On Sunday, The New York Times published an opinion essay called “Motherhood in the Age of Fear” that quickly went viral and started a national conversation about what it means to be a mother in today’s world of fear and public shaming.
I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.
The article chronicles the experiences of women who have been shamed and criminally charged for leaving their kids alone (usually for a very short amount of time). Their reasons vary, but one thing remains the same — they were judged to be negligent and shamed for their parenting choices.
To me, it struck something deep within. Many times, I have hesitated to make a parenting decision that felt best, out of fear of what others may think — and I’ve been tempted to change my approach when I am shamed for my parenting choices or see it happen to someone else.
Long ago, before I had kids, I naively had opinions about how mothers should parent their children. My husband loves to remind me of the time when, as a waitress, I commented about mothers who would only order fries for their kids. Oh, how foolish I was. Now that I am a mother myself and am keenly aware of how picky/neurotic/exhausting kids can be, I make it a point to never judge the way another person parents. But is that enough?
Reading about the mothers in The New York Times’ essay who have been called out and even criminally charged for leaving their children alone for a very short period of time got my blood boiling. I realized that it’s not enough avoid commenting on the “misdeeds” other mothers — I need to be brave enough to stand up for them (and myself) against the rampant mom-shaming in our culture.
I remember when a stranger once shamed me for a decision I made as a new mom. I was feeling overwhelmed that day. My new baby was being fussy and demanding, and I was totally depleted. After struggling through a shopping trip, I loaded the groceries into my car. Holding my baby in one arm while pushing the cart, I looked for a place to return it when it began to rain … hard.
I quickly decided to do something that I had never done before. I pushed the cart up onto an embankment rather than return it where I was supposed to. As I turned to run with my baby back to my car, a stranger let me know exactly what they thought of what I did, calling me a “lazy b*tch.”
I felt ashamed, because at that point in my life, I was far too concerned about what others thought of me. However, when I look back now, I regret so many of the parenting decisions that I made simply out fear of others judging me: Breastfeeding my babies in bathroom stalls so as not to offend. Avoiding plane rides because my young ones may be disruptive. Giving in to my toddlers’ demands to avoid tantrums while shopping.
The truth is, we are hard on mothers. “Motherhood in the Age of Fear” actually points to evidence gathered by researchers that found that participants in their study were “far less judgmental” of fathers who left their kids in the car than mothers.
There have been many times when I have witnessed a mother struggling in some way, or even being shamed, and I did not intervene, preferring instead to “mind my own business.” It usually involved a child acting up or throwing a fit, with an overwhelmed mother doing her best while strangers stared and made disparaging comments. Generally, I would simply walk away from the situation, feeling sympathetic towards the mother (I’ve been there many times myself) and grateful that it’s not my kid this time.
I need to do better. The only way to confront mom-shaming is to help mothers who are in difficult situations and stand up to those who choose to shame them in those moments.
Almost every mom I know has experienced at least one major depressive episode since becoming a mother, which makes sense given the toxic environment mothers face. Yet today, it feels like nothing short of perfection is allowed for, and helicopter parenting is demanded. Any accident sparks the immediate outcry of “Where was the mother?!”
This isn’t going to stop until we stand up to those who bully mothers or attack them for being human. After all, it is not reasonable to expect mothers to be glued to their children at every moment, or not allow them the grace to make mistakes.
In one of my favorite quotes from “Motherhood in the Age of Fear,” author Kim Brooks points out:
“When a person intimidates, insults or demeans a woman on the street for the way she is dressed, or on social media for the way she speaks out, it’s harassment. But when a mother is intimidated, insulted or demeaned because of her parenting choices, we call it concern or, at worst, nosiness. A mother, apparently, cannot be harassed. A mother can only be corrected.”
I reached out to other mothers regarding this essay and mom-shaming in general. Many of them could relate to the fear of parenting the way that they see fit under the watchful eyes of others.
One mom told me that she grew up “being left in the car while my mom ran small errands, walking to and from school with her siblings, playing with kids outside on her own, and even being left home alone” — but that she is hesitant to do those things herself for fear of others judging her.
Another mother told me she finds it “fascinating how paranoid we have become with our kids.” She admits to leaving her kids in the car for short periods of time and letting them play on their own outside, even though she doesn’t see many other kids doing the same.
In order to “let kids be kids,” we need to allow for mothers to parent the best way they see fit. We also stand up to those who bully them. The next time I witness a mother struggling, I want to be brave enough to help her. Unless a child is in obvious danger, or is being abused, I want to do what I can to assist rather than bring down the hammer on someone who is most likely doing her best.