We’ve all done it, often without thinking, and sometimes, just to provoke a reaction. But sometimes, simple off-the-cuff comments can really hurt — especially when those comments are directed at our parenting skills.
After struggling to breastfeed her newborn son Alex, Rachel Nathan, 29, switched to formula milk reluctantly after he stopped gaining weight. It was the right decision for her and her baby, but that didn’t stop a snap judgment by a fellow new mum, which sent her confidence crashing.
“I met up with a group of mums from my antenatal yoga class and was telling them about giving up breastfeeding,” Nathan recalls. “In fact, I was saying how guilty I felt about it, but that at least Alex was finally putting on weight. Then, I heard one of the mums whisper to another, ‘Well if somebody paid her $25,000 to breastfeed, I bet she’d be able to do it’.”
Nathan was devastated on hearing this and felt sick with guilt about it for weeks. Then she got angry, “This woman had no idea what I’d been through, how dare she judge me!”
It’s an increasingly familiar scenario. A 2011 survey by www.netmums.com, a UK-based parenting forum, found that nine out of 10 mums compare themselves to other mums. And clearly each of us thinks we’re doing a better job, as a 2011 poll of 26,000 mothers by www.parenting.com, an online parenting magazine, found that 90 per cent of women have a negative view of other people’s parenting methods.
So, it seems judging and feeling judged are very much a part of modern motherhood. And when you consider it’s often other mums on the jury, you have to wonder — why can’t we rein it in a little?
When it comes to assessing other mums, breastfeeding (or not) is probably the most contentious issue, yet it doesn’t stop there.
“For me, it’s toddlers ‘addicted’ to their pacifiers or seeing them drinking juice from a bottle,” notes Jane Lee, 36, mum to Edie, 6 months, and Luca, 3. “I also can’t stand seeing baby girls wearing hair accessories and overweight toddlers in strollers — and that’s just off the top of my head.”
Lee, just like most mums, admits that she would never say anything openly because she doesn’t want anyone to know how critical she can be, though she adds “But inside, I can’t believe the things some mothers think are acceptable.”
Whether your biases are a matter of taste or concerns about a child’s welfare, they all come from a need for reassurance. Judging others can give us that security we crave.
Explains consultant psychologist Susan Ashbourne, “If you’re learning new skills and feel uncertain about what you’re doing, you check what everyone else is doing. In other words, you judge.
“It’s not about being superior, but has more to do with working out if our skills are as good as they could be, and exploring ideas around why other parents aren’t doing the same as us.”
Judging others is normal, nor does it mean that you’re a bad person. Which leads to the question, are we just being too sensitive?
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Big girls don’t cry...
Being hyper-sensitive goes hand-in-hand with sleepless nights, a major lifestyle change and the steep learning curve of new parenthood. Sure, there are the blatantly rude comments like the one suffered by Nathan about her feeding problems, but similarly, some well- meaning advice and opinions can hurt just as much.
“I remember feeling insulted when a friend told me she sterilised her 3-month-old’s toys every time they fell on the floor,” says Aisha Mohammed, 32, mum to Amreen, 18 months, and Aaliyah, 4. “It was something that had never occurred to me. She didn’t mean to criticise me — that was just her way of doing things. There was no reason for me to take it so personally, I was just hurt because I was trying so hard to get my own parenting techniques right.”
Ironically, this oversensitivity can inadvertently feed the urge to judge. Chartered clinical psychologist Fiona Starr reckons that if you have a strong idea of what motherhood should be like, but find that reality is more of a struggle, you cling onto prejudices as a way of making sense of your new world.
However, you may risk the danger of dismissing sound advice because of those prejudices. “I was always very judgmental of mothers who used pacifiers, purely because I didn’t think it looked very nice,” says Claire Skinner, 34, mum to Jack, 1. “Then I read that using a pacifier could help prevent cot death, which made me look at them in a completely different way. I realised I should be more open-minded.”
A friend indeed
A recent survey by The Baby Website, a pregnancy, baby and parenting site, found that of the average 11 new friends a mum makes after having a baby, more than half of them will be the source of resentment within a couple of years. Frenemy number one? The mum who thinks she knows it all.
So, if you do want to share your ideas and ways of doing things, how do you talk to your mum friends without alienating them and making yourself look like you’re judging?
Starr advises, “Ask yourself if other mums really want to hear it. Do they need the advice? Or is it more about you wanting to give it?” Also, think about how you might phrase your words of wisdom. Instead of saying, “I always do it this way,” which could be interpreted as smug, try something softer, such as “I’m sure you have tried this already, but...”
The good news is that there are positive sides to a little judgment — it’s a sign of how passionate women are about doing their best for their children. And if you are part of a group that is judgmental about the same things, it can be an intensely bonding experience.
“My friends and I love to have a good moan about the perfect yummy mummies at the park, and I’m sure they’re all talking about us, too,” notes mum-of-two Caroline Pereira, 29.
Nathan points out that it works both ways. “While I don’t see my yoga friends any more, I have made some brilliant friends through a local mum-and-baby group. And the comment the other mum made about me not breastfeeding has become a running joke between us. In fact, we’re quite judgmental about people who could ever think like that!”