The Shame Game

By now we are all acquainted with the mommy wars in all their flavors. Working moms versus stay-at-home moms. Attachment parenting versus traditional parenting. Vaccinating versus non-vaccinating. You name it, and there are angry, vocal factions on either side of the argument, each claiming that their way is better than the other group’s, and implying (or saying outright) that the other way is harmful to children, and almost never admitting that the moms on both sides of the argument might actually be doing the best they can with the skills and knowledge they have available to them.

To be sure, those arguments can cause stress, and I’d bet dollars to donuts that divisiveness between mom factions prevents us from getting together to fight for things that would benefit all of us (like, oh, I don’t know, paid maternity leave). But this post isn’t about that. Instead, I’d like to talk about something that I think is even more insidious – the growing culture of competitiveness and shaming within parenting factions.

First, a little bit about me. I’m pretty firmly in the hippie parenting camp, with a few notable exceptions – I have read the Positive Discipline book, I practice baby wearing (we actually don’t even own a stroller, though I think that might have more to do with my dislike for pushing things – one too many run-ins with a grocery cart), we eat local, sustainably-raised, organic food, and my older kid attends a co-op preschool. Breastfeeding. Extended rear-facing with the car seat. You know, crunchy. And I feel pretty good about those parenting choices – works for me, works for my girls, the Mister doesn’t mind…good to go. And this works in the face of criticism from more traditional parents – I can think, “It’s cool, they don’t know my kids’ temperaments well enough to understand why cry-it-out didn’t work for us,” or, “I’m really lucky that breastfeeding was pretty easy for us.” No big deal.

It’s much harder to ignore the criticism that comes from other moms who fall in the same parenting sphere.

Here’s my confession: although I had good intentions and all the equipment to use cloth diapers for daughter #2, other than a few days, I’ve had her in disposables. Initially, this was because *somebody* inherited her daddy’s skinny legs, and every darn time I put her in a cloth diaper, she would have massive lateral blowouts through the leg holes. Then she got a little bigger, I tried again, and we had fewer blowouts, but I just couldn’t keep up with the laundry. Plus the baby fusses more in cloth than disposable. And, honestly, I’m just tired. So we are in disposable diapers full time.

And I feel kind of lousy about it, you know? Like I want to hang my head in shame around other crunchy, hippie parents, and judge myself as inadequate before they have a chance to shame me. The worst thing is that my friends probably wouldn’t bat an eyelash at my use of disposable diapers. Everyone makes their choices and does their best, really, and at least among friends, it’s okay if my best is different from someone else’s best.

The problem is that I don’t exclusively interact with my friends. I read blog posts, participate in online forums, read the occasional parenting book, see friends-of-friends’ posts on social media. And I see messages like, “nothing in the baby’s mouth except a breast for the first two months,” and, “you should never feel angry when you discipline your child,” and, “don’t heat food in plastic containers or you’ll give your grandchildren fertility problems.” And I start to feel like not only is the list of requirements for good parenting much longer than I thought, but I’ve also, apparently, screwed up about a million things already. Heck, I think both my girls had pacifiers within a week of birth. And here’s the thing: although I recognize that the standards are outrageous, I buy into them because I don’t want to just be an adequate mom, I want to be a great one.

Externally, the shame culture is pervasive, though not always explicit. Buying into any one parenting style seems to carry with it the burden of accepting that style’s ideals. The latter means that, if you aren’t going to uphold the ideals, you’d better be able to explain why, and be prepared to be judged harshly or even be excommunicated from other adherents even if you can justify your choices. That wouldn’t be a big deal, except that failure to live up to your group’s expectations can mean that you are isolated from their support in those areas where you do agree – so an extended breastfeeding mom who, for whatever reason, needs to wean her child before the kid self-weans might not be able to get advice that doesn’t start with, “well you *should* let your kid self-wean, but…” – and any time “should” appears, it starts to feel like shaming.

Internally, the shame culture plays against what is most parents’ biggest fear – the fear that we are not doing the best for our kids. And, honestly, I don’t know about everyone else, but I started developing my notion of the ideal parenting style before I had kids. That is, before I knew how tired I would be sometimes, before I had a real sense of the time I’d need to invest in things like just getting everybody fed and cleaned and rested, before I found out that my kids would not be good travelers. In many ways, I set myself up to fail, because my ideal was based on a notion of physical, emotional, and financial resources that just doesn’t square with reality. Heck, I probably could live up to my ideal if I got as much sleep now as I did before having children! But recognizing that ones’ ideals are perhaps too idealistic doesn’t stop you from worrying. There’s just too much information out there about how things can go wrong. Maybe you buy into attachment parenting because its ideals meet up with your own, then wonder whether you’re ruining your kid’s ability to respond well to stress because co-sleeping just doesn’t work for you. It’s hard not to feel like you’re harming your kids.

For me, it starts to feel like I just can’t win – if I live up to the ideals I set for myself, not only will I lose friends because, I don’t know, I have the audacity to vaccinate my children, or whatever issue is current, but I’ll also die of exhaustion or become some kind of lost mechanobot parent more concerned about doing “the right thing” than with doing what actually feels right, and what works for my family. If I don’t, I’ll feel like I’m failing my wonderful little girls. I don’t want those to be my only choices! Those choices stink!

So I’m trying to cut myself – and those around me – a little slack. Reigning in the ideals a little. Recognizing that disposable diapers mean that I have a little more energy to use playing with the girls, working on Mom Meet Mom, or learning something new. Remembering that missing the mark today doesn’t have to mean screwing up for life. And forgiving myself for the ways I have been changed by becoming a mother.


This topic was requested by the inestimable Heidi Koss ( http://www.heidikoss.com ), whose amazing therapy quite literally saved my life when I suffered antepartum depression during my most recent pregnancy. If you are pregnant or had a baby in the last couple of years and think you might be depressed, speak up! Heidi works in the Seattle area, but you can check out http://www.postpartum.net/ to find support near you.

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julia high - mom meet mom

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