We are often our own harshest critics. I don’t think I know any parent that hasn’t second-guessed a decision, agonised over a choice, felt they could have done better if only they had know this or read that. I think its part of being a parent- the constant assessment and critical analysis of our own actions and words is generally driven by a desire to do our best by our kids- generally speaking, this desire to do the right thing by our kids- to do the best thing for our kids- is one of the hallmarks of a good parent.
Sometimes, though, our harshest critics may not be ourselves- sometimes they are other parents. While it’s true that some parenting choices can impact other people, the majority do not. So the critical attitudes we display towards one another- what purpose do they serve? They aren’t constructive or helpful, that’s for sure.
When I had my first child, almost 12 years ago, there was no facebook. While online communities certainly existed, I didn’t belong to any. I had a hotmail account and that’s about it. I rarely had internet access- back then, my mobile phone was just that- a phone. It wasn’t the multimedia device it is now! My first venture into parenthood was pretty isolated- I was young and didn’t really know many other mothers. So I fumbled and stumbled my way through the baby phase and toddler-hood and I think I did pretty ok. I still heard the odd judgmental remark or snarky comment but they were few and far between. Similarly, constructive and supportive comments were rare too- simply because most of my peers didn’t have children so couldn’t really offer up that kind of advice. I tried mother’s group and later play group but I was much younger than the other mums and felt shy and awkward trying to join in or get to know anyone so I’d just sit there quietly torn between wanting the ground to open up and swallow me and wanting to strike up a conversation but not really knowing how to.
These days, there are online support groups for just about every style and aspect of parenting. You can just join the group, write a post and before you know it, you’re having a conversation with sometimes dozens of other mums without the shyness or the awkwardness of “real life”, from the comfort of your own home. There are whole online communities of people willing to troubleshoot and share their experiences with each other. Doesn’t that sound great? It does! And much of the time, it is. Except when it isn’t.
Within a group I recently left, I found the dynamic had shifted from a community designed to support breastfeeding mums to one that relished criticising formula feeding mums. There were still threads discussing positive aspects of breastfeeding and supporting and encouraging those having struggles. There were still posts celebrating milestones and sharing happy photographs. Then there were the others. The last one of these I read was asking how you would respond to someone saying formula was “just as good” as breast milk. Some responses were considered and reasonable. Some responses were awful. Comments like “It breaks my heart to see a tiny baby being fed a bottle”. Remarks about “bottles full of chemical shit” and words like “selfish” and “lazy” being thrown around. One member said she refuses to associate with those that “choose to bottle feed” as bottle feeding “hurts her feelings”. I’m not kidding- someone actually claimed to experience emotional pain on seeing a bottle-fed baby. Several remarked that babies had a “right to be breastfed”. A couple of us spoke up- uneasy with many of the comments and attitudes only to be told this group was supposed to be a safe place to air such views.
As a mum who has used formula for both my kids, I know it’s not as optimal as breast milk. I also know it’s not poison, it’s not intended to “hurt” anyone who sees a child drink it or any of those other ridiculous things. While I believe that better support and education for women would result in more mothers breastfeeding, I also recognise that each woman has her own set of factors that will influence how she feeds her children as well as the right to her own bodily autonomy.
Unfortunately, discussions like this one were occurring more frequently, and for me, they eventually overshadowed any positivity in the group. I formula fed my first child. My second, still breastfeeding on demand at 20 months old, also has had formula. At this point, I am pretty thick skinned and not terribly bothered by these kinds of comments for myself. I’m well read in this area; I’m now comfortable and confident that with each child I made the best choices I could based on the information and support that I had at the time. However, 19 months ago, struggling with a low supply, using formula for top up feeds, stressed and anxious and wondering if I should just switch to bottle feeding- it would have been a very different story. The me of 19 months ago would have been pretty shattered to be called lazy or selfish for wanting my child to be fed adequately. The me of 19 months ago would be horrified to see that people felt hurt or heartbroken to see my child drink a bottle. The thing is- the people who are often seeking out these groups for help and support ARE the me of 19 months ago- fragile, sleep-deprived, anxious. Such comments would have sent me running for the hills- while strangers are under no obligation to be supportive or helpful, surely we can all recognise that such harsh criticism is not going to benefit anyone? I discussed this with a number of friends and more than one said reading such comments would have had them running in the opposite direction, so I guess the point of this ramble is pretty simple: Support and kindness goes a lot further than you’d think while smug judgement and criticism (even when disguised as concern) has the potential to go the same distance- but in the opposite direction.
Reading those sorts of threads is like entering the realm of the sanctimummy – a small but vocal group of mothers relishing their apparent superiority over other mums based on the belief that their parenting choice is THE ONLY parenting choice. If your only way to feel good about your parenting choices is to rubbish someone else’s, are you really doing that great a job? You are probably ticking all the boxes but if something doesn’t change, you may end up modelling some pretty questionable behaviour for that precious bundle that you’ve otherwise worked so hard to parent so well.