I was recently reading a mother’s reflection about her choice to leave the workplace to focus on raising her children. Although I am a working mother I nodded along, resonating with her words. Juggling my work, marriage and children has pushed my boundaries. I have come to the conclusion that I cannot have any more children (ever, or at the very least not for many many years) if I want to maintain my sanity.
And then, just as I was vibing with everything she wrote, she dropped the bomb, “Some working mothers act like they have it all together, but if they’re being honest their home life is not what they want it to be.” Ugh. I struggled to finish the rest of the piece as I wondered to myself, “Is she writing this because she believes in her choice? Or is this an exercise in finger-pointing to deflect self-doubt?”
Mommy judgment: How did we get here?
Judging the parenting of other women has become a marathon sport, from viral World Star Hip Hop videos showing kids acting out to New York Times thinkpieces that analyze every facet of parenting. The default parenting stance seems to be ‘My way is better than hers.’ Let me be clear, I’m not speaking of holding to parenting ideologies. I’m talking about basing the value of that ideology on a devaluation of those who do not hold it. So instead of saying, ‘I do extended breastfeeding because I love the connection and security it builds in my child, and the health benefits for nursing mothers.’ One might say, ‘Mothers who do not breastfeed are lazy and unwilling to consider their child’s needs.’ Both seem like pro-breastfeeding statements, but only one is. One is about sharing information, the other is about establishing superiority.
This is how mommy cliques form — when women who share a set of beliefs gather to tear non-conforming mothers down. Feeling self-important becomes the goal when security in one’s choice should be.
Is there room for judgment and critique?
Does this mean that we just can’t say anything about anyone? That we close our eyes while others make decisions that trouble us? As a black mother I ponder this question a lot. Placed in a pressure cooker of institutional and internal racism, cut off from the traditions of our African ancestors and raising our kids in a country that is often cruel to them, a lot of black parenting has cracked under pressure and become less than what it should be. If I notice cultural parenting trends that are troubling, how do I address them?
I think it boils down to intent and context. When I express concern about others’ parenting decisions is my intent to bring about culture change or do I just want to feel better than somebody else? Am I speaking out of superiority or out of genuine concern?
I once created a Facebook group dedicated to thoughtful parenting for black mothers. Often times mothers presented their dilemmas and invited group members to give feedback on things like diet, finance, discipline, education and home management. At its best, it was the perfect way to ‘crowdsource’ the parenting experience. At its worst, it devolved into chaos as members mocked the struggles of others to feel self important.
What are we hiding?
Pointing fingers at others is an age-old way to deflect unhappiness and self-doubt. This holds true in mommy circles. As women we live in a society that does not value our work, and this is reflected in everything from maternity policies to the ridiculous expectations of wives and mothers. Keeping marriages stable, children happy and households financed while not losing our sense of self takes a tremendous amount of mental strength. Under this type of pressure, picking at mothers who are ‘lesser than’ becomes an emotional escape and a way to feel validated.
Going back to the article I read, where that author stated that working mothers have a sub-standard home life, would she be willing to hear that — although I struggle with work/home balance — I love having work as an escape from parenting and a way to flex my intellectual muscle? (Parenting does that, but in a different way.) And that my children are well-adjusted even though they do not interact with me for 8 hours of the day. Hearing this might challenge her notion that working mothers devalue their children. But if clinging to this notion validates her own choice to stay at home, then she won’t want to hear it.
Security in our choices
I have never found much value in the mommy cliques, perhaps because they are designed to be impervious and blind to self-critique. At the end of the day, we must have security in the choices we’ve made as mothers independent of what women around us are doing. Investing inordinate amounts of time and effort in shaming mothers who do things differently might be an indication that we aren’t truly happy with our own situation. Our energy might be better spent reflecting on our own experiences and asking the difficult question, “Am I truly content with how I am raising my children, managing my home and being treated?” Because at the end of the day, that is what truly matters.