THE SHAME GAME
As appalling as it sounds, belittling a mother for her parenting choices has become normalised in the age of social media. JASSMIN PETER-BERNTZEN finds out what triggers it and how what you can do about it.
Belittling a mother for her parenting choices has become commonplace in the age of social media. Find out what you can do if it happens to you.
Jenny Lee remembers the time she posted a picture of her toddler with an iPad in an aeroplane.
“Instead of wishing us a bon voyage, so many of our Facebook friends were busy pointing out that we gave our son an iPad – it was shocking,” recalls the 45-year-old, who works in hospitality.
“I don’t see how it’s any of their business.”
Welcome to modern day motherhood, where women are not just expected to be grateful for being able to have babies, but to also enjoy every minute of it – and not complain.
They are also expected to exclusively breastfeed for as long as they can (but not too long!), eat well, snap back to their pre-pregnancy weight overnight, make time for their husbands and take care of the household – all while holding down a successful full-time job.
Slip up, and you’ll be criticised for being a bad mother, not only by family and friends but complete strangers.
“I often observe mothers being criticised on social media, online platforms, playdates and mummy meetups,” says counsellor Silvia Wetherell, who specialises in maternal mental health.
“The shaming often includes harsh criticism over parenting choices whether it’s written in an open way or passive-aggressive manner.”
Advice vs shaming
How do you tell the difference between shaming and some “friendly” unsolicited advice?
“Advice is often ‘this is not okay, you should do this’, but shaming sounds more like, ‘you are not okay as a mother’,” Silvia explains.
While fathers aren’t spared from being shamed – remember how the Internet tore Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg apart when he posted a picture of his baby daughter at her ﬁrst vaccination appointment – mums get the brunt of it because society has put them on an impossible pedestal when it comes to expectations, Silvia notes.
The demographic most at risk: Vulnerable, new mums, especially those experiencing postnatal depression and are already feeling low or numb to begin with.
Their biggest critics? Other mums. Controversial topics that spark these heated debates include whether to breastfeed or not; sleep training; discipline methods, vaccinations, and overall parenting philosophies.
Some take it hard
Not everyone gets affected by mum shaming. Some handle it poorly than others because for criticism to have an impact, it needs a “hook” on the shamed mother, Silvia says.
“The shame needs to be internalised for it to really impact someone emotionally, so it mostly impacts mothers who are feeling depressed, anxious or lacking conﬁdence. Otherwise, it will be an awful event, but the mother can bounce back from it more or less unscathed,” Silvia adds.
“I don’t think a lot of people mean to ‘mum shame’ but they aren’t perceptive of how the mum is receiving the advice,” says Tiffany Johnson. She remembers clearly the backlash she got from family, and even strangers, when she decided to switch her baby boy to formula at six months.
“While you shouldn’t have to defend your decision to do something with your own child, I typically would go into a long-winded story about how my supply had decreased and his appetite increased the older he got, and I switched to formula as he clearly needed more milk than what I was able to produce.”
Sumathi Ratnam, 36, a senior correspondent, also felt the need to explain her choices when she left her baby in the care of a domestic helper upon returning to work.
“Everyone kept telling me how irresponsible it is to let a helper take care of my baby and that I was putting my job before my child,” Sumathi recalls.
“I felt really bad because I wasn’t conﬁdent of my decision, either. But I also have to pay the bills.”
Why mums shame mums
“I do think there is truth in that the most insecure parents are the ones most likely to attack others in a bid to reassure themselves that they are right and quickly get rid of any niggling doubts,” Silvia notes.
Insecurity usually stems from having deeplyentrenched views of how certain things should be done.
So, when they see a fellow mum doing something entirely different, they feel threatened and cut her down to make themselves better.
Another trigger – the power struggle between family members, quite often with the in-laws or sometimes even with the husband.
“This tends to be the harshest and most painful form of mum-shaming as we turn to those closest to us for love, support and understanding during that vulnerable ﬁrst year or two of a child’s life,” Silvia points out.
Nurul Ahmad, mum to one-year-old Adam, is all too familiar with this. The 35-yearold teacher admits to being shamed by her father-in-law for parenting differently than him.
“I’m very particular about what I feed Adam, but my father-in-law isn’t and has always been relaxed with his kids.
“Instead of wishing us a bon voyage, so many of our Facebook friends were busy pointing out that we gave our son an iPad – it was shocking. I don’t see how it’s any of their business.”