Recently, a major parenting website published three articles I’d written about motherhood. I was thrilled but also a little nervous about the responses I might receive on two of them. The third article didn’t concern me because it was a silly little piece about the few things in my life that haven’t changed since becoming a mom, like the fact that I still shower every day.
Little did I know that it would be the shower that ignited a maelstrom of mommy ire.
My intention was to offer a feel-good, “light at the end of the tunnel” perspective for new or expectant moms. I expected that other moms – women in the same drool- and coffee-soaked trenches that I’m in – would also appreciate a positive perspective on motherhood. I did not anticipate that so many women would lash out with disbelief and resentment.
I’ll be honest, the comments stung. I was angry. I spent the evening ruminating and plotting my replies, wanting to inflict damage and shame in return. Eventually I came to my senses and realized that I needed to find a way to empathize with these mothers and understand why they felt the way they did.
Luckily, my experience working as a mental health counselor has trained me well for this challenge. I put on my therapist hat and got to thinking: what would I say to a client who was on either side of this issue?
After several days of reflection, I realized the comments fell into roughly three categories. Here’s what I think is going on behind each type:
1 | “You just got lucky. You obviously have an easy baby.”
This is hallmark language of an external locus of control. External versus internal locus of control describes the way that we interpret events in our lives. With an external locus of control, a person perceives that her life is largely controlled by outside forces (particularly when negative things happen). If something goes wrong at work, it’s because she was discriminated against or her boss is unfair. If someone else gets a promotion, it’s because that person was “lucky,” not because he or she was more qualified or better at the job. In contrast, with an internal locus of control, a person believes that she is able to control what happens (to some degree) by her own effort or ability.
It’s much easier to minimize someone else’s success by attributing it to luck rather than saying, “What is she doing differently? What can I learn from her in order to achieve the same outcomes in my life?”
When I started having sleep issues with my baby, for example, several of my friends had children who were sleeping through the night. I could have dismissed their hard-won efforts by saying, “Oh they just got lucky” (i.e. good external circumstances). Instead, I said, “I want my baby to sleep through the night too. Tell me how you managed to do that.”
It’s hard to admit that someone might simply have a better approach than we do or that we might have room to improve, but it’s an awesome way to connect and learn from each other.
2 | “This isn’t realistic. She’s not telling the truth. She must have a live-in nanny.”
Why was it so hard to believe that I, a stay-at-home mom with one child, could manage to take a shower every day without full-time help?
Stay-at-home moms often feel unappreciated and undervalued for their work, and this creates a tendency to focus more on the difficult and exhausting aspects of our lives. We lack the status of a traditionally paid job, so we have to prove our worth through our suffering.
“You went to work from nine to five and sat at a desk and you think you’re tired? Just listen to my day!”
By writing an article that talked about being (relatively) productive and well-rested, I was betraying the party line. Moms had to rush in to assure everyone that my experience was not the norm.
Even amongst mothers, we compete with each other. Suffering is a badge of honor. How many hours you labored, whether you had an epidural, how long you breastfed, how little you sleep, how much you suffered: this is how your status as a mother is measured, especially in the early days. If you’re lucky enough to have one baby who doesn’t have colic and sleeps four hours a night by a few months old, then you haven’t really earned the right to talk about the challenges of motherhood.
Here’s the thing though: it shouldn’t be a competition at all. Raising a baby – any baby – is damn hard work. All of our experiences are valid, and wasting valuable energy one-upping each other doesn’t do us any good.
3 | “This made me feel like a failure.”
Oh man. These comments tore at my heart. I wanted my words to be an encouragement, to offer hope and assurance that, although it’s exhausting, emotional, and possibly the hardest challenge you’ve ever faced, it does get better. I hated that these mothers felt shamed and inadequate instead.
Brene Brown, a leading shame researcher, talks about how shame prevents us from connecting with each other. When we feel shame (often disguised as failure, inadequacy, or not-enoughness), we feel small and alone. We feel that everyone else is doing fine, and I’m the only one who can’t handle this, who can’t figure this out, who sucks at everything.
I am so sorry if my words had this effect on other moms.
You are not alone. You are not the only one who is struggling. We have all been there, in one way or another. My struggle may not be the same as yours, but I promise you, I know how you feel.
For me, the biggest challenge I’ve faced since becoming a mother was breastfeeding. I transitioned to exclusive pumping after eight agonizing weeks of nursing, and eventually switched to formula. Most days, I’m at peace with this decision, but I still occasionally feel flashes of anger when I hear of other women’s breastfeeding success. In the face of their accomplishment, I feel like a failure. My shame pulls me away and makes me small and resentful, unable to celebrate with them or appreciate their hard work. Believe me, I understand.
I saw this reaction in many of the comments on my post. It didn’t matter what I actually wrote; once the shame response is triggered, it’s incredibly hard to process information objectively. We’re wounded, and we want to cause pain in return. This was my own initial feeling when I read those comments. They made me feel inadequate and lacking as a mother, so I wanted to strike back and shame them in return. However, no one benefits from this cycle.
If I’ve learned anything in my work as a counselor, it’s that self-compassion is the best antidote to shame. If I can extend kindness to myself, I can break the stranglehold of inadequacy and not-enoughness. Once I’m out of its grasp, I’m able to empathize and understand the other person’s feelings. In this case, I reached out and connected with several commenters, and they actually responded positively in return.
Let’s stop shaming and competing with each other. If a mother proclaims a small victory (like putting on real pants or getting her baby to nap longer than 20 minutes), let’s celebrate with her. Her accomplishments and struggles don’t diminish yours; there’s enough compassion for all of us.
Motherhood is hard work, whether you’re on your first or fifth child. Let’s not make it harder than it already is.