Parenting critiques may be well-intentioned, but they’re not without consequences, a new poll finds. One mom shares her experiences — and what others should know.
Last winter brought a season of exhaustion and frustration in Anna Kauffman’s household as her two young daughters seemed to continuously get sick.
Fever. Runny nose. Repeat.
So the recurring comment she heard from people stung: “They get sick a lot because they are in day care,” she was told.
“When you’re dealing with something like this and you’re already tired and then someone makes a comment that indirectly seems to blame you, it can be really hurtful,” says Kauffman, 32, who is responsible for digital media related to the monthly C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health.
It’s just one example of what’s been dubbed “mommy shaming.”
As a mom to Olive, 3, and Pearl, 1, Kauffman has faced her share of parenting decisions. How long to breastfeed? Comfort a crying child all night or let her cry it out? Timeouts or not?
And she has witnessed other moms get shamed for the decisions they make.
These experiences helped inspire this month’s Mott poll topic on mommy shaming.
In the national poll, 6 in 10 mothers of children ages 0 to 5 said they have been criticized about parenting, on everything from discipline to breastfeeding. Moms most frequently felt second-guessed by a spouse or the child’s other parent, in-laws or their own parents.
Kauffman explains more about the poll — and how moms can help one another:
What is “mommy shaming”?
Kauffman: Mommy shaming is when other people (relatives, strangers at the grocery store, other moms on the playground, etc.) openly criticize a mom for her parenting choices, which might cause her to feel ashamed or doubt herself.
We hear a lot about mommy shaming related to celebrities on social media. For example, Chrissy Teigen became a recent target when she and her husband, John Legend, were photographed having dinner together not long after their daughter was born.
Critics hurled insults and accusations at Teigen for leaving her baby with another person so soon after her birth, indicating that it’s not socially acceptable for a mom to take a break and have dinner with her husband.
While the celebrity examples of mom shaming are high-profile, normal everyday moms experience criticism, too, and it can be just as hurtful.
How have the internet and social media affected both the way moms are perceived and perceived criticism of parenting?
Kauffman: Social media definitely has its benefits, like helping moms feel more connected to friends and family who live far away.
But in my experience, social media can also be a platform for comparison and criticism that makes being a mom especially difficult. The expectations set by picture-perfect families and Pinterest parties are too much for anyone to live up to — especially if they seem like a stark contrast to a mom’s own home life.
Add in the conflicting pressures from friends and family who want moms to share more photos and stories about their kids versus the pressures from other friends and family who say moms are sharing too much about their kids — it’s enough to make even the most put-together mom feel frazzled.
What have your experiences with mommy shaming been like?
Kauffman: For me, it’s the smaller comments that add up over time that have the most impact, or a comment that caught me on a day that was already stressful for a number of other reasons.
This highlights that while some comments don’t seem like they would be hurtful from an outsider’s perspective, they still make a negative impact when you consider the context of everything else going on for a mom of young kids — sleep deprivation, hormones, stress — along with the volume of unsolicited advice that moms receive.
Most comments I’ve heard are related to feeding and nutrition, and they span a broad range of opinions. People will comment that my children don’t eat enough, while others will say they eat too much.
I’ve also received unsolicited nonprofessional comments about how healthy my daughters’ diet is, as well as criticism that my children drink too much milk, which will lead to health problems. Another common criticism is that I am too worked up about my kids’ diet and I should just relax.
Comments like these that come out of the blue are a lot to take in and sort out, especially when a mom is already exhausted, stressed and trying her best to make good choices for her kids.
What did you learn from the Mott poll findings, and what was most surprising?
Kauffman: We found out that a lot of moms — about 6 in 10 — have experienced criticism about their parenting. Most commonly, the criticism comes from people close to the mom, such as their spouse or the child’s other parent, their in-laws or their own parents.
The topics that generate the most criticism are discipline, diet and nutrition, and sleep. Importantly, half of the moms who have experienced criticism say they avoid people who are too critical, and a little more than 4 in 10 moms say criticism has led them to become unsure about their parenting choices. This is important because a lot of times people think they are helping by offering advice to a mom with young kids. But if that advice is interpreted as criticism, it can be very counterproductive.
How does this shaming affect the health of moms and kids?
Kauffman: When a mom perceives that she’s been shamed, it can shake her confidence and increase her anxiety about parenting. Raising young children is a very raw time in life, especially the first few years when moms have to make several choices every day on behalf of their children. Criticism can impact a mom’s ability to make these important decisions, and over time this can be harmful to the health of both moms and kids.
From the perspective of a mom, what mommy-shaming trends are most hurtful?
Kauffman: For me, it’s easier to brush off or laugh about random, unsolicited comments from strangers. But when a comment comes from someone I trust, it can be more hurtful. Another factor is how much research I had already put into making a parenting choice. If I felt confident and well-informed about my choice, then someone made a comment that called that into question, it might trigger frustration more quickly than a comment about something I hadn’t put much thought into.
Blame is another big one. When something bad happens like a child getting hurt or sick, comments that a mom is to blame for that happening can be very hurtful.
I think that the desire to be a good mom is a natural one, and most moms put a lot of energy into making the best choices for their families. When that is called into question, it can negatively impact a mom’s confidence in herself and her abilities as a mother. Most moms are really doing their part to make good choices, and I think they deserve more credit than they’re often given.
What are positive ways moms can respond to mommy shaming?
Kauffman: We found in the Mott poll that moms respond to criticism in a number of ways, some more positive than others.
Many moms in the Mott poll who experienced criticism went into research mode by searching for information on their own or asking a health care provider for advice about a topic. I’ve gone into many of my daughters’ well-child exams with a mental list of new topics of concern to vet with their doctor, who patiently tells me whether those issues are even “a thing” I need to worry about (most of the time, they’re not).Another positive message from the poll is that 56 percent of moms who experienced criticism decided to stop criticizing other moms as a result. Moms choosing to band together and support one another rather than criticize one another could go a long way.
Is all advice off-limits? What can people say to moms that will be helpful?
Kauffman: The old saying “it takes a village to raise a child” still applies. Moms need support and help to guide them through the early years of parenting. I have found advice from other moms who have kids the same age as mine or moms of older kids who have already survived the early years to be extremely helpful.
It’s good to offer help to moms of young kids, but it’s also important to keep in mind that supportive comments will be more helpful than critical comments. Sometimes, a mom just needs to hear that she’s doing a good job.
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