Week 9: Tune out stories that shame

 It feels like everyone is looking at you because they are. |  U.S. National Library of Medicine

It feels like everyone is looking at you because they are. | U.S. National Library of Medicine

Last week, we addressed scary stories about the “hidden dangers” that can harm your baby. This week, we’re looking at not-so-hidden dangers that can do harm to you: parent-shaming stories. 

The trouble is, it’s often difficult to identify a parenting news story as shaming, as they often operate under the guise of safety and good health (often using the same scare tactics we reviewed in Week 8). So this week, I’m offering a quick field guide to the most common type of parent shaming story you’re likely to see in the wilds of the internet, as well as strategies for dealing with it when you find it.

In 2016, Molly Lensing was having a travel nightmare: she was stranded in an airport with her two-month old Anastasia. But after finally arriving home she woke to a much worse nightmare: everyone on the internet was now calling her a bad parent.

Hours into a travel delay, Lensing put her daughter down on the floor and picked up her phone. In that moment, fellow passenger Christian Naniot surreptitiously photographed her and posted the photo to facebook with the caption: "Albert Einstein said, 'I fear the day that technology will take on our humanity. .. the world will be populated by a generation of idiots'.” Even if the Einstein quote was thoroughly incorrect and misattributed, the message was clear: this bad mom pays more attention to her phone than her infant.

The original post has been removed, but Romper offered a useful summary:

"Not everyone has an innate sense of motherhood," one commenter wrote, while another chimed in, "She doesn't deserve that child." One person suggested Lensing should be sterilized, in a stunningly terrible example of just how often online shaming of women turns into language that's violent and threatening.

Lensing was eventually identified as the woman in the photo, at which point she began receiving private messages accusing her of being a terrible mother.

If a baby bump (yours or your partner’s) makes you an easy object of judgment and shame, the baby who will soon be in your arms might as well be a target. Some parenting blogs would suggest you get some early practice defending parent shaming now. Walk into Starbucks and order a regular coffee. Order a glass of red wine when enjoying one of your last child-free nights at your favorite restaurant. Carry around a box that looks really heavy. Take that box out of a car that looks like it has a baby in it. You don’t need to actually drink the beverages or carry the box (although Emily Oster’s excellent Expecting Better suggests that those behaviors are safer than you think). But when people comment on your choices, have the perfectly-worded barb at the ready.

Or…

My solution for this kind of judgment isn’t to start with the shamers. It’s to start with ourselves. All of us are judging each other all the time. Your instinct when reading a story like Lensing’s might be “I would never leave my baby on the floor.” That’s because we live in an era of what I’ve previously called “How Could She?” parent shaming:

We scroll through Instagram, sure that that mom with the spotless floors and perfectly-coiffed children must be discouraging their free spirits, or selfishly using the family's funds to pay for cleaners while she's at work, when in reality she's probably photographing the one clean corner of her home, or just using a great filter. We're sure that the mom posting Facebook pleas about sleep training, potty training, or training bras would be doing a better job if she would just relax and do it our way. We're sure that the flaws we see in other people's children are a product of their parenting, while at the same time only claiming ownership of our own children's successes.

During this early stage of pregnancy, it feels like there's still not much you can do (that first doctor's appointment may still be three weeks away). But you can use this time to practice empathy for other parents.

Step 1: Stop reading stories that shame other parents.

Step 2: If a parent-shaming story does sneak past your filter and you catch yourself saying “how could she?”, well, answer that question. How could Lensing leave her baby on an airport floor? It’s hard to hold a baby for 20 straight minutes, let alone 20 straight hours. All parents need a break. How could that mom leave her sleeping child in the car for two minutes while dropping off a prepaid UPS package? She knows what will happen if she wakes the baby, that it’s 50 degrees outside, and that no child has ever been abducted from a UPS parking lot.

Step 3: Keep a list of your "never-do"s. Now that you're an expecting parent, you're more likely to notice the parents and kids around you. You'll probably also catch yourself saying you'll "never do" some of the things you see those parents doing: handing over a cake pop to a screaming child at 10 AM, for example, or buying five types of boxed macaroni and cheese. Write each of those never-dos down and keep your list in a prominent location. Each time you catch yourself in one of your never-dos, take a moment to pause and be gracious to all the other parents around you doing the same thing.