"Just seen a woman passenger in a car with a small, but very lively, child sat on her lap. No sign of a car seat at all. How could a mother be so idiotic?"
So said a Facebook status that popped up on my screen from a mother I know. Within seconds, the judgements flooded in from other mums she knows began.
"Report the number plate to the police immediately!"
"I'd have given her a piece of my mind!"
That was just the start. Five mums wanted her publically humiliated ("How I'd love to see someone moan on social media that they were reported!" got four likes). Then, several of the mums decided she didn't deserve to have children at all. Finally, there was a consensus that it wasn't just this mother that needed running down because actually, there are so many monster mums out there who clearly don't care about their children at all.
Stunned at the level of vitriol and snap judgements, I pointed out that actually, none of us knew anything about this woman's circumstances. The car journey might have been an emergency (there's an exception to car seat and seat belt laws for unexpected journeys). Or it might have been a taxi and the child was under three (if you are travelling in the rear of a taxi and you don't have a car seat with you, your baby or toddler can legally travel without a seatbelt).
But no, these mothers were on a roll and it got me thinking about why so many mothers feel the need to judge other mothers.
I mentioned it at school pick up that afternoon. "We were just talking about that exact same thing!" said one mum. "We should be supportive and caring of other mums, not cutting each other down. We mums know more than anyone how things aren't always what they seem or that sometimes we all make poor parenting decisions."
Only last week, a mother with a perfectly behaved preschooler smiled and rolled her eyes at me in a shop. There was a toddler in another aisle who wouldn't stop crying and screaming and his mother was completely ignoring him.
It made me uncomfortable because perfect-child-mother was trying to unite me in her irritation of screaming-toddler-mother, but I'd been in screaming-toddler-mother's shoes before myself when I was exhausted with trying to make my child stop or in the knowledge that ignoring her was sometimes the best solution.
So why do mums judge other mums? What's to be gained from it? Psychologist Lynne Jordan believes it's because our society has such an idealised notion of motherhood and how we should be as mothers.
"Judging others deflects how we feel about our own mothering," she adds. "It makes us feel better to put someone else down because if we put them down, then we become bigger." In other words, it serves to remind us how much closer we are to being the 'idealised mother'".
Plus, judging others can feel good. It's easy and entertaining, creating a sense of belonging (think about how much easier it would have been to just smile at perfect-child-mother). Being kind takes more work and energy and risks making you the focus of someone else's disapproval or judgement.
The judging-other-mums syndrome is a spectrum, points out Jordan, so it becomes easy to convince ourselves we don't do it. At one end of this spectrum are, say, the mothers who post comments on the Daily Mail website and at the other, are those who occasionally mutter under their breath, talk behind someone's back or just think to themselves, "God, I would never do that."
If we're honest – and this is hard for everyone, including me – most of us have done it at one time or another, even if subconsciously. Even we haven't, then we've probably found ourselves judging the judgers.
"Judging others, or criticising what we perceive as 'bad' behaviour or ways of living, is pretty natural for most people. We all do it from time to time," confirms Liz Fraser, modern family expert for www.uk.care.com.
Her advice is to remember that we're all in this motherhood chaos together. "It's hard and nothing is helped by criticising relentlessly. So if your immediate thought is, 'Tsk, why is she doing that?!' then stop, take a little mental step back, and ask yourself why you feel that way, and if there's maybe much more to someone else's actions than you might realise."
Before you judge or have a bitch about someone's parenting skills, ask yourself whether what you're saying or feeling is in any way beneficial, she adds - to you, to them, or to the world. "If not - move on and do something more positive instead."
Sometimes that will mean literally walking away, but with compassion rather than negativity in your heart, whereas other times it will mean hanging around, but with a different attitude. "There's a big difference between judging and criticising, and being helpful or supportive, by suggesting other ways of doing something," explains Fraser.
"It all comes down to the way it's done. Tone of voice, language used, and how well you know the person. Having a kind, supportive word with a friend who seems to be struggling can help them our enormously, when they maybe didn't realise they needed some help."
It's freeing, she adds, to stop judging. Instead of taking away disapproval and even anger from a situation, you take away humility, which will ultimately make you feel better too.
Enjoy this video called The Mother 'Hood'.
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