Call it whatever you want: the Mommy wars, Mean Girls growing up, cat (or Tiger!) fighting: American culture seems to delight in watching mothers tear each other down. The most recent firestorm featuring Hilary Rosen/Ann Romney is only the latest in a long history of kerfuffles. In researching friendship horror stories for my first book, The Friendship Fix, the tales of the transition to motherhood were particularly hair-curling: women being ostracized by members of parenting message boards; new mothers feeling silenced and belittled by passive-aggressive "Sancti-Mommies"; venomous elementary school cliques not in lunchrooms, but in PTA meetings. Glaringly absent from the discussion, however, is the real damage that these conflicts can do to parents, mentally and physically. From shortening your lifespan to increasing your risk of depression, the breakdown of supportive communities and relationships has real implications. Fortunately, though, there is one often overlooked antidote to this growing trend: returning to an emphasis on quality, nourishing friendships, whether they are online, off-line, or anything in between.
Sometimes, as I chase my own children at the playground or laugh with other parents at preschool dropoff, it's easy to believe that the "war" itself is media-generated. But in the age of the Internet, and with the proliferation of parenting communities online, the media has become part of everyone's neighborhood. And mothering in the age of Facebook and WebMD is a complex prospect indeed. The very balm that provides 3 a.m. advice on just how high a fever needs to be to warrant panic can also be the enemy of a new mother's self-esteem and emotional health. Disposable diapers or cloth? Cry-it-out or cuddle 'till the sun rises? Tiger Mother, or something more resembling a pale-throated sloth? Now it's not just a neighbor or an in-law making you feel bad about your choices, but a mob of anonymous voices in your living room.
"Turn it off!" some might say, or "Focus on your real life." But for many, the Internet IS real life. The friends they have, the advice they trust, the vulnerabilities that keep them awake at night, and the yardsticks -- metaphorical and literal -- that they internalize for their children's development all play out online. As soon as people were able to get a second opinion via their smartphone while still in the doctor's office, or upload a video of their children blowing out birthday candles moments after the fact, there is no longer online versus offline life, but just rather a continuous, enmeshed stream of both.
And tuning in to these parenting conflicts is sometimes all too tempting. Parenting is stressful, and other people's drama can be escapist. We're unsure of our choices and have become accustomed to seeking out information overload. And judging someone else -- whether via an online comment or in our own head -- sometimes makes us feel better about ourselves, especially when we already feel overworked and overwhelmed and judged in our right.
But the uglier these conflicts get, the bigger the health danger. Women (and men!) entering the life-altering transition of becoming parents are arguably more in need of emotional support than during virtually any other time of their lives.
It's an oft-cited research finding that parents report more stress and less moment-to-moment happiness than non-parents. And post-partum depression, which affects 10 to 15 percent of Moms, can be debilitating and have lasting effects on mother, partner and children. By some studies, up to 14 percent of all postpartum women have suicidal ideation. Even those who don't meet full diagnostic criteria can feel more overwhelmed, emotionally unstable and alone than ever before. Don't they get enough screaming from their newborn that they don't need to get it from society as well?
This is not to say that all conflict is bad. Certainly, a forced group hug is not necessary (our shirts are stained enough already). And sometimes the best kind of friend is the one who will give you a strong opinion about a choice you're facing. Embracing diversity and spirited discourse are arguably among the best behaviors we can embrace for our children.
But media coverage of the Mommy Wars is often sensationalized, oversimplified and belittling. Instead of encouraging women to find help in the form of quality relationships, it often implies that connecting with other Moms will leave you worse off than before. The longer we avoid the real issue -- that parenting can be a terrifying endeavor, and that for all our online connectivity, many Americans feel lonelier, more distressed, less satisfied and more disconnected than ever before -- the worse these wars will get.
In the meantime, what's a mother to do?
The answer is surprisingly simple, though not necessarily easy: focus on improving one's friendships. Quality social support is one of the strongest predictors of life satisfaction and mental health well into old age. The ability to choose friends and communities wisely, to nourish and draw support from those relationships, and to handle conflict without being drawn into toxicity -- online or offline -- is not a frivolous luxury. It all too often feels quaint in the age of the Internet, or impossible in the crossfire of the supposed Mommy Wars. But it's a set of skills that can be a lifesaver, and it's perhaps the most important gift a mother can give herself. (Yes, even better than that $2,000 stroller.)
Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist, professor, and writer.