Motherhood sometimes feels like a race. I started off sprinting, running around to friends and family to share the good news that we were expecting a child. Then I caught my breath for a little, preparing our home and filling our registry with all the goodies I thought we needed. I broke out into a full run again towards the end . . . baby shower, thank you notes, tying up loose ends at work, and nesting until my feet were sore and swollen. The finish line was in sight, but I was barely crawling there. My adrenaline kicked in, and I knew just one last push, and I’d cross it! Baby would be here, and I was ready to be showered in praises and trophies.
But they never came. Why are the other mothers, my illusory marathon companions, not cheering for me? Did I not do as well as I thought? I could have sworn I did everything I had been taught and advised over the past 9 months. But it seems like I have failed. It seems like they have nothing to offer but scoffs and undercutting remarks. Am I not as worthy of motherhood as they must be? I feel ashamed already.
Mom-shaming is the downfall of motherhood.
We have so much on our plates daily. Between juggling our family, work, and personal life, we barely remember to hydrate ourselves properly. Taking a moment to sit down and praise ourselves for doing it all is low on our list. There is no such thing as perfect parenting. Yet, the standard is expected to be reached daily. If we can assume that every mother is struggling in one way or another, why are we not offering her our unwavering love and constant support? It really raises the question of how we can allow such disgraceful words to be hurled at another person in our same position. If spoken to us, those same words would cut deeply.
In an interview about her book Women & Shame, Ph.D. and author Breńe Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” She explains that mothers are trying to fill all of the expected boxes, overflowing an already busy schedule, just to prove that they are mothers. A title we have already earned the moment we gave birth, adopted, fostered, or pledged our love to our children. Women are working tirelessly to lay their claim to a badge they already own. When you work so hard for something, you may end up feeling possessive or protective of your crown. We are all striving for perfection in our craft. But with so much perceived competition, it seems completely unattainable.
Insecurities and shame.
We start digging deep. The insecurities and shortcomings that we find in ourselves as a parent, we naturally want to see in others. It’s like being a kid during a game in gym class. I remember the pit in my stomach that started to bubble up as other classmates were selected for each team. I was still waiting. I’d begin to feel my cheeks flush. My hands instinctively crossed hard in front of me, willing myself to disappear. It’s a feeling of embarrassment and even a bit of anger. I wanted to know why I wasn’t good enough to be at the top of the list. The next time in my life that I felt this was when I got out a bottle filled to the brim with pre-mixed formula to feed my 3-week-old son at a restaurant.
It was my first memorable experience with mom-shaming. The waitress saw me shaking the bottle I pulled from my insulated pack, rushing to get it to my audibly hungry newborn’s lips. She loudly asked me if I was pumping or using formula. I smiled as my son started to suck and calm, feeling good about meeting his needs. I didn’t think much of her question and answered it with a little laugh, “Formula! So far, we think he has a dairy sensitivity, so he’s on a special blend.”
She didn’t even so much as giggle. She commented how young my child must be and that there isn’t a formula gentle enough for such a small stomach. As she walked away, I realized she wasn’t asking for a conversation. She was seeking confirmation. I felt defeated. My cheeks began to flush. Just like when I was an insecure young kid, my arms began to cross over my body. I willed myself to disappear.
Shame begets shame.
On paper, it would seem that other mothers are who we should be going to when we are feeling at our lowest. It would seem that those in your own pseudo-circle would be the most supportive and encouraging people to turn to. But shame is such an internal feeling that it can change how a woman views herself and others. Brown says that the feeling of shame has a “dangerous ability” to make us feel like we are “out of the group.” Shame can manipulate your brain. It often leaves women feeling “trapped, powerless, and isolated.” When someone feels this way about themselves, they tend to turn on others.
One mom, Liz Tracy, shared her experience with shame in motherhood. She said she had to learn to focus on her own worth to combat any mom-shaming she was experiencing. She had to make sure not to feel shame or cast judgment on anyone else. And she realized that focusing on creating connections, being an empathic ear for friends, and laughing at herself was the path she needed to forge for a shame-free motherhood experience.
Trade criticism and shame for connection and empathy.
I believe mom-shaming exists because of our innate instincts to protect and nurture to the best of our abilities. Meeting our children’s needs is the most important part of parenting. But if we add in the aspect of picture-perfect social media and the saturated internet market of parenting professionals, those needs go from needing to be basic to needing to be flawless. If we can set aside our differences and remember that a million different courses lead to the same finish line, we could end the era of shaming our fellow mothers. Connection and empathy are the keys to breaking this period of putting others down. We need to meet each other where we are on our journeys. We should be handing out trophies and distributing our kind words at every checkpoint.
I have to remember to meet another mother in her race with a cup of water and let her catch her breath, even if I still have more left in me. I can stop and stretch with her. Tie her shoes if she needs it. Maybe, if she’s really, really tired, I can pick her up and carry her. It doesn’t matter if our pace is the same; we’re all running the same race. The last thing she needs from me, or any other mom, is to feel shame. Mom shaming doesn’t need to be the norm anymore. But it will take all of us to make an effort to make it stop.