questions for you: ‘mommy wars’ & how to talk with other parents without sucking

As regular readers know, I’m working on a feminist book about parenting. Will you help me write a better, more inclusive project by answering some questions? Today’s topic is a big one: the whole nasty notion of “the mommy wars” and, in contrast, strategies for talking with other parents without being dreadful.

I’m not even going to try to prescribe specific questions on this one! So, open thread on any of the following:

  • media representations of bitchy mothers one-upping and guilt-tripping each other
  • actual experiences of other parents behaving in exclusionary/nasty/judgmental/hurtful ways (or confessions of having done this yourself)
  • tips for acting like a decent human being when interacting with other (and potentially very different) parents/families

The details:

  • By commenting on this post, you are giving me permission to quote what you say here in my book. Please indicate the age(s) of your child or children, as well as whether you’d like to be identified by full name, first name only, or a pseudonym of your choice if I end up using your words.
  • Feel free to email your responses instead of commenting here, if you prefer: molly at firsttheegg dot com.
  • I’m so grateful for any thoughts you offer!

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  1. Posted 5 December 2012 at 5:20 PM | Permalink

    This one is a tricky one for us. We have friends with a son a little older than ours, and we have very similar parenting philosophies. Both families use lots of attachment parenting techniques and try to maintain gentle and respectful disciplinary techniques with our children. We differ on one big point: sleep. They sleep-trained their son when he was four months old, moving him into his own bedroom. Ours is 21 months and still sleeps in bed with us. He only recently night-weaned (and it’s by no means consistent or complete). The father in the other family firmly believes that their decision was not only right for their own family, but is the right decision for every baby.

    When we’ve tried to talk about it, everyone’s gotten hurt feelings. I feel like the other father is judging us and being inflexible; the other mom gets weepy because sleep training was so emotionally difficult for her. It’s tricky. At this point, we simply don’t talk about it.

    For us, I think this has been the secret to success on maintaining judgement-free parenting conversations, with them and other parents: Try to be flexible in your opinions, knowing that other folks are making the choices that feel right to them. If you can’t be flexible, or if feelings are getting hurt, it’s probably best not to talk about it at all.

    (Beth R is a fine way to refer to me. I have one a 21-month-old son.)

  2. Posted 5 December 2012 at 6:54 PM | Permalink

    I have judged, have been judged, as a mother it’s especially poignant but I realized that I was taking it more to heart (both by being harder on others for judging as well being harsh on myself when admitting my own judgements) because of the emotional involvement in parenting. My strategy since very early on has been one of carefully selecting the conversations I have. It’s true that it’s not always possible to avoid unpleasant conversations around parenting styles, but for the most part it really, really is. I have some friends who can hear all my stories, my questions, my vents and give back love, support and occasionally answers. On rely HEAVILY on those friends and provide a similarly non-judgemental environment in return. It’s not to say we agree on everything, but that we have a gentlewoman’s agreement to say ‘this shit is tough, I need you, you need me, let’s not be assholes about it.’ The trick to this kind of relationship working is that you have to have completely compassionate listening skills when hearing what they need to say and make sure not to get your back up when you are getting feedback on your own issue of the moment. Not always easy, but doable.

    On the other hand, I avoid or at least work hard to de-escalate conversations or relationships that make me feel anything close to this ‘mommy wars’ (hate hate hate that term with a passion) business. I don’t discuss parenting techniques/issues with some friends/acquaintances because I know what will come of it. When someone baits me or pushes it (like a pal who recently kept pushing me on her anti-vax stance by saying ‘it surprises me you would do that to your child, I generally consider you a good mother’) I talk myself down and walk away. To that woman I said ‘I’m doing my best, and I assume you are too. Let’s leave it at that.’

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t advocate for things we feel strongly about or feel proud of ourselves when those rare moments of parenting victory seem clear, but I’m saying let’s be adults. Let’s pick our battles. Let’s be compassionate and reasonable. To me people who get wrapped up in constant ‘mommy wars’ seem to be hostile out of their own insecurity. And to them I want to shout WE ARE ALL INSECURE! NO ONE KNOWS WHAT THEY ARE DOING! If we all admitted that a little, took the pressure of ourselves and each other to be the perfect mother/father/everything, there would be no need for this ‘put you down to raise myself up’ kind of mentality.

