A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

5 Types of Mom-Shaming—and How to Shut Them Down

Motherhood is hard enough without all the comments from the peanut gallery, but you'll still get them. Here's how to deal.

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When you’re a mom, everyone is a critic

There are some new mom myths that are totally not true, but here’s what is true: Being a new mom in public is like wearing a “kick me” sign, except the invitation is to not physically kick you but emotionally kick you where it most hurts—in your mom heart. It’s been several years but I still vividly remember the day an elderly woman approached me and my infant son in the grocery store to yell at me for five full minutes that I was a negligent and bad mother… for not putting socks on his tiny feet. In my defense, it was 90 degrees out and he was perfectly content in his onesie. Yet even though I knew my parenting stance was reasonable—he seems to have suffered no ill effects from his time with air-conditioned toes—I still burned with shame, tears filling my eyes, as everyone stared at me.

I’m not the only mom who’s been humiliated in this way, nor are infant socks the only things people feel compelled to shame moms for.

“There is far too much mom shaming that happens today,” says Julie Burton, parenting expert, author of The Self-Care Solution: A Modern Mother’s Must-Have Guide to Health and Well-Being, and mom to four kids herself. “Too many people see a mother and, either overtly or covertly, automatically put on their judgment hats.” Everything, she points out, is fair game these days: breast vs bottle feeding, cloth vs disposable diapers, free-range vs attachment parenting, going back to work vs staying at home. Even a mom’s looks are open season, with shameful comments about how fast she is “getting her body back” (not that she ever “lost” it to begin with)!

Fortunately, you don’t have to just stand there and take the abuse. Here’s how to deal:

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If you are mom-shamed by a stranger

The woman who approached me at the grocery store wasn’t a friend or neighbor, she was simply a busybody who didn’t realize that parenting norms had changed in the five decades since she’d had her kids. But, as any mom knows, babies are a magnet for comments from strangers. So if some random person decides to critique your parenting you have a couple of options. First, you don’t owe anyone an explanation or response; simply walking away is acceptable.

However, Burton says, sometimes there is something to be learned from the other person. “Unsolicited advice can be really difficult but I do believe it ‘takes a village’ to raise a child and sometimes unsolicited messages and feedback are important for us to hear and can actually help our parenting efforts,” she explains.

She makes a good point. My second son had extreme colic and I was at my wit’s end with his constant crying—until one day a woman approached me at the zoo and gave me unsolicited advice on a special hold to soothe him. It worked like a charm and to this day I’m so grateful she spoke up.

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If you are mom-shamed online

Some days it seems as if the Internet was invented for the express purpose of shaming moms. Articles abound critiquing mother’s bodies and actions, and message boards are filled with holier-than-thou “sanctimommies” who have perfect children, naturally, and plenty of shame to dole out advice for the rest of us who don’t. And now social media has opened up a whole new venue for friends, family, and acquaintances to judge everything from what you feed your kid to how they sleep to where they go to school—no detail is left unnoticed and sometimes it’s the tiniest things that spark a mommy war. So what are you to do if you’re being attacked online?

Turn. It. Off.

Social media may feel like the hardest situation to escape but in reality, it is the simplest. Put down your phone, walk away from the computer, and focus on something else (like your adorable kiddo!). If people are still freaking out all over your Facebook, feel free to delete the post or stop answering. Ultimately you decide what you’ll let into your life and if it’s making you feel bad, lose the digital baggage. Here’s how to have a healthy relationship with social media.

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If you are mom-shamed by another mom

Nothing is worse than a mom who shames other moms for their children’s behavior while her own progeny run wild—especially because they usually know just how to push your mom-buttons. While it may be tempting to fire back your own criticism of her parenting, escalating the fight won’t make you feel better, Burton says. In fact, sometimes the best thing to do is listen. Even if you disagree with everything she says, she’ll feel heard, which is all most people want anyhow. And if there is a grain of truth to what she says (however badly she said it), you might want to swallow your pride.

