CINCINNATI -- Formula or breast milk? Stroller or carrier? Organic or not? Stay at home or go to work?
There is no shortage of decisions that moms have to make regarding their children -- and a recent study reveals there is no shortage of unsolicited advice from other people to go along with it.
“Mom-shaming,” or giving advice or judgment to a mom based on her parenting decision, affects nearly two-thirds of moms, according to the National Poll on Children’s Health by the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital at the University of Michigan.
The report uses a national sample of 475 mothers who have one or more child under age 5. The findings show that six in 10 moms said they have been criticized regarding their parenting. The top controversial areas include discipline, diet/nutrition and sleep. Of the criticized mothers, half said that they avoid the people who are criticizing them.
“Our findings tap into the tensions moms face when parenting advice leads to more stress than reassurance and makes them feel more criticized than supported,” said poll co-director Sarah Clark. “Mothers can get overwhelmed by so many conflicting views on the ‘best’ way to raise a child. Unsolicited advice -- especially from the people closest to her child -- can be perceived as meaning she’s not doing a good job as a mother. That can be hurtful.”
Tri-State residents are feeling mom-shamed as well, including Emily Osterbrock of Anderson Township. She recalled a time when her 8-month-old, now 21 months, was in the process of baby-led weaning, which involves introducing solid, "real" foods as opposed to using pureed baby food.
Her husband, who serves as a pastor, was “called out” by her sister-in-law during a church function.
“She said we were going to make her choke, and that our daughter was going to get hurt. I’m not sure if she thought we were offering her steak because we weren't yet; we were still in the banana, sweet potato and avocado phase,” she said.
The situation, Osterbrock added, was humiliating.
“Nothing like someone creating a scene and being told you're a horrible parent or harming your child loudly at your place of work, right?” she said. “It made both of us be a bit more private with our choices concerning our daughter.”
Her experience is similar to one-third of the women who reported being criticized by in-laws in the poll. Other groups of tough critiques included: 37 percent from the mom’s own parents, 36 percent from the child’s other parent, 14 percent from friends and 12 percent from other moms in public.
Sarah Crane and her 11-month-old son in Montgomery have had to limit their exposure to their in-laws because of mom-shaming as well. One of the main issues with her relatives is whether or not a mother of young children should work.
“Basically I’m a bad mom because I choose to work part time. I've worked very hard to establish myself in my career, and I love it. They seem to think that I must not love my child enough then,” said Crane, who is a mental health specialist working with people with developmental disabilities.
In addition to her in-laws, she has been kicked out of a moms' group for wanting to work -- and members appeared to be “baffled” that she would want to leave the home part time.
As with many parents who feel judged, Crane has found these interactions isolating and has avoided reaching out to other moms because of these negative experiences. Instead, she just works with her husband to make the best decisions for their son.
But the naysayers still have an impact.
“I try now to simply let it roll off and not let it bother me. But truthfully, it does bother me that people feel I'm ‘selfish’ for wanting a career,” she said. “I truly believe that working makes me a better mom, because I have some time on my own to exercise my brain.”
People are recognizing the harm in the mom-shaming trend and companies such as Beech-Nut are trying to shed light on mom-shaming. One commercial from the company encourages moms to come together to overcome differences and strengthen each other.
A recent Marie Claire article equates the issue of mom-shaming to high school “mean girls” grown up, in which grown women judge each other and make ruthless comments, both in person and on social media.
Similac’s End Mommy Wars campaign came out with a popular commercial in 2016 that pokes fun at each type of mom stereotype (i.e., the working moms strutting up a hill in suits, carrying infant seats), but brings them together in the end as they all help to rescue a baby stroller rolling down a hill.
In a longer, more in-depth feature ad by Similac, one mom describes the guilt she feels after being unable to breastfeed and the shame of strangers continuing to press her on such a personal topic.
“It’s almost a conversation you have to have with a stranger,” she said sarcastically in the video. “Thanks for bringing it up.”
Stephene Spahn of Hanover Township knows the breastfeeding versus formula debate well. She has chosen to breastfeed her two children, currently ages 3 and 5 months.
Spahn feels pressure from her mother and grandmother, who both considered formula the “norm” when they were raising children.
“My family has been very sensitive about breastfeeding. My grandmother is very pushy about always covering up, saying, 'What if someone says something?’” Spahn said. “'How long are you going to keep that (breast) in her face?' 'Until college' is my usual response.”
Criticism and suggestions from Spahn's family have started to wear her down.
“I hate leaving my house to feed or being around my family because of the way I'm treated while I’m with them,” she said.
Clark’s study points to similar situations that can sometimes result in the mother distancing herself from the source of discouragement.
“It’s unfortunate when a mother feels criticized to the point where she limits the amount of time she and her child will spend with a family member or friend,” Clark said. “To guard against that situation, advice to mothers of young children should be given with empathy and encouragement.”
She added that many mom-shamed parents turn to their medical providers for sound advice, which can be a healthy decision as they tend to give less judgment than others.