  3. Lara
    Posted 6 December 2012 at 7:30 AM | Permalink

    Previous commentors had great ideas, and good strategies for avoiding the worst of it. I do think that something remains very difficult and sticky, though, even when everyone intends to be non-judgemental. I have bigger kids, 8 and 5. What do I do when I know my bigger kid plays videogames and eats mallowmars all afternoon at his friend’s house? Currently, it’s his best friend, and I love the family, so I shrug and figure it’ll all be ok in the end. But it means he doesn’t eat dinner that day, confesses he was eating mallowmars, and his brother has a giant tantrum that he didn’t get mallowmars. And both kids have figured out to try to play at other kids’ houses, where there are big TVs and junk food. I’ve had situations where kids complain to their mothers, in front of me, that I didn’t let them play videogames or have what they wanted for snack (I served fruit, heaven forbid!). That’s a pretty awkward parenting moment! I try not to judge in any direct way, but the indirect judgements sure are discernible. And because I’m trying to be so darn non-judgemental, I sometimes avoid getting to know families if I think their house rules will be too far askew from my own.

    On a less daily, but higher-stakes level, I have very few friends with whom I can discuss my conflicted feelings about staying home with my kids instead of looking for a tenure-track job. To me, it is a sacrifice. Not an unambiguous one, but real nonetheless. I have one working friend who felt the same conflict, made the other choice, but sees both sides. Otherwise, I feel like I had better keep my mouth shut, or I induce worse mother-guilt in a society that already has more than enough. But it means I have to lie in professional settings. I don’t want anyone seeing me as self-righteous, or resenting me because I make them feel guilty. So I more or less have to pretend I love every minute of staying home, and I’m doing it for my personal fulfillment. On the other side, I feel guilty when I see some of the happy, fulfilled totally-stay-at-home moms around me. Obviously it makes no sense at all for me to feel like I have a conflict with them — they are doing nothing but modeling good, happy parenting! But it triggers my anxieties, and I am somewhat envious, and I feel like I should self-censure my negative thoughts about full-time parenting. It’s not like I think about this stuff constantly. But when I do, as one of the previous commentors noted, it is highly emotionally charged. I find it easier to set aside p0litical and religious differences than parenting differences.

  4. AHLondon
    Posted 6 December 2012 at 9:30 AM | Permalink

    The Mommy Wars are perpetuated by women and only stoked by the media. In the modern world, society teaches young women to be lawyers and doctors, which is great, but it comes at the expense of anything domestic. Often we go into motherhood knowing far less about it than we do our professions. I know too many people whose first diaper changes were their newborn. Since we have precious little practical experience with babies and children, once we get pregnant we seek out expert advice. But parenting is more practical than law or accounting. It’s not rocket science, but it isn’t as instinctive as we like to think. It involves skills that require practice. (Breastfeeding anyone?)
    Before I get on a long description, the gist: we aren’t confident about our parenting skills which is why we seek so much consensus and are so sensitive to disagreement, either by judging or feeling judged. If other parents agree with us, then we tend to take their endorsement that we are doing it right. I suspect that we often seek the advice of parents at our same stage, instead of advice of parents 10 years ahead of us who might impart some long term wisdom about how X behavior at 2 years can grow into superX behavior at 10, because of this desire for consensus.
    There are some things we should seek standards, things that effect us all, like vac policy or targeting bully behaviors early (more on that in a sec). But why in the world do we get involved in things like breast feeding or sleeping? It affects me not a bit if my next door neighbor bottle fed her brood. But the 4 year old with no impulse control on the playground can make the area unsafe for other children, to say nothing of the kind of damage that child could do at 10 or 16 years. Which brings me to a current horrible story.
    For the past few months I’ve had to tangle with another mother. I have many examples, so I will just go with the most succinct: Our 9 year old boys were playing outside. Her child hit mine in the head with a stick. After checking that my child was alright, she came to my house and proceeded to tell my son that if he wanted to play with sticks, he needed to play with someone else because whenever her son played with sticks ”someone always runs into the end of the stick and gets hurt.” It wasn’t her kids fault for swinging the stick. It was my kids’s fault for playing too closely. (Never mind that my kid has played with sticks with other boys without much incident for years.) She finds root causes for her children’s behavior in things that they cannot control. Lately that is my children. The upshot is her kids do not have enough self control and my children don’t want to play with them anymore. They don’t want to get blamed for things the other children do. It causes problems in the classroom and the neighborhood, and I worry as the children get further ostracized–my kids are not alone in wanting to avoid these children–they will get angry and then mean. My husband and I have discussed this. I’ve asked my mentor and mom as well. When the mom and I discuss this again, she will find it easy to accuse me of being judgmental. I don’t care. I intend to be polite and calm, but at this point the stakes are too high for notions of ‘you do what you feel is best.’ What she feels is best has created a situation where her children have little self control and few friends, a recipe for bullies.