“As hard as parents try to be objective in their views of their children, they cannot possibly see their children from every single angle. If you are secure enough in yourself and in your parenting, you are able to accept that another parent may be able to shed some light on an aspect of your child that you simply do not see,” she explains, adding that there’s a lot to learn from other moms.

This does not mean you need to tolerate abusive commentary, she adds. “When unsolicited advice or comments are hurtful and destructive, that needs to be addressed in a different manner,” she says. Feel free to tell her how it makes you feel, using “I” statements and avoiding accusing or berating her back. If she continues, don’t get stuck in the weeds arguing about why she’s wrong—you likely won’t change her mind—but simply change or end the conversation. And set a good example by making it a point to never judge or shame other moms either. (Feeling judgemental? Here’s how to stop being so judge-y.)

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If you are mom-shamed by your own mom

Ah, mothers! There’s nothing like having a child of your own to make you appreciate your own mom. There’s also nothing like having a child of your own to make you see how much your mom drives you nuts sometimes. Your mother (or mother-in-law) likely has lots of opinions about how to raise an awesome kid, and in the process of imparting all her motherly wisdom to you might make you feel shamed in the process.

Why is your house so messy all the time? I always made cleaning a priority when you guys were little so you wouldn’t get sick!

It can be easy to lose your cool but start by giving your mom the benefit of the doubt and recognizing she is likely coming from a place of love. She wants to help, so redirect her from whatever she’s fixated on (your dirty floor) to something you could genuinely use help with (holding the baby while you shower—or clean the floor).

And don’t discount all her advice as old-fashioned. If she tells you to put your baby to sleep on their stomach or something else dangerous, gently correct her. But if she’s just telling you her tricks for getting toddlers to cooperate, keep an open mind.

“If the person cares about your child and the motivation for their feedback is that they are invested in the healthy development of your child, then you are best served to consider their perspective,” Burton says. It’s worth a little patience to maintain a good relationship with your mother.

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If you are mom-shamed by… yourself

As a mom, sometimes our biggest critics are… ourselves. No one is harsher, more unforgiving, or crueler than a mom in a shame spiral. It’s so easy to doubt every choice you make and feel like every little thing is a life-or-death matter.

“From the moment you become a mom you are inundated with decisions, from choosing a brand of baby food (or deciding to make your own) to whether or not you are going to let your 14-year-old go to a concert with his buddies without parental supervision. Parental decisions can be confusing, overwhelming, scary, and downright daunting at times—it’s no wonder you often feel overwhelmed by fear, anxiety, your own past experiences, not to mention other people’s input,” Burton says. “Add to this that many moms feel that they are just ‘supposed to’ know what to do and that their instincts will guide them, which can make you feel inadequate when you really don’t know what to do.”

The answer? Be so very kind and gentle with yourself. “I am all for digging deep and learning to listen to and trust yourself when it comes to parenting, it is also important to not berate yourself when you feel uncertain,” she says. “If you need an instinct to trust, trust this one: ‘I am doing the best I can to raise my child. I won’t always know what to do or how to do it, but I will keep digging for answers within myself while being kind to myself, and understanding that sometimes I will need help and that’s okay.'”

Instead of shaming yourself for not having all the answers or for messing up, this is the perfect time to ask for someone else to help you—your partner, a mom friend, your mom. And while they’re helping out, make sure to take some time just for yourself, to read something fun (perhaps these 12 short, sweet stories about motherhood), go for a walk, take a hot bath, or do something else to care for yourself. Being a mom is a tough job but you’ve got this.

Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen is a health, lifestyle and fitness expert and teacher. She covers all things wellness for Reader’s Digest and The Healthy. With dual masters degrees in information technology and education, she has been a journalist for 17 years and is the author of The Great Fitness Experiment. She lives in Denver with her husband, five kids and three pets.