My husband recently asked me when we were going to cut our son’s hair. “When he’s two?” he asked.
“When someone says something and makes me feel bad,” I replied.
Even though we laughed in the moment, it is quite telling of the criticism mothers face and how it influences our behavior.
In a survey by the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Michigan, of 475 mothers of children age five and under, 61 percent of mothers said that they had been judged for their parenting skills or decisions. The researchers found that the criticism comes mostly from close family—their spouse/partner, parents, or in-laws. 12 percent of mothers reported receiving criticism from other mothers in public, and seven percent said they have been judged by strangers or acquaintances on social media.
In other words, mothers are no strangers to criticism. But with the advent of the internet and the comment boxes that appear on almost every website, it begs the question—have people become more critical of modern-day moms?
Many would answer yes, especially of mothers who live in the public sphere. Hillary Duff, the TV actress, who has been posting about her second pregnancy on Instagram, said in an interview that she thinks celebrity mothers receive more backlash than other female celebrities. “Bullying seems to be at an all-time high right now,” she said, admitting that sometimes she has trouble laughing off rude comments or criticisms.
Duff recently posted a photo of herself on Instagram lounging with her son, her pregnant belly exposed. Several other users commented on the photo by berating the actress for not being married to the baby’s father and her boyfriend, Matthew Koma. In person, she says she receives loads of unsolicited advice from strangers. “It’s just so funny that people think [pregnancy] is an open invitation to come and voice their experience to you,” she said.
Even worse, mothers can become victims of online bullying. Darlena Cunha, a former mommy blogger, admitted that she received death threats on her email and on her social media page. She said in a piece for the Washington Post that she quit blogging in order to stress to her children the dangers of the internet and its users.
“As a female writer on the Internet, no one knows more than me the intense danger that comes from being in the public sphere, even if you are simply living your life. People sometimes do not like that. People who can threaten and cajole and hurt and insult. People who could come for you, if you say the wrong thing or give too much information,” Cunha said.
Certainly, there is a difference between criticism and bullying, but do people know when they’ve crossed the line?
Research suggests that in online environments where anonymity is permitted, civility goes out the window. One psychologist calls this the “online disinhibition effect,” where people lose their inhibitions when they discard their identity, often acting out more frequently or more intensely than in person.
One researcher found that on newspaper websites where users are allowed to comment on a news piece anonymously, 53 percent of anonymous commenters were considered uncivil. On newspapers’ websites where anonymous comments were forbidden, only 29 percent of users acted uncivil in response to a news article.
Some sites, like Instagram, may not allow anonymity per se, but users can cloak themselves in a fake or ambiguous identity, allowing them to spew vitriol at mothers, whether famous or not. This reveals a dangerous trend, an attempt to push women out of the public sphere, when mothers rely on the internet now more than ever. It is a place to get information, to share milestones with loved ones, and most importantly, a place to find community. Connecting with other mothers online can help weaken the feelings of isolation that many moms struggle with.
But the presence of the comment box gives people the illusion that their opinion is always pertinent and worth sharing, even if it is critical, hurtful, or even malicious. The more people behave this way, the more they will think it is acceptable behavior, online and face-to-face.
About two-thirds of mothers said that they get a lot of unhelpful advice from other people, and they go looking, often to the internet, for answers or will ask a health care provider for advice. While most mothers said that criticism has often made them feel more strongly about their choices, 40 percent lamented that criticism, at times, has made them feel unsure of themselves.
Sometimes getting new information can help us make better parenting decisions, but the problem is that all of these voices, whether of online acquaintances, strangers, or even well-meaning family members, only highlights to mothers how little positive feedback we get. Criticism chips away at our confidence.
Dr. Barbara Howard, a professor who works with children with behavioral issues and their parents, said in an interview about the Mott survey that no one says anything positive to parents she works with. “How often does anybody ever say to you, “You did a magnificent job of managing that,” she said. “We all know that positive feedback is much better than negative feedback.”
There may not be much we can do to avoid criticism from others, but we can help each other by being positive, both online and in person. I am sure I am not the only mother out there who is starving for a kind word or gesture.
So, if you read anything on the internet today, read this—You’re doing a great job, mama.
Photo credit: Tatyana Dzemileva/Shutterstock