Why Moms Mom-Shame
Lindsay Powers Eichmann had been a mother for three weeks when she experienced her first bout of mom-shaming. "We were at Target, and a woman came up to us and said, 'Oh my goodness, what are you doing with a baby that small out in the world?!'" she recalls. Eichmann and her husband had been proud and relieved to make it out of the house, but the comment made her reconsider. Things snowballed from there.
"People would tell me ridiculous things," she says. "When I was doing the cry-it-out method, someone said, "Oh, he'll never attach to you—haven't you heard of the Romanian orphans?" referring to decades-old research performed on severely neglected infants.
Eichmann's experience shouldn't be a surprise to any mom. A 2017 report from Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital found that nearly two-thirds of mothers have been "shamed" for their parenting decisions, criticized for everything from the way they discipline their children to the foods they feed them. Add social media to the mix, and it feels like every parenting decision you make is up for judgment and scrutinized by those around you—minus all the important context.
"We don't have a culture that is set up for families," says Eichmann, a Brooklyn-based journalist, parent-shaming expert, and author of the forthcoming book, "You Can't F**k Up Your Kids." "Parents have to work really, really hard to raise their children." For some, the experience makes them more compassionate to new moms. But for others, she says, "There's a sense of, if I did this, so can you."
That's what drives Anna, a New Jersey-based mom of one, to make cutting comments to other parents. "I know that a lot of it has to do with my own feelings—I'm a single parent, so I do sometimes feel I have a chip on my shoulder when I hear a mom complaining about how stressed she is," she explains. Her judgments usually come out in Facebook groups, she says, but she's let a few comments slip IRL, too.
"I might play concerned, but in doing so, just point out how she doesn't even know what stress really is," she says. "I'll say something like, 'Oh, wow, it sounds like you're having a really hard time with your husband out of town for a weekend, and just your mom to help out. As a single parent without family nearby, I feel like it's not too hard, so I don't really know what to suggest, lol!'" Sometimes, she says, she'll tack on some useful advice so she comes across as caring, rather than nasty.
Experts think moms like Anna turn to mom-shaming as a way to validate their own parenting abilities.
"Some women feel they need to shame another mother so they can feel a little better about themselves, even if it's unconscious," explains Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT, an NYC-based therapist who often works with new mothers. But for many, dissing another mom's choices stems from insecurity over their own decisions. "As mothers, when we finally find something that feels right and true for us, we cling to it," says Thompson. "So when another mother makes a different choice, it's sometimes easier to shame and blame, rather than sit with the fear that we made the wrong decision."
At a time when parenting styles have become a sort of personal brand, it can feel like an attack when someone makes a contradictory choice. "People feel very connected to their parenting decisions," says Eichmann. "[When someone does something differently,] it causes them to question, 'Am I doing it wrong?'" Those feelings might prompt someone to make shaming comments, critiquing the other parent's style in favor of their own.
What results is a lose-lose situation: Defensive moms critique other moms, who then feel bad about their own decisions. "Women, when they feel judged and criticized, often feel anxious and depressed," explains Thompson. "They turn away from the community that could help support them and often feel alone and isolated, [which] can add to postpartum depression and anxiety."
Jane, a mom of two living in Westchester, recalls a moment when her youngest child was 18 months old. "He was strapped to me in a Baby Bjorn, in the subway station, and instinctively, I ran for the train," she says. "I shoved myself on the train, to try to stop the doors from closing—my head was in a different place, but it was a dumb thing to do." Instantly, she says, she felt the wrath of her fellow moms.
"There was a woman on the platform who shouted at me, 'What kind of mother are you? Who does that? Who does that? You shouldn't be blessed with a child!'" The rest of the crowd was gawking and shooting her dirty looks. She says the exchange caused her to think twice the next time she was entering the subway with her kids, but left her insecure and emotionally shattered.
While Thompson is concerned for parents' wellbeing, she's also worried about what their anxiety might mean for their children. "When we feel judged as mothers, we are often less patient with our children and often feel more critical of them," she says. "We can pass that shame forward and start to shame our kids."
The 2017 Mott Poll found that shaming comments had negative outcomes for both moms and their kids, says its co-director, Sarah Clark, MPH. When moms feel shamed by someone, they tend to limit the amount of time they, and their children, spend around the shamer. That might mean skipping out on holidays with in-laws, or even opting out of playgroups, or important opportunities for their little ones. "So much about parenting is helping kids to develop through interaction," says Clark. "And all of that normal development is contingent on a parent who is in a normal, healthy state."
So what can parents do? The experts agree that standing up to shaming requires tuning out what other parents say, and tuning into what works for you. In the moment, that often means brushing off criticism—with a little inspiration from celebrities."I notice more people like Chrissy Teigen, who says to her Instagram followers, 'OK, stop,'" says Clark of the model, who's faced nasty comments for everything from using IVF to leaving her daughter at home on date night.
"I don't know how she does it," Clark adds, "because she obviously has a level of beauty and wealth that most people aren't attaining, but she addresses this kind of thing in such an it-could-be-any-of-us way." Teigen's pithy replies, says Clark, serve as great inspiration for moms who are subject to their own shaming comments, whether on social media or in real life. "Parents may be unsure of how to respond, and now it's perfectly laid out for you," she says.
Jane, meanwhile, suggests thinking twice before you comment on another mom's actions. If you're really concerned that she's making the wrong decision—like Jane was, wedging herself in the train—consider how to offer help, rather than condemnation. "She could've had a word privately, or asked if there was anything she could do to help," says Jane, of the woman who shamed her in the subway station. "But she was very judgemental like I was a really bad mother. And she made me feel terrible." When it comes to mom-shaming, she says, "I think the negatives far outweigh the positives."