    I have a 9 year old boy and 7 and two 4 year old daughters. AHLondon is my blog handle, but if you prefer, I also write under my actual name, Leslie Loftis

  5. Posted 7 December 2012 at 9:53 AM | Permalink

    I made a Mommy Wars Bingo card a few years ago based on things I have heard / read on the Internet.

    If you need my info, it’s on the About Me page on my blog. My kids are 13 and 8.

  6. Posted 7 December 2012 at 9:55 AM | Permalink

    Oh, and I also wrote a post with links to several other posts about discussing difficult parenting topics, including breastfeeding:

  7. A'Llyn
    Posted 8 December 2012 at 8:10 AM | Permalink

    Raising children can be nerve-wracking, and I think we just want to know we’re doing it right. Which sometimes descends into a need to know that other ways of doing it are wrong. A healthier approach would probably be to figure there is no right way (beyond the basics like, are you feeding them and loving them and protecting them from harm?), but there are a lot of all right ways.

    I’m certainly not doing it right. I hope I’m doing it OK. I do the best I can, and it generally pays to assume others are too.

    As for talking to other parents without it sucking, I admit to practicing avoidance of topics where I know there will be disagreement, and of proffering/accepting agree-to-disagree statements when one comes up unexpectedly. (Because you never know when you’ll mention something you assume is basic common sense and the only reasonable opinion, and it will turn out to be completely different from what someone else–even someone you think you know!–assumes.)

    It’s kind of like my approach to any sensitive topic, really. Avoid, defuse with humor, really discuss only if you’re sure you want to get into it.

    For example, I’m a vegetarian. I’m totally non-confrontational about it. I tell people it’s because I like to save more room for dessert, or because I want to leave more meat for others to fill up on while I hog the sweet potatoes, or whatever. If someone really wants to know, I’ll say that yes, it’s a moral decision for me that feels like the right thing to do…but my right thing is not everyone’s, and I’m not going to go around preaching about it.

    Some people are more passionate and confrontational by nature, more committed and honest in a way, and would say they can’t sit by in silence while other people do something they believe is wrong. I respect that, to a degree, but you just can’t go around doing it without getting into a lot of conversations that suck.

    Other people, using the best information they have, and prioritizing information the best way that works for them, make decisions I wouldn’t make. They’re allowed to do that. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re stupid or lazy or wrong. In the interests of conversations not sucking, I try to assume they’re doing the best they can, and if necessary just talk about something else.

  8. Posted 15 December 2012 at 3:06 PM | Permalink

    I feel that, for whatever reason, mothers and women (specifically female parents) are too sensitive. I often want to share my experiences and choices – which, in my group of friends, tend to drift from the center to be more “hippy drippy” (as I call it). But if I say, for example, that I had an intervention free birth in a hospital, then my friends (most of whom had planned C sections) immediately shut down. They insert into my tone and intentions some sort of judgment, some view of them as less-than-women that I am truly, honestly not conveying. I can’t tell them that I nursed to a year, or made most of my own baby food, or make the kids’ Halloween costumes from scratch. I did! I wanted to! It made me feel good to do those things! I also freely admit in these conversations that I asked for an epidural (didn’t get it, and I’m glad) – that I regularly feed my children non-food from McDonalds – that we watch entirely too much tv. Sometimes I’m badass, sometimes I’m lazy, but I’m content at mothering, and I wish I could talk about that with people without having to hedge and apologize and check in on their “feelings” about the factual information I’m conveying about my experience.

