finding fault with how someone else is parenting can temporarily make some people feel more secure in their own choices—but it’s a false notion,” explains Dr. Chambers. Even if a person is well intentioned in her advice, pushing it onto other moms doesn’t make her parenting perfect. “It still stems from a sense of insecurity that she needs others to do the same things she’s doing. Because if you’re truly comfortable with what you’re doing, then there should be no need to convince someone else.”
Stand your ground
There are several things moms can do to deflect mommy shaming. For instance, if you’re feeling bothered by how someone close to you is behaving, Dr. Chambers suggests a heart to heart talk to explain how that person’s opinions make you feel. “You could say, ‘I’m really comfortable with the way I’m raising my kids and you need to be fine with it too. Otherwise our relationship needs to change.’”
You could also use kindness to put things in perspective. For example, if the person making you feel like you’re not doing a good job is your mother or mother-in-law, let her know that you respect the way she raised her children and that she did a wonderful job, which is perhaps why you are a competent parent now, says Dr. Chambers. “Tell her, ‘I will ask for your advice when I need it but I also need the freedom to figure things out myself.’”
Another tactic is to use humor. When people make off-handed remarks about what you should or shouldn’t do, Dr. Chambers suggests you have some comments at the ready, such as, “My guess is my kids will end up being happy citizens anyway.” Or, “My kids have survived this long, I think they’re on a pretty good track.”
Of course, it’s also key to surround yourself with people who make you feel good. If that chat room online makes you doubt your parenting prowess, log off. And if that person in your new mom group is too pushy with her opinions, find a new group. There are plenty of mothers out there who are more interested in being supportive to each other than tearing each other down.
Keep your eye on what’s important to you
“It’s okay to have different goals and different ways of raising our kids,” says Dr. Chambers. She suggests that you think about what your goals and hopes are for your child—separate from what you want yourself—and work toward those. “We tend to project ourselves onto our children. Sometimes that means we want them to have what we had, or we want them to attain what we weren’t able to attain. So make sure your goals for your children are really genuine to who they are, rather than completing your own stories,” she says.
And if you’re ever tempted to impose your own philosophy on a fellow mom, keep in mind that “every mom is doing her very best and wants the best for her child,” says Dr. Chambers. “The premise behind our interactions with mothers needs to be that every mom sets out to be the best mom she can be.” And there’s absolutely no shame in that.
-- By Rachel Rabkin Peachman