Mean Mothers by Irina Ovis

Trying to Make Sense in Why Mothers are so Mean to Each Other


I recently witnessed a small girl getting snubbed at the playground.

“Anna drives a boys’ bike and her skirt is ugly!” an adorable redhead exclaimed to her playmate, who looked disgusted. When the girl in question approached the two, they giggled and turned their backs, rejecting her. Unaffected, Anna skipped over to a group of boys and was already playing with them in minutes.

That very evening, I recounted this incident to my husband over dinner: “Can you believe it? They couldn’t be older than six, and already so mean!  I thought this type of behavior starts in middle school—and—can you imagine what they’ll be like as teenagers?!” My husband didn’t seem as appalled. “They will outgrow it”, he mumbled, trying to maintain the conversation, when I could tell he was more focused on the seafood chowder we were having.

Outgrow it? I wasn’t so sure he was right. Passive-aggressive behavior in tween and teenaged girls is a tired subject. It has been simply labelled as yet another symptom of teenage angst, which girls are meant to outgrow along with crabby moods and pimples. And yet—the supposedly buried beast resurfaces in motherhood. Mean Girls grow up to be Mean Mothers (aka Sanctimommy or Judgey Mom).

Have you met her yet? She is the one who tsks you as you walk past her with your pacifier-sucking three year old or rolls her eyes-really big!- when you lose it at the supermarket with a screaming toddler.   She’s the perfectly coiffed and manicured gal who turns her (perfectly powdered) nose up at your disheveled ponytail and crayon-stained sweatpants. She’s the one who looks down at you for breast-feeding too long, for not breast-feeding, for sleep training, for co-sleeping, for being too strict, too permissive, too fat, too thin, too sloppy, too tidy, working too much, not working enough, for overparenting, for underparenting, etc.  Oh yes–and this self-righteous lady is especially vicious online where she has a veil of anonymity.

After all, you don’t have to deal with the consequences of writing something negative and hurtful online. Just take a look at the comments about vaccines, daycare, and the ever so popular Stay-at-home vs. Working Mom debate. I was recently a witness to a mother being berated on a parenting forum for asking advice on choosing a baby formula.  An over-zealous group of know-it-all moms attacked the poor woman for being “selfish”, “irresponsible”, and “lazy” for not breastfeeding her child. Their words, not mine.

Sometimes the Sanctimommy is more subtle in throwing her saccharine-coated daggers. Do “Oh, is he not speaking in full sentences yet?” and “She’s still on training wheels, huh?” sound familiar?

I think we can all recognize her in our friends, family, and coworkers. Now be really honest, do you recognize her in yourself? I sometimes certainly do. “I’m opinionated, not judgmental!” chimes in this smug inner voice, “Unlike others, my opinions are based on solid research, personal experience, and the opinions of a whole bunch of parenting gurus!” Oops, I’ve exposed myself. As it turns out, I was judging how others form their views and completely discounting the value of intuitive and emotional opinions.

Does this make me a Judgey Mother? It is normal human behavior to make judgments based on observations.  In fact, according to 2011 survey, 87% of moms admit to judging other moms for their parenting choices.   I am definitely a part of this majority.  What I do with these judgments, however, is completely within my control. Before I open my mouth or type this next comment on Toronto Mommies, I pause. I think. What would be the impact of my words?  Am I really trying to help someone, or am I simply seeking validation for my own parenting choices by questioning someone else’s?

I think that deep down very few mommies feel 100 per cent confident in their choices. The pressure to be a perfect mother is greater than ever before. We research and read more than any other generation of mothers, and are exposed to an overwhelming array of choices. So we’ve (along with the usual culprit—media!) have created war zones where mothers keep constant guard, afraid they’ll be slaughtered for failing to achieve that perfect pinnacle of parenting that doesn’t really exist.

Just think about it:

Stay-at-home Mom vs. Working Mom

Breastfeeding exclusively for 6 months vs. 12 months vs. 2 years vs. full term breastfeeding

Attachment parenting vs. vs. um not…?

Vaccination vs. non vaccination vs. reduced vaccination vs. different schedule for vaccination

Licensed daycare vs. home daycare vs. nanny

Helicopter parenting vs. Free-range parenting

Organic vs. non-organic

Homeopathy vs. conventional medicine

By being vocal about some of these hot-button issues, many of us validate our own choices. Someone else’s choice becomes not just another way to do things; it’s an attack on us and our choices! So we go on the offensive, and we paint one another as bad mothers when we’re actually afraid of being bad mothers ourselves.

In reality, there is rarely the “right way” to do anything. Hell, in fifty years we could discover that the levels of mercury and lead in our own bodies is so high that breastfeeding is actually more harmful than formula. Science evolves. Parenting theories change with the times, and what we’re currently convinced to be a holy grail of parenthood may be deemed “so passé” or downright harmful in the future. And often, what seems to be an outright example of bad parenting has a “behind the scenes” story.  A few months ago, I was on a subway, sitting next to a mother with her little boy.   I suspect he was about five or six.  ‘Can I have this gum?  I want this gum. Give me that gum.” he was exclaiming repeatedly.    His mom vacillated between saying, ‘just SHUT UP!” and “don’t you know you are embarrassing yourself? People are staring at you!”  They were quite loud and a whole bunch of passengers were starring, some rolling their eyes. “I cannot do it anymore” she turned to me, a perfect stranger, and I could see huge dark circles underneath her eyes.  “We are coming back from the hospital, my husband is terminally ill.”   I felt awful about the judgey thoughts that were previously racing in my head.  The point is we don’t KNOW what is happening in someone else’s home, and therefore shouldn’t judge. Let’s cut each other a little slack and not jump at the opportunity to judge and condemn.

So here’s my take on it. You want to feed your kids takeout or frozen food for dinner so you can have more time (and energy) to play with them? Do it. You want to put your kids to bed early so you can spend more time with your partner, or have some “me” time? Go for it. You want to build a career and get the best childcare and education money can afford? More power to you, sister!

We don’t have to agree on everything. Disagreement and healthy debate is fun! We can all learn something new from each other.   Yet, we should always keep in mind that there is often a thin line between a healthy disagreement and outright judgment.  As fellow mothers, we should start trying to support each other, even when criticism feels like a natural response. Before criticizing, maybe we should take a step back and ask, “Is this practice actually endangering a child?” If the answer is no, hold back on those insults and try sharing your opinions without passing judgment or insulting anyone. Nobody is perfect. We’re all just doing our best. My “best” might not be the same as your “best”.

After all, it takes a village to raise a child. A village works together, not against each other.

I hope we will too.

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