Dr Rose Logan, clinical psychologist and parenting expert at The LightHouse Arabia, gives her insight on why mums hurt each other and how to limit the wounds...
Q: Often the mum-shamers don’t actually mean to put you down – they are giving you their opinion, or informing you of something they think you might not otherwise know. But new mums are often so unsure of themselves and oversensitive that even the slightest negative comment can be devastating. How can mums get over a hurtful comment, or react to one?
A: Often the comment is spontaneous and not meant to be judgmental, but nonetheless causes hurt. When you are pregnant, it is easy to feel especially sensitive to the comments due to hormones, tiredness, uncertainty about your changing body and about the pregnancy itself. For new mums, they are often struggling to find their way and may be feeling overwhelmed by the amount of opinion being offered. They are also likely to be sleep deprived!
The idea of the “good-enough mother” as proposed by the renowned paediatrician and psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott, and later, the “good-enough parent” as proposed by Bettelheim, suggests that we should not strive to be perfect parents, nor should we strive for our children to be perfect. Winnicott actually recognised the increased intrusion of professional opinion in family life and the threat it raised long before social media, shelves full of baby books and parenting experts.
Now everyone can be an expert and yet very few truly are. It is important to look for advice and opinion that is grounded in theory, experience and expertise, so places like internet forums are not always helpful.
If you find yourself overwhelmed or reacting with sensitivity to comments, the first thing I would say is turn to trusted others (partner, family, friends, midwives) for support and for a space to work out your intention and build your confidence as a parent.
We must acknowledge that there are so many different practices and ideas about child rearing out there but that ultimately, we do our best. If you start to become anxious or worried about raising your child, there is so much professional support, whatever the issue, so don’t suffer in silence. This is particularly true if you start to feel that you are emotionally overwhelmed. For example, you may find you are crying more than usual, seeking reassurance, or avoiding going out. There is no shame in asking for help and seeking support.
Q: What motivates mum-shamers? Is there a way of understanding their motives that might make it less hurtful?
A: It is a time when people feel like they have the right to comment on your physical appearance and your actions, when normally they would hold back. There is universality and primitiveness in the experience of pregnancy, childbirth and child rearing and women in particular (although it can be men too) often feel drawn to discussing it. Often people have formed their opinions based on their own experiences, which are shaped by culture, family, religion and society. They may have had these taught to them from an early age, or they may have spent time forming them through reading, research or observation. Whatever the way, these opinions and beliefs are often deeply held and, when they are offered by way of opinion, are usually offered as they are felt to be the best for the child. If they are more explicitly judgmental, I recommend a civil yet firm response, which lets the mum-shamer know that their comments are not welcome.
Each child and each parent is different. As mothers and parents, we must feel confident that we know our child. Even reading books and advice can feel confusing. Spending time observing your child and working out what works for you and them, instead of seeking endless opinion, may help to build your confidence. However, there is always an opportunity to learn and there may be things that people mention that you feel would be worth trying.
If we assume that the majority of comments are made with good intent, or at least without the intention to cause harm, an acknowledgement and a “Thank you for your perspective,” is fine but does not commit us to following the advice, or opinion.
Q: What can we do to avoid upsetting fellow mums with careless words? It seems that it is often about the language used – are there any key phrases to avoid to ensure we don’t inadvertently put them down?
A: We all have a responsibility to be thoughtful and considerate when commenting on others – whether it be their appearance, their lifestyle, or their choices as parents. One of the things I love about Dubai is that you can see so many different parenting practices but the end result is (for the most part) the same… happy, healthy children! We have to respect an individual’s choice. Some people breastfeed, others bottle-feed; some people stay at home for 40 days, others are at the park on day two; some use ‘time out’, others use the naughty step. There is no one way to raise a child and, while each may have its merits (and faults), we do not have a right to force our way on to others.
How not to be a mum-shamer:
- Avoid judgemental terms and language.
- Use general terms and try to be empathetic: “Yes, pregnancy can be tough – but you’re looking great!”
- Do not try to guess or make comparisons – we are all different shapes and sizes. It is easy to cause offence.
- Try to stay respectful of cultural, religious and societal norms.
- What worked for you may not work for someone else, so offer advice with that ‘disclaimer’ as opposed to proposing your way is the only, or best, way.
- Express interest in how others parent before sharing your own experiences to make it a more collaborative conversation.
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