In a media driven world where people can comment on just about anything with a click of an iPhone, “mom shaming” has become a popular new form of expression. Mom shaming is when someone posts a comment or photo of a mom online doing something that has been deemed inappropriate or “shameful” and readers jump on the bandwagon to comment and further chastise her behavior.
Mom shaming can take more subtle forms, like a judgmental glance by a passerby or a nonchalant comment from a fellow mom at the park. It can come from people who don’t have children, and it can quickly be dismissed with thoughts like, “They just don’t understand what it’s like.” But most mom-shaming comes from our own kind—other moms. Why do we do this to each other? And what is mom shaming actually about?
One of the biggest mom shaming topics focuses on breastfeeding. The current wisdom you will hear from doctors is that women should breastfeed exclusively until babies are 6 months of age, as it has been associated with a variety of health benefits for both the baby and for the mother. This recommendation makes the decision of whether or not to nurse sound easy, but, in reality, it isn’t for many of us. Some of us can’t nurse for medical reasons. Others try but struggle with latching issues, production, or clots. Some women can do it while on maternity leave but have to leave it at home with the baby once they go back to work, either because they don’t have the time, or because they don’t have the private space or refrigerator required to store breast milk. Should these moms be chastised for reverting to formula?
Although nursing is associated with health benefits, the strength of these benefits isn’t at all clear. It could be that parents who breastfeed are somehow different from parents who don’t breastfeed in systematic ways that lead to positive health outcomes, and breast milk itself doesn’t necessarily provide a huge benefit. We can’t know for sure. What’s most likely the case is that breast milk is better for babies than formula, but not so much better that moms who don’t nurse or can’t nurse deserve to be judged for their (likely difficult) decisions.
Another popular mom shaming issue is whether women should stay at home or go back to work after having children. This issue is a lose/lose for everyone involved, as moms who stay home get shamed for not having careers, and moms who go back to work get shamed for not spending every waking hour with their babies. The truth is that whether to stay home or go back to work is one of the most difficult decisions that many of us will ever face, and there is no right or wrong answer. I happen to love my job, and I cried for a solid hour the night before I went back to work after having my son. Deciding to go back to work doesn’t mean I don’t love him; some of us can love our children and our jobs. Others have to go back to work simply because they can’t afford not to. And some of us decide it’s actually less expensive to leave our jobs and stay home instead of paying for an expensive daycare. Although it’s always great for a baby to be with his or her mom, research suggests that there are many known benefits to good daycare as well. So either way, we (and our babies) will be fine; no shame necessary.
A third big issue that inspires mom shaming is whether or not we decide to sleep train. Mothers who sleep train with cry-it-out methods are called selfish for letting their babies cry for even short periods of time, and some critics have even gone as far to call sleep-training parents abusive. Research does not support the idea that a small amount of crying is harmful to babies. In fact, one recent study looking at children who had been sleep trained as babies five years later found that there were absolutely no differences between kids who were sleep trained and those who weren’t. Sleep trained kids were no more likely to have emotional problems, sleep problems, or attachment issues than kids who weren’t sleep trained as babies. In fact, there was nothing positive or negative about sleep training in the long-term, and kids were all sleeping well at age 6 whether they were sleep trained or not. This study suggests that there aren’t any negative long-term effects of sleep training, and that there aren’t any positive ones either. That means whether parents choose cry-it-out methods, alternatives, or don’t sleep train at all, their babies will probably be fine and eventually sleep through the night. Once again, no shaming needed.
The issues discussed above are some of the most popular targets of mom shaming, but they are by no means the only ones. I’ve seen negative Facebook posts about parents who let their kids use screens at restaurants and tweets about moms who let their children have a full-blown temper tantrums in public. I’ve been given dirty looks for setting my toddler down on a dirty office floor while I take off my coat and have even had a stranger point out to me that my son’s feet were being unnecessarily exposed to too much sun in his stroller.
You might be thinking that these people are just mean spirited, but it’s more likely that we are all guilty of mom shaming. We might not do it with social media, but we do it with our eyes, and we do it with our thoughts. It happens so quickly that we don’t even know it’s happening. The truth behind mom shaming is that we usually do it when we think a fellow mom is making a bad decision for her child’s well being. The kicker is, the shamed mom is likely acting in a way that she thinks is, in fact, best for her child. In the end, what we all want is what’s best for our kids. This is what drives all of our decisions, even the decision to shame other women. What we have to remember is that it’s fine to have opinions about how to raise our children, and it’s fine to disagree with the way other moms do it, but we all want the same thing—we want our children to be safe, healthy, and happy.
Here’s the moral of this story: let’s give each other a break and take it easy on the mom shaming. Parenting is a hard job, and we need constant support, encouragement, and comfort to do it well. Most importantly, we need each other. Motherhood produces constant feelings of anxiety, guilt, and fear. Instead of adding shame to that list, let’s sprinkle in a little bit of understanding, particularly the understanding that we can never fully realize another woman’s struggles or the reasoning behind her “shameful” decisions. If we choose respect instead of shame, we can trust that the decisions we all make come from the very same place—a place of love.