By Jami Ingledue
We pour so much of our lives, our love and our energy, into our kids. We tend to think that every small action we take with them, every word we say, will hugely affect their growth. Am I talking to my baby enough? Is her brain growing enough? Does my toddler have enough sensory stimulation? Do I have my preschooler in all the right lessons and sports? Am I going to completely screw this kid up?
So maybe it’s understandable, with that weight of responsibility, that we get a little defensive about our choices. And maybe that is why people, especially moms, are awfully quick to point out what other moms are doing “wrong.” It seems Mommy-shaming has become an entire sub-culture—moms pointing out what other moms are messing up, that they’re not using the right carrier or the right discipline methods or they are (god forbid) formula feeding, and their children will be irrevocably damaged as a result and it’s ALL OUR FAULT.
But here’s the thing: we’re not carpenters, building our kids from scratch with careful planning and execution and skill, completely responsible for every cut, every joint, its stability and strength. We are gardeners. We provide fertile soil, access to sunshine, and water. We can see that tomatoes need different things than cucumbers, so we might adjust the soil and the water and the kind of support. But a tomato will never be a cucumber. No matter what we do, how much effort we put into it. We can never change that tomato into a cucumber.
My son, aka “Little Dictator,” is generally the worst-behaved kid at any event. I have carried him in a barrel-hold, kicking and screaming, out of more places than I care to recall. He is the one who sniffs out the weakness of any situation and then strikes without mercy. He is the one who dashes for the street, who wants to touch the fire, who tries to climb the gorilla enclosure. He craves confrontation and drama like a WWF wrestler, and he basks in the attention of his audience.
Sometimes I wish he was a docile, obedient kid. But this is who he is. I can’t change a tomato into a cucumber, no matter what I do. And I AM NOT RESPONSIBLE for him being a tomato, for his personality. (Clearly he gets this from his father, anyway). I did not create him this way, it is not because of anything I did. I’m doing my level best to turn him from feral animal to decent human. But telling him to be different is like telling the wind not to blow: good luck with that. And the truth is these traits—persistence, tenacity, energy, relentless curiosity, creativity—will serve him very well as an adult. If we can all just survive that long.
I can sometimes feel the judgement rolling off of other parents. I have been embarrassed and frustrated to the point of tears in public settings many, many times. Most parents are sympathetic.
But then there are the Mommy-shamers. The disdainful looks, the whispers, the unsolicited advice.
An advantage of having kids when I’m older is that I just don’t care what other people think. Or maybe I’ve grown a thick skin from the years of embarrassment. But now I can see mommy shaming for what it so often is: insecurity. They feel so much pressure to be the “perfect mom” that they have to shame other moms who make different parenting decisions. That they have to cling SO strongly to their parenting style and cannot tolerate the thought that a different approach might also be perfectly acceptable. After all, cultures all around the world raise kids successfully in wildly, shockingly different ways.
But I think there’s something else at play: a deeper lack of understanding and support. So many of us don’t have real community, and we seem to have lost the sense of shared responsibility, the understanding that it really does take a village. We seem to have forgotten the true nature of kids—that they throw fits at inconvenient times, that they melt down, that their job is to test boundaries (my son’s specialty). We have no tolerance for their developmentally normal behavior. Which, at times, is absolutely horrific and crazy-making. And so we hold parents solely responsible for all of the actions of their children, and blame them when accidents happen and kids do normal (awful) kid stuff.
How can we turn this culture of mommy-shaming around? Maybe we should start by setting healthy boundaries: in other words, just telling the mommy-shamers to fuck off. (In your own words.) They aren’t the experts on your kids; you are. Prioritize your own self-care by putting up a boundary and holding it firm. I just don’t allow judgmental types into my life. I don’t have time or energy for that. Only allowing positive people in my life is, to me, one of my most important forms of self-care.
But we have to go beyond defending our healthy boundaries; we have to actively build our own culture of support. I think we can do this by being more active in our support of other parents, not just passive. In other words, step up. Say something when you see a mom struggling. Offer to help, even if it’s just walking with them to their car, distracting one kid for a minute so they can deal with the other kid, or sharing your own hard-won battle stories. Even just a few words of sympathy and solidarity can make a huge difference and can make parents feel so much less alone. Because when our kids are acting like little monsters or having horrific meltdowns, and everybody is looking at us, we might feel like they’re judging. But so often they’re just thinking, oh man, I’ve been there, THANK GOD it’s not my kid today. So if we’re thinking it, we need to SAY IT. It means the world to the other mom to feel support instead of judgement.
I truly believe that most of us are more sympathetic than judgmental. It’s just that the judgmental bossypants of the world are more vocal. We need to drown them out. We should make it our personal goal to have a positive effect on our community of families, to work toward building that culture of support. If we all do that in our own little circles, we can have a real impact on “mom culture.”
And for those who really are being judgmental and think they know everything—I don’t have room in my life for that, and I will hold firm to that boundary.
And hey, maybe if we get lucky, that judgmental parent will have a kid JUST LIKE MINE.
Previously published as ‘The Shame of Mommy-Shaming’ in Jami’s BEHIND DOMESTIC LINES column in The Wild Word magazine. www.thewildword.com
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For more great Wild Word essays see:
The Stain That Trump Has Left on America by Maria Behan
Why the Morality in Wonder Woman Matters by Reverend Rachel Kessler
My S&M Marriage by James Prenatt