Recently someone asked about my 1-year-old, “When will you know if she can sleep through the night?”
I pursed my lips and growled inside. The dreaded sleep question! As someone who has chosen not to sleep-train my child, I get the dreaded sleep question a lot. Soothing my daughter back to sleep, rather than asking her to soothe herself, has worked for our family. But instead of feeling confident in my choices and replying with something that might have put this person’s concern to rest, I just felt annoyed and tongue-tied and terribly, terribly judged.
It was my first encounter with “mommy shaming,” a type of criticism or judgment on parenting style, reserved specifically for mothers, that is alive and thriving in our culture today. No mom is safe: it happens to celebrities and nobodies, online and in person. The reasons for the shame vary, psychologists say, but there are methods to help women cope and move on from the sting.
In some ways, the practice of shaming other mothers seems counter-intuitive.
“Parenting is the hardest and best thing you’ll ever do,” says Dr. Larry Beer, licensed psychologist, licensed professional counselor, and president of Child & Family Psychological Services in Kalamazoo and Portage. “It’s the most meaningful thing any of us have ever done and we feel so vulnerable doing it.”
If parenting is already so hard, why are we going around making it harder on each other? What gives?
Cortney Poupard, a resident of Benton Harbor and mom of one with plans for another, has been on the receiving end of mom-shaming experiences over her breast-feeding choices and offers this theory: “I think ego gets the better of people,” she says. “Rather than admit that something didn’t go great for them, they shame the way it didn’t go.”
Dr. Karen Horneffer-Ginter, licensed psychologist and co-founder of the Center for Psychotherapy and Wellness in Kalamazoo, agrees with Poupard’s assessment — aggressive opinions are the result of ego battles.
“As parents,” says Horneffer-Ginter, “we are in such vulnerable territory. We’ll never be able to pull off things perfectly. It’s a tender, raw place where it can be too painful to face that doubt. Unfortunately, self-righteousness and opinionated stances result.”
Horneffer-Ginter also posits how mommy shaming became so prevalent.
“When it comes to parenting, it’s so familiar,” she says. “We’ve all come in contact with it, whether it was our own parents or we have children of our own. For some reason, this makes people feel like experts.”
Generational differences account for some cases of shaming. Amanda (not her real name) is a Portage mom of two, with a third due in December. She got a particularly scalding lecture from her father-in-law about her children once, despite his limited exposure to them. At a family celebration in a restaurant before Easter last year, her 3-year-old enthusiastically offered his French fries to his grandparents, who were seated around him at the table.
Amanda’s father-in-law declined several times. Her son persisted. From several seats away, her father-in-law, who was strongly disciplined when he was growing up, disparaged Amanda’s parenting, saying her children don’t understand “No.”
Cultural backgrounds play a big part in expectations, as well. Amanda admits she is more confrontational than her husband, who froze when his father spoke up at the restaurant. She describes herself as coming from a non-traditional, Hispanic family where everyone is close. “We share everything,” she says. “We tell each other everything.”
She also says her husband’s family is “a classic American family.” “You didn’t talk to Dad when he got home from work. He expected to relax with the newspaper, not play with his kids,” she says.
At the restaurant, Amanda felt attacked and responded in kind. “I said: ‘My husband and I parent the way we want to parent, and there may be a reason none of your kids want to come see you,’” she says.
“Obviously,” she adds, “I shouldn’t have said that.”
Family relationships after that were tense. Amanda and her family skipped the next couple of holiday gatherings. Her father-in-law apologized and “we are cordial now,” she says.
Amanda’s response may have caused a stir, but experts say that it’s sometimes necessary to simply stick up for yourself (see opposite page for tips on how). It can be good to draw a boundary and offer a thanks-but-no-thanks approach to other people’s input. Well-meaning grandparents may not realize what a nuisance they are being and a gentle correction can help them scale back their misplaced zeal.
On the other hand, psychologists say, overt confrontation can damage relationships. If you can live without the relationship in question, go ahead and speak your mind. For other scenarios — if you have to see the shamer often or they are important to your partner — bite your tongue.
Horneffer-Ginter offers this advice: “It’s helpful for moms to have an awareness of what it is that is fueling the dynamics.” She stresses the importance of compassion — for ourselves and the other person.
“If we can be present with ourselves with a bit of tenderness, then we can extend that,” she says. “We can say, ̀maybe this person feels challenged, too, and insecure. What is their story? Can we access that?’”
The other thing Horneffer-Ginter recommends is having friends you trust with whom you can talk about a painful occurrence. “Nothing is so precious as having a circle of friendship where you can explore those things,” she says.
Beer also stresses how important it can be to keep your primary relationships intact. “We have to be aware that what we are doing as parents is our best guess,” he says.
“When someone offers unsolicited advice, in some situations, just be tactful. Just say, ̀I appreciate you caring and I need to do things my way.’”
Kalamazoo mom Nicole Craig was once reprimanded for having too shy of a child. The woman suggested Craig put her 1-year-old in daycare to make the child more personable. Craig says she wasn’t offended by the woman’s suggestion, because she could tell for that woman, daycare had been the norm.
“I just nodded and kept my mouth shut,” Craig says. When asked about other times someone butted in on her parenting, she doesn’t recall any right away. “I wonder if things happened and I just don’t remember,” she says. “Do you think confidence has anything to do with shame? I mean, is it possible I just brushed away people’s suggestions because they weren’t useful to me?”
It’s a good question. Dr. Horneffer-Ginter says it makes sense that mothers of young children are at risk for feeling threatened by unwanted advice. “It’s an unbelievable transition to move into being a parent,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if you have education, or if you are in your twenties or your forties, it can be lonely and humbling. People’s responses to criticism really vary, based on the individual.”
She suggests trying to get a metaphorical “aerial view” of the moment, whenever possible. And remember to be kind to yourself and to others, even those who are doing the shaming. Because everyone, especially another mom, suffers from worry, fear and doubt.
“It can be hard to give yourself credit for all the wonderful things you are doing right,” she says, but notes that many of the critical voices in our heads — and outside of them — serve a function.
“At the root, they are trying to say, ‘This is the most precious thing ever. I don’t want to blow it.’ That’s a good thing.”