Mums under siege
Unlike many jobs, motherhood does not come with any formal training. But despite the extreme commitment and immense sacrifices, women are shamed because of how they choose to feed, dress or discipline their children
Vanessa Waithera’s debut into motherhood was confusing and unplanned in every sense. Almost a year ago Waithera, a lifestyle editor, Zumi, found out she was pregnant from a rebound relationship. She had sought comfort in one of her friends after coming out of a long-term relationship that did not work out.
“My first thought was to get rid of the child, but I talked myself out of it even though I had absolutely no idea of what I would do once the baby arrived,” says the 25-year-old. When the baby was born five months ago, she decided to move in with her mother to learn the ropes of motherhood. It had not even been a week after becoming a mother when Waithera experienced her first bout of mum shaming.
In the initial days, Waithera says she had little milk to breastfeed her son and that earned her backlash from some family members who blamed it on her. “The first days were pure chaos. My baby would sleep in short intervals of about 20 minutes leaving me with fewer than two hours of sleep,” she says. But even though she preferred to catch some sleep within the two solid hours her son would be asleep, her mother insisted she needed to be taking a shower, eating or washing the baby’s clothes . “We did not have a house-help. I was doing so much with little help amid a lot of judgment,” she recalls.
Tinge of judgement
Then mum shaming got worse. There would be insensitive comments about her child’s milestones, especially from relatives who compared his progress with other children. “My son did not smile in the initial months and my grandmother who I later moved in with made it look so abnormal. I blamed myself thinking that probably I had been too cranky during pregnancy and passed it on to him,” she says. Then there was advice on how to bath or feed him, which was really useful in navigating motherhood as a new mum. But what bothered her is that the advice would mostly be delivered with a tinge of judgment. Waithera who documents her parenting journey on Instagram was also not spared from judgment and bullying from online followers.
Waithera’s experience is not an isolated case. A study by a US children’s hospital showed that six out of 10 mothers face criticism for making parenting decisions including whether or not to breastfeed a child and for how long, opting to have few or many children, being stay at home or career mums. The 2017 study by CS Mott Children’s Hospital sampled mothers with children between zero to five years and found that the criticism was most intense from family members including spouses, in-laws or the parents of the mothers.
Only one in 10 mothers reported facing criticism on their parenting decisions from peers, friends or the public. Majority of the respondents said they believed mothers get too much blame and little credit for children’s behaviour.
Based on the findings of the research, discipline was the most frequent topic of criticism affecting 70 per cent of mothers. Others were mainly criticised due to toddler’s diet, sleeping patterns, breastfeeding choices, safety and childcare.
To deal with criticism and conflicting information on parenting, mothers resorted to researching on the topics of concern, asking healthcare providers or changing their parenting techniques. While criticism made 67 per cent of the mothers sure of their parenting choices, it made 42 per cent doubt the effectiveness of their approach on motherhood.
No mum is immune
The unprecedented criticism is so widespread that no mum is immune to it. A few months ago, Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex was at the receiving end of mum shaming. The 37-year-old new mother had stepped out with the son for a polo march in June when critics begun questioning her parenting style with some saying she did not even know how to hold her own baby. Others criticised the royal for exposing the baby by not dressing him in a hat and socks during the outing. In an interview last month, Meghan admitted that the constant scrutiny by the media on her motherhood journey had negative impact on her physical and mental health.
Nerea Ojanga, a midwife and breastfeeding expert says people, especially mothers turn to mum shaming to validate their own parenting abilities. “Once people become mothers, there is a tendency to imagine that they are experts and are now in a position to offer any kind of advice in the area,” she says.
The harm in this is that it makes mothers on the receiving end doubt their parenting abilities and may make decisions that are not good for the baby. Nerea advises mothers not to take every advice and criticism about their motherhood techniques as they may end up confused about what is really the right thing to do. Instead they should consult experts on various decisions concerning their babies. Apps such as What to Expect can also be helpful to mothers as they offer day-to-day information on the toddlers development.