I am so over this mommy wars stereotype. I see many references to mommy wars in the media—portrayals of women that show us as judgmental, petty, gossipy people who resort to passive-aggression or verbal catfights—but how real is this so-called phenomenon?
Online, I see plenty of flat-out horrible comments from trolls and a fair amount of people sharing their own positions in ways that comes across harshly, but I chalk much of that up to the limitations of written communication: the absence of polite tone-of-voice and positive body language to soften conversations and sometimes forgetting about the actual humans on the other side of the screen. But, online harshness and media perpetuation aside, how many women are actually at war with other moms in their day-to-day lives over different parenting choices? Differences of opinion are normal, but war?
Sure, Ms. Scowling Stranger’s eyes might linger too long when something about my baby catches her eye (maybe a flash of skin while toddler-nursing, or other mothers have mentioned this when bottle-feeding), but looking at me doesn’t mean judgment. It might mean curiosity, it might mean she is lost in thought about her day, it might mean she is thinking back to something related about her own baby. Now, maybe sometimes it does mean judgment. But, is that war or is that someone making a snap judgment, keeping it to herself, and then moving on?
Of course, sometimes uncomfortable interactions don‘t stop just at glances— people can phrase things in insensitive ways. I am in that stage of pregnancy where assessments about my body, family size, the “appropriate” sex of our forthcoming child, etc. seem like conversational free-for-alls to others. Are people warring with me, or are they (imperfectly) trying to attempt conversation? Emotionally healthy people generally don’t walk around trying to say jerky things to others, so I choose to hear their words as interest; I hear their stories about their pregnancies as stories about them, not as judgment of me. (Thank you to the books of Deborah Tannen for helping me with this mind shift.)
If my theory that “it’s not actually about me” is true, then perhaps the way to stop so-called-mommy wars is to reject feeling warred with. It’s time to call a truce, not a truce in the sense that we all have to get along (because that just isn’t human nature, I’m not suggesting we all sing kumbaya after chasing a baby down a hill–see Similac video link above), but a truce in that we reject the mommy wars myth, this terribly ugly and oppressive stereotype of women. Recognize that a truce feeling doesn’t come from an external source; since we can never control or change anyone else, the truce feeling has to come from within ourselves.
Nice theory, right? But what does that even look like? Here are six ideas:
1. Offer grace when someone says something the wrong way or asks an insensitive question. Every one of us has done this unintentionally, right? Try to hear what they are communicating about their own story. “Why do you ask?” and “It sounds like you have strong feelings about X,” make the conversation about the other person and not you.
2. Assume that when a person talks about her choice to X, she is talking about HER choice and not critiquing your choice to do Y. Listen for feeling words that you can both agree on, even if your approach is totally different, “Yes, it sure is tiring to have baby crying at night.” “It sounds like you are frustrated with the cost of formula/diapers/childcare. Money sure is different now that our families are bigger, isn’t it?” Focus on being an empathetic listener rather than offering solutions, mentally comparing how you do things, or showing how your way is right (unless invited to give advice).
3. Assume something else is going on when someone glances over with a frown. It is normal to not realize where our eyes have settled when we are lost in thought. If it really is bothering you, make eye contact and smile back to gently shake them out of it, or a friendly, “Hi, do we know each other?” can also get to the root of things.
4.We all make flash judgments, but work on the ability to let those thoughts go as soon as you recognize them. Initial feeling and impressions often can’t be controlled, but what you do with those feelings can be hurtful or helpful. Socially, if you are involved in a conversation that is gossip, cut it out. When you spend less time judging others, you feel less judged yourself, and that is freeing.
5. Think carefully when you post online. Remember that you don’t have tone or body language to soften your words. Also recognize that the anonymity of the internet can lead to some really unhelpful communication. Don’t feed the trolls, and don’t be one. When we forget the dignity of the other person, when we have no hope left of seeing the value of their point or character, the conversation isn’t going to be productive. Imagine a real person at the other end of the screen when you type. If you were the healthiest communicator you could be, would you talk to your best friend, your mom, your son, or your boss that way in an in-person disagreement?
6. Realize that no choice you make will ever please everyone, and that is ok. You can be wrong in someone else’s eyes and just walk away from it. This one applies big-time online. In real life, there is more chance for healthy dialogue with those whose perspective you truly value, but online, especially with strangers and acquaintances, “proving” your point can be futile.
How prevalent do you think mommy wars are in face-to-face life versus in the media or online? Is it possible to call a truce by reframing how you perceive others? What helps you move past judging or feeling judged? With the prevalence of online communities (including this one), how can we discuss and disagree without demeaning?
Image Credit: Brisbane City Council