    I will freely admit that I get pretty judgy about people’s failure to vaccinate (the nonvaccinated child is a real threat to my own kids, and I am furious at the failure to put the collective real needs of public health over the selfish imagined fear of a vanishingly small chance of real lasting harm). That’s the one area where I judge and preach, preach the science loud and proud, and that’s because it represents a preventable risk to my own children. But other than that admittedly perhaps intrusive and judgy mothering, I swear to you on all that is holy that I don’t judge other mothers one whit about what they do with their kids. I care, very much – I want to talk about this stuff, I like talking about it. But it’s not going to hurt my feelings if you chose to sleep train at four months, whereas I still have a little 2 yo visitor come crawl into my bed at 2am every night. I feel very confident in my parenting choices, and my self awareness as a parent, and others’ choices to do something else do not threaten my confidence that my own choices are right for us. This comes from a deep belief that most of this stuff ultimately doesn’t matter to your child – that the bulk of parenting decisions over which we fret and research and worry and fear we’re doing wrong make absolutely no difference to your kid. They make a difference to YOU, and how you feel about the parenting job you’re doing – and that does impact your child, but I think that’s the only impact it has. If your kid sleeps in your bed til he’s ten, I really don’t care – if you sleep trained him a four months, good onya! If you feed organics, or feed Stouffers ready made meals – if you nursed or bottle fed – if you think Pack and Plays are prisons or are awesome containment devices that let you get crap done while baby is safe – all of these things have miniscule impacts on how your child will grow up, I truly believe it.

    Anyway, I’ve written about this on my own blog – about how pissed I get when I mention my birth choices and I get a huffy, defensive response. My response to that is “Come on. Grow up. Be a woman and own your choices.” What I would prefer is a moment of solidarity – an appreciation that however a baby comes out of a woman’s body, it’s kind of a big deal and we’re all kind of badasses for going through it. That however we survive our children’s preschool years, these years are hard as hell and we’re superwomen for doing it. I wish I could have that, and I don’t know why I can’t.

  9. Heather
    Posted 27 December 2012 at 8:37 PM | Permalink

    “tips for acting like a decent human being when interacting with other (and potentially very different) parents/families”

    This has been on my mind a lot. I have a “coffee group” – a group of mums with babies around the same age which meets regularly in each other’s homes. They are mostly first time mums like myself, and I think we can be quite sensitive to anything resembling criticism. We can be understandably unsure of ourselves, embarking on such a huge undertaking that is like nothing we have done before. And we are so deeply emotionally invested in looking after our babies that any thing to do with parenting can become a very emotionally charged topic. Add to this a good dose of sleep deprivation and exhaustion from the overwhelming task of caring for an infant 24 hours a day and we can be a little touchy.

    Really we are generally kind, warm, and friendly with each other. There are no “mommy wars” here. And still, I am surprised at how quick I am to judge a mum who has made a different choice from mine. I have to frequently remind myself to be accepting and open minded. I try to remember that every family is different, that I can’t know all of the factors that went into their choices and I absolutely have no right to judge. I give myself a little pep talk before meeting up with the other mums. It goes something like this:

    All I can do is share my own personal experience; I can not make generalizations or talk about how one should or shouldn’t do things. When a mum is talking to me about her experiences, I will listen and respond compassionately and non-judgmentally and I will not respond to what they are telling me by talking about what’s going on with me and my baby because what that mum needs is to talk about their stuff and to feel heard. Responding with, “well MY baby….” is so easy to do but it so easily can wind up sounding like some kind of judgment or some kind of statement about how much more awesome your baby is or you are, or conversely how much harder you have it and how much more deserving of pity and attention you are. Instead I will respond when listening to a mum’s experiences with things like “it sounds like that is really frustrating/difficult/etc.” or “it’s great that that’s working for you/ your baby/ your family.” I will try my best to not talk about my parenting at all unless someone asks me a direct question about it. If I do talk about the way I am parenting, I will use phrases like “we have decided to do it this way” or “this is what is working for us/ for my baby.”

    I tell myself this every time I head to my coffee group, and every time I come away feeling like I have not lived up to it. It is amazing how hard it can be. It is hard because this new mum gig can be so intense and the need to talk about it and to be listened to can be overwhelming. And the lack of sleep can make self control harder than it usually would be. However I am finding that the better I get at listening to other mums and without judgment the more I develop compassion and understanding for mums who have made different parenting choices than I have. It is important to me to develop this skill because it will only become more valuable as my child gets older. The differences in parenting styles are only going to become more pronounced, while my ability to choose what kind of parents I interact with will presumably plummet once we get to the school years.

    Heather, mother of one 6 month old son

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