By nature, motherhood is an emotional journey filled with daily choices about how to raise your kids and how you are as a mother to your children. Because we love our children, we have strong emotions about these decisions, and because these decisions have an impact on our lives and the lives of our children, we wonder if we’re doing the right thing for our child and our family. Because of this, sometimes we look at other families who are making choices that are different from our own and question if we, or they, are making the right choice, and unfortunately, that can lead to shaming other moms or being shamed by other moms.
Jade Elliott spoke with Laura Cipro, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner with Intermountain Healthcare who treats children and adults for both emotional needs, to talk with us about mom shaming — what it is, and how to manage it if you experience it, and how to avoid doing it yourself.
What is shame?
Shame (verb) – the act of making or causing someone to feel guilt, humiliation, or distress.
Shame (noun) – as defined famously by Brene Brown (researcher at the University of Houston, author, and podcast host) as “an intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and something we’ve done or failed to do makes us unworthy.”
It’s important to understand that shame is different from guilt, which is an awareness of hurt or harm caused to others). Shame is not a productive feeling and breeds insecurity and anxiety, whereas guilt can motivate change.
“Mom shaming” is criticizing a mother for her parenting choices because they differ from the choices the person shaming would make or has made.
Why is mom-shaming especially damaging?
1. It’s unfair
It doesn’t take into account that as mothers we are often not the sole caregivers for our children. Mom shaming doesn’t consider the role of fathers, other caregivers (grandparents, daycare providers, nannies, babysitters, etc). Fathers especially, don’t receive the same level of scrutiny for parenting choices that mothers face, and that is certainly a double standard.
Mom shaming also doesn’t take into account other factors such as financial constraints and how this affects parenting choices. It doesn’t take into account that single moms carry heavier parenting burdens than those who have a partner. It also doesn’t take into account that all children are different, and one parenting style or approach will not meet the needs of or be effective for all kids.
2. It leads to unreasonably high expectations of mothers
It reinforces antiquated ideas and narratives that mothers have to be perfect and that we are defined by how we raise our children, rather than the idea that raising our children is just one part of who we are. Women are not only mothers, but employees, coworkers, friends, daughters, sisters, partners, athletes, leaders, etc. We can’t operate in all of these roles at 100 percent all the time. Social media can contribute to unrealistic expectations, when people are posting all their ideal moments, but not the true reality moments.
When mothers can’t meet these unrealistic expectations, they are set up to be disappointed, feel like failures, or become insecure about their parenting abilities. Data shows this can lead to an increase in rates of anxiety and depression in mothers.
3. Mom shaming also affects children
Mom shaming can cause the shamed mother to be insecure or anxious about their parenting abilities and choices and compensate by “over-parenting.” Over-parenting can undermine children’s confidence, independence and subsequently their ability to cope with life’s challenges. When children make their own mistakes, it’s an opportunity for them to learn from those mistakes and grow and develop their character.
Why is it unhelpful to criticize the decisions other parents make during the pandemic, when they’re faced with difficult choices about school, work and childcare?
First, I think it’s especially hard during a pandemic not to be invested in other parents’ decision making, because their choices just might directly affect you and your child’s health. However, it’s also especially not helpful during a pandemic to criticize or shame others. There are so many factors. Every family situation is multi-factorial. The pandemic adds more factors. We can’t possibly know all of the factors other parents face, so we shouldn’t judge.
We only see the tip of the iceberg of family life
I like to think of the photo of the iceberg floating in the ocean. The top 10 percent of the iceberg is visible above the water to the naked eye, but underneath the water lies the remaining 90 percent of the iceberg. This is how we should be thinking about other families. Outsiders looking in, see or know 10 percent (or less) of what is going on in that mother’s life that contributes to the choices her family makes during this pandemic. We don’t know the other 90 percent.
For example, I might not know that one of her children has an underlying health conditions, I might not know she is caring for an elderly relative, I might not know she is an essential worker, I definitely don’t know her financial situation, etc). We are all weighing the risks for our specific situations.
No one should judge others for the decision they make during this pandemic in regard to childcare, education, attending public events, etc. because the factors leading to the decisions to home school, attend in-person school, get a nanny, go to daycare, skip the neighborhood birthday celebration or whatever are undoubtedly different than the factors that myself, or you, or the mother down the street evaluated in order to determine what she felt was best for her family.
We all have anxieties and the COVID-19 pandemic has added some
Also, from a mental health perspective, no one feels 100 percent confident about the decisions they’ve made. We can’t, because there’s still so much unknown about this virus. There’s still risk that we are all accepting for whatever choice our family makes, and a certain level of anxiety and fear about that risk and that decision.
In addition to all of our baseline anxieties, we now add the fear of living in a pandemic, facing rising unemployment, adjusting to a new normal for family life, work, school, etc. In my practice I see many children with online learning challenges, and motivational challenges due to the pandemic.
Studies find worsening mental health for parents and children since the pandemic
According to an American Academy of Pediatrics study about the effects of the pandemic on mental health, more than one in four parents reported worsening mental health, and one in seven reported worsening behavioral health for their children since coronavirus began to spread in March. About 10 percent reported that both parent and child were affected. Mental health decline was reported most by females and unmarried parents. Families with younger children had highest rates of declining mental and behavioral health.
A recent CDC study found that almost 41 percent of adult respondents are struggling with mental health issues stemming from the pandemic – both related to the coronavirus pandemic itself and the measures put in place to contain it, including physical distancing and stay-at-home orders.
Support other parents even when their decisions differ greatly from our own
People right now don’t need the added shame and anxiety from others criticizing and critiquing the choices we’ve made. We need to be supporting others and helping them through these difficult times.
Respect the choices they’ve made for their family and the boundaries they’ve set during the pandemic. Don’t pressure or push others outside of their comfort zone.
Communicate support for the choices other moms make
Focus on the positive and offer non-judgmental support.
Re-frame your thinking to be supportive of other moms
I think there can be a tendency to interpret differences in choices as a dig about the choice that you’ve made. Re-framing can be especially important here. Rather than seeing differences as a challenge to your choice or critique of your choice, try to see the underlying struggle that might have led this mother to her choice. For example: A mother’s decision to send her kids back to school might reflect her insecurity about her own ability to be an effective teacher. I think it’s easier to have compassion when we look at the issue this way. Also, remember that all mothers want the best for their kids and we all have this in common.
Tools moms can use if they experience mom-shaming
Use disarming statements. This is a tool I teach children to cope with bullies, and I think it applies, since people who mom shame are engaging in a type of bullying. Disarming statements are neutral responses that aim to shut down a conversation, help a person stand up for themselves, and not engage in bullying back. For example: “Thanks for sharing your opinion.” “Hmmm I’ll have to think about that.” Or “I don’t appreciate when my choices are questioned.” “I try not to comment on others’ parenting styles.”
For more information
Intermountain Healthcare has a free emotional health relief hotline available. The phone number is 833-442-2211. It’s available 7 days a week from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Interpretation services are available.
To find out more about Intermountain’s behavioral health resources, visit: https://intermountainhealthcare.org/services/behavioral-health/
The Baby Your Baby program provides many resources for all pregnant women and new moms in Utah. There is also expert advice from the Utah Department of Health and Intermountain Healthcare that air each week on KUTV 2News.