In early June, it was put forward by the Royal College of Midwives that midwives should avoid shaming new mums into breastfeeding. The new advice suggests that babies should still be breastfed exclusively for the first six months of their lives, as per the information provided by the World Health Organisation, but new mothers should also be given information, advice and support for whatever decision they choose to make.
Mum-shaming is so common that around 61% of new mums say they’ve experienced it. Disciplining methods topped the list for most-shamed topic, whilst napping, child safety and breastfeeding were high up there too. It begs the question: if you’re even being shamed by your midwife, what kind of hope do you have as a new mum trying to make it in this unchartered territory?
It seems raising a baby ‘the right way’ can often be a catch-22. According to a 2014 study by the Daily Mail, mothers were made to feel marginalised and ashamed when they breastfed in public – but the same mums also felt they were subject to criticism when they bottle-fed their babies. Furthermore, new mums are often body-shamed for not losing weight 'quickly enough' after giving birth, but now they’re also being thin-shamed whilst breastfeeding.
Criticising new mums is far too easy. Non-parents have the luxury of ignorance, whilst mothers with older children can feel the need to tell people how they would do it differently. But where exactly does this urge to mum-shame come from? And what’s the psychology behind it?
It’s probably no surprise that shaming comes from a place of insecurity. Dr Elena Touroni, consultant psychologist and Clinic Director of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, says parenting is one of the things people tend to hold the strongest beliefs about, but that plenty of parents are using their criticisms as a mask for their own anxiety. “What's right and what's wrong is one of those thing that has a very small space for flexibility of approach," she told SL. "It’s usually attached to people’s sense of self-esteem and is reflective of the parenting choices that they themselves made."
As such, Touroni explains it can be very difficult for parents to be open to any parenting choices that might be opposite to their own: "If they were open and honest about the fact they did something differently, there's a sense of threat that it could be them that is the bad parent: ‘If they’re making choices I didn’t make and I approve of those choices, then maybe I did something wrong?’ A wish to humiliate or be contemptuous of a person is always connected to their own internal anxiety of insecurity.”
The strange thing about mum-shaming is the fact that it actually tends to be mothers that are the ones doing the shaming – the ones who have likely experienced criticism themselves. But the shaming us usually an exercise in taking the anxiety that a mother feels about her own child and deflecting it onto someone else’s child. “It's a very particular category of people who will engage in shaming the behaviour of others [because] they're usually highly insecure themselves,” says Dr Touroni. “If you’re confident in your parenting or any other dimension of your life, you’re likely to be open to different ways of doing things because you won’t feel easily threatened. If you're flexible in your thinking because you’re secure and not easily triggered by those kinds of topics, you’re likely to be far more flexible in your views. The more insecure you are the more rigid you are across all beliefs.”
So why don’t men do the same thing to other dads? Why are the majority of shaming cases always aimed at women? New fathers face far less criticism. When model Chrissy Teigen and husband John Legend went out for dinner soon after their daughter Luna was born, Teigen received a torrent of abuse online – but nothing was said about the fact Legend was there too. Later, the singer spoke out on Twitter: “Funny there's no dad-shaming. When both of us go out to dinner, shame both of us so Chrissy doesn't have to take it all. We'll split it.”
Dr Touroni believes this is likely because being a father is less integral to the male identity that being a mother is to the female identity: “Men are not measured by how good a father they are but women are,” she says. “An equivalent form of shaming for men by other men would be to judge their professional life, money and success, but not so much their parenting skills. This has a lot to do with how society generally views men and women differently.”
All of this can have a profoundly negative effect on what should be a positive experience for new mums. New parents always have some level of anxiety about not being good enough, and for someone to shame them is almost like confirming all their worst fears about themselves as a parent. Dr Touroni says many of her clients wonder whether they’re being good mothers, but it often comes in the context of what they’re being told by other mothers. “It’s such a challenging thing to be a new parent that the combination of society’s messages, other people’s messages and your own anxieties and insecurities make it very difficult. The mum-shaming just doesn’t help.”
So how can we stop this ubiquitous shaming habit? The Chic Site owner Rachel Hollis probably summed it up best – after seeing a conversation between two pregnant strangers in which one shamed the other for not breastfeeding for long enough (“I mean, you really couldn't give it more than two weeks?” Said one mum, after the other explained the problems she had breastfeeding her first child), Hollis said in a video on her Facebook page: “You are not allowed to shame another mom who is likely doing her very best — you don't know her story, you don't know how hard it is.
You don't know her story – even if you look at her and make a snap judgment that she should be doing something better, that is not your place," she said. "Your place, as a fellow mum and a fellow woman, is just to love and encourage her where she is. Please, we are supposed to support each other. And never more so than for another mom who is trying her best.”
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