These 12 Common Phrases Are Actually Mum-Shaming

You might not realise how hurtful these comments can be.
This kind of judgmental language is more insidious than you realise.
studiostockart via Getty Images
This kind of judgmental language is more insidious than you realise.

Being a mum on social media can be a minefield. It seems like everywhere you turn there are critical, judgmental and condescending comments making you feel like crap about your parenting choices, whatever they may be.

Mary Catherine Starr is the artist behind @momlife_comics on Instagram, where she has more than 300,000 followers. As a mum of two kids with a large social media audience, she is no stranger to being mum-shamed.

Starr told HuffPost that while she adores the hilarious and inspiring women of the “momstagram” world, she is also “really saddened” by the amount of mum-shaming that happens on the platform.

In reaction to the passive-aggressive comments she often comes across on her page and others like it, she made a tongue-in-cheek comic titled the “Mom Shaming How-To Guide” last year.

Recently, she decided to post it again. After sharing a comic that mentioned sleep training, which she created based on a personal story from one of her followers, an army of mum-shamers showed up in the comments.

The post “didn’t say what kind of sleep training she did, and sleep training wasn’t the point of the comic — it was about her husband’s oblivion,” Starr said.

“But people started posting judgmental comments towards her and this mention of sleep training. And their comments really rubbed me the wrong way.”

In her how-to guide, Starr lists a dozen of the most common mum-shaming phrases. You’ll probably recognise many, if not all, of them whether you’ve said them yourself or had them said to you or about you:

  1. Oh you do? We don’t allow X in our house.
  2. That’s never been an issue for us! Probably because we X from the beginning.
  3. Have you tried X? (Insert something super obvious or completely privileged and out-of-touch.) It worked wonders for us.
  4. If you just X, your child would have no choice but to do what you’re asking.
  5. I think it’s great that she X. I would feel way too guilty if I ever did that
  6. What kind of mother lets her kids X?
  7. I just worry about her, you know? I can’t believe she would X, especially because she’s a mum.
  8. If she would just X then her kids would Y. But what do I know? I’ve only raised X successful adults.
  9. We’ve decided that when we become parents we’ll never X.
  10. I don’t have any kids of my own but my parents X and I turned out fine!
  11. If you hate being a mum so much, then why did you have kids? (Response should be used EVERY time a mum complains about any aspect of motherhood)
  12. When I’m a mum, I definitely won’t X. But to each her own.

Starr believes you can’t understand — or judge — another person’s parenting choices “unless you have been in their exact same situation,” she said.

“Obviously I am not talking about abusive parenting decisions here, but the more general ones like breastmilk vs. formula, child care decisions, sleep training, etc.,” she said.

“Decisions that data has shown don’t impact a child negatively in the short-term or in the long-term.”

Mum-shaming doesn’t just happen on social media, of course. In real life, it’s near impossible to escape shame-y remarks from relatives, friends and perfect strangers.

Sometimes they’re disguised as well-meaning — but unsolicited — “advice”; other times, they’re just plain rude.

Clinical psychologist Ashurina Ream, who goes by @psychedmommy on Instagram, said mum-shaming begins before the baby is even born.

“Mothers are often shamed during pregnancy for how they nourish themselves, how much or how little weight they gain, whether or not they exercise and how they deliver their child,” she told HuffPost.

Then they’re shamed for what they feed their kid, how they discipline them and whether or not they work outside the home, among many other choices, she added.

Dads often aren’t scrutinised in the same way because as a society, “we still see mothers as the primary parent as it relates to child-rearing,” Ream said. In heterosexual partnerships, even when both parents work outside of the home, mums still tend to take on more of the parenting duties.

“Mothers are expected to be caretakers and nurturers and fathers to be providers and protectors,” Ream said.

“We can’t shame fathers about a role we never expected them to fill. We expect mums to do what is impossible and then shame them when they inevitably fall short.”

Even good people mum-shame

Ironically, it’s often fellow mums who are doing the mum-shaming, Ream said. She believes they do it because they “want to feel validated” in their own parenting decisions.

“By shaming others, they feel better about the choices they made as a parent,” Ream said. “And since parenting is such a high-stakes job, it’s important to us that we’re doing it ‘right,’ whatever that means.”

Many parents fail to realise that there’s more than one way to raise kids well.

“Therefore, endorsing another person’s parenting style might somehow invalidate their own experience,” Ream said.

Mum-shamers may also have a myopic view when it comes to parenting decisions, unable to see why people might do things another way — or recognise that they may be making different choices out of necessity.

According to clinical psychologist Martha Deiros Collado, author of the forthcoming book How to Be the Grown-Up, “they form an opinion based on their personal experiences rather than considering how differences in context, socioeconomic status and social support can affect the choices a mother makes.”

Even the most good-hearted among us fall prey to shaming other mums at one point or another “because our patriarchal society has pitted us against each other,” Starr said.

“Women have been taught to compete to be ‘the best’ instead of working together to help one another grow,” she said.

In retrospect, Starr realises she’s even done it herself. While she said she has never shamed another mum in an aggressive way, she has “definitely judged mums” for decisions she didn’t agree with at the time “only to find myself doing the very same thing when I got to that same stage of parenting.”

She also recalls giving unsolicited advice to new mums in an effort to be helpful, which she now recognises “can feel like judgment,” especially to someone in the throes of early parenthood.

Make this small tweak that supports mums – not shames them

If you have a tendency to offer unsolicited parenting advice — the well-meaning variety of mum-shaming — be conscious of your delivery, Deiros Collado advised.

“There may be an intention to help or impart some wisdom, but your tone or choice of words is what leads your message to be shaming,” she explained.

You may say something inadvertently shame-y like: “Oh wow, well, that has never happened to us because we do X. You should try it,” Deiros Collado said, rather than a more empathetic response like, “It sounds like you are having a tough time and doing your best.”

“When we receive advice instead of understanding in a moment of vulnerability, it can feel exposing and shaming,” Deiros Collado said.

Remember that when a mum is opening up about something difficult, she may just want a supportive ear and for you to acknowledge the hardship.

Be more focused on listening to her and trying to see things from her point of view, rather than chiming in with your two cents.

“You will know if a mum wants advice because she may say something like, ‘What did you do?’ or ‘How do you do it?’” Deiros Collado said.

That’s a great rule of thumb, Starr said: “Never offer another mother advice unless she’s asked for it or you know she wants your opinion.”

If you genuinely want to help, “validate her feelings and share your own challenges instead of judging the decisions she’s made,” she added.

We have all taken part in mum-shaming in one way or another, Ream said, “so if you’ve unknowingly used one of the phrases shared here, offer yourself compassion.”

We can all do better in this area just by being more thoughtful about what we say before we speak it or type it. Asking yourself these questions can help, Ream said:

  • Are they asking for my input?
  • Why would I ask or say this?
  • Does this add value to our conversation?
  • Could this be hurtful to the other person?
  • How could this person feel better supported?
  • Could we both be “right”?

Remind yourself that there are many different ways to parent “and still raise exceptional children,” Ream said.

And it’s worth reiterating that you can’t fully understand any parenting “situation, stage, or challenge until you’ve been through it yourself,” Starr said.

“I often say that ‘I was a perfect parent before I had kids’ and I think that encapsulates some of what happens to all of us,” she said.

“We think we know what we’d do in a situation or the ’right’ way to handle something until we’re in it and realise it’s much, much more complex than it looked from the outside. When we start to see this, we can learn to stop ourselves from shaming others.”