I became a mum about a decade ago, during the time of the so-called “Mummy Wars,” when parenting bloggers — the vast majority of which were women — often used their social media platforms to promote their style of parenting. During this time, women felt pressed to find their “tribe.” Their exclusive breastfeeding tribe, their working mum tribe, their attachment parenting tribe, their cloth-diapering tribe.
What started as a way to connect with and support other (usually first-time) mums via blogs and virtual groups morphed into loud, tiresome debates rooted in defensiveness. Whether to attempt an unmedicated birth, breastfeeding versus formula-feeding, vaccinations, co-sleeping, crying-it-out, staying at home or working outside the home — lots of people felt there was a right way to mum and a wrong way to mum.
Then — hooray! — there was a backlash to these battles as women realised that, hey, I can parent however I want to parent. And so can you! Isn’t it better if we all support each other? You do you! Every child is different! Stick with whatever works!
In particular, I remember this photo shoot from a group of mums in Connecticut. The women paired up and held up signs that proclaimed their parenting strategies or philosophies. “I practice peaceful parenting,” read the sign in one mum’s hands; “Sometimes I yell at my children,” read the sign in the hands of the smiling mum next to her. The slideshow went on in this manner: “I’m breastfeeding my two-year-old” with “I chose to formula feed from the start.” “I strictly limit TV time” next to “I let my kids watch as much TV as they want.” And so on.
The pendulum had swung back in the other direction as we realised that the way in which another person parents really has very little impact on us or our children (with the possible exception of vaccinations), so who cares.
Then the pandemic came. And parents everywhere had impossible choices to make that actually could impact the health of others — their elderly family members, friends, neighbours, co-workers, classmates, even the community as a whole. Mums, in particular, often found themselves bearing the brunt of the mental load during the coronavirus, and mums are more likely to be the parent who gives up their career right now to manage the childcare and education situation at home.
Reproductive psychiatrist Alexandra Sacks recently told the New York Times that the “you do you” mentality many mums were able to adopt when it came to breast milk versus formula has weakened when it comes to possible exposure to the coronavirus:
Sacks sees a common psychological trapping. “Competition and criticism of others is so often a projection of insecurity and instability,” she said. The pandemic is a perfect storm of both: Internally, people lack confidence to navigate a novel and unpredictable situation; externally, they lack the social and structural support systems they desperately need. Put those two things together and one can manifest as a mum-shamer.
Now check your box but also read the subtext: Are you an exhausted mum desperate for normalcy? Are you a supermom who’ll frantically juggle your kids’ online curriculum atop your day job? A privileged mum with a pricey nanny or a private learning pod? A traditional mum willing to toss your career under the bus to home-school?
The shaming plays out in ways both subtle and overt in conversations happening among friends, family members and acquaintances, as well as — of course — on social media. For example, you’ve probably seen a variety of the “there’s no way we’d ever send our kids back to school in person during a pandemic” comments, followed by the “gee, it must be nice to have a choice” responses.
Those parents, such as myself, who have had some semblance of a choice to make (hybrid learning versus all-virtual, for example) may have found themselves pin-balling back and forth from one crappy choice to another crappy choice. When one is faced with choosing the less crappy of two seemingly equally crappy options, the insecurity of that decision can leave one feeling defensive or needing to justify their reasoning. Especially if, say, their best friend or neighbour or sister chooses the opposite.
On the other hand, those who are forced into a decision because of a lack of options available from their child’s school — or because of their own work or childcare situation — may feel resentful of those who have some say in what the rest of the year looks like.
One consequence of living and parenting through a pandemic is that we may, unintentionally, begin feeling as though we are facing off against each other. The parents who are being “extra careful” for the sake of their family’s health and the greater good of the community versus the parents who have to send their kids to school or daycare because if they don’t, they’ll lose their job. The parents who weighed the benefit of in-person socialisation over the risk of contracting COVID-19 and opted to send them to school — versus the parents who can’t imagine sending kids into a classroom during a pandemic.
The stakes feel pretty damn high right now with whatever we decide and however we move through this time. Much more so than when we were trying to decide between cloth diapers or disposables, homemade organic food or the jarred stuff. Those topics led to some hyped-up “wars,” but also we learned during that time that it doesn’t have to. We can choose to support each other instead. Even when the stakes are higher; especially when the stakes are higher.
If we can shake off our defensiveness, we can also let go of the over-explanations that can cause other parents to feel shamed. If we can accept that someone else’s decision is not a commentary on our own, we can also agree we’re all doing the best we can.