The consequences of unwanted advice to new moms

“Before I had kids,” mothers tell me, “I used to judge moms.”

“I judged moms for giving their kids an iPad in a restaurant. I judged moms for not breastfeeding. I judged moms for not staying late at the office. I judged moms for giving their kids sugar. I judged moms for sleep training. But now I’m a mom. And I know better.”

I have heard so many women say some version of this. It’s meant to be disarming, to show that motherhood has humbled all of us. Faced with the real, relentless, daily challenge of child-rearing, most of us realize that there’s no one right or wrong way, that we all mix and match our parenting styles, and that motherhood is trial and error, heavy on the error.

Movies, TV and mom blogs prime us to expect moms to be judgmental and catty, but it turns out that’s more of a myth than reality. Research shows that only a small minority of mothers report having been judged by other moms. When I first read this, I was surprised, then realized it reflected my own experience: I can’t think of an instance in which I have felt judged by a fellow mom about my parenting choices.

I can, however, think of plenty of times when I have faced judgment from people who were not mothers. I’ve fielded intrusive comments and opinions about my parenting from men I don’t know or barely know. There was the coworker who asked me if I had been “drugged up” during labor, and the stranger who complimented me for wearing my baby in a carrier in a crowded grocery store because so many moms isolate their babies in a stroller rather than hold them close.

(An aside: Comments cloaked as parenting compliments are often judgmental and unwelcome. It so happened that for the first year of his life my clingy baby became hysterical when placed in a stroller; I was incredibly jealous of the mothers I saw blithely pushing their babies around on four wheels. This stranger’s absurd remark simply heightened my stress.)

The worst mom judge I have encountered is the ‘pre-mom.’

But more than men, who are generally free with their opinions about any number of topics, I think the worst mom judge I have encountered is the “pre-mom.” The one who talks about her former life before she was a mom and tells me about all those times she judged moms back then.

Because the thing is, it still feels bad to hear about that judgment even when the person is telling you they don’t judge anymore. I’ll never forget the time I was at a picnic and someone announced that she used to judge parents who circumcised their babies, but now she doesn’t care. Did this make me feel validated in the choice that I had made for my son? No. It just reminded me that people all around me feel emboldened to make ignorant judgments about my choices. After pausing to absorb her remark, I started to describe how my son’s bris had been meaningful to our family, but my voice was drowned out as the conversation moved on.

If moms refrain from judging each other, why is it that everyone else seems eager to do so (and then blames the moms for being judgmental, no less)? It’s because we live in a society where women are not granted full agency over their bodies and their choices, and where public assessment, criticism and judgment of women is expected and encouraged. My apologies if you’ve heard this one before.

My hope is that women can do better, even before we become mothers or if we never do. We roll our eyes when a man says he woke up to the horrors of sexism after he had a daughter of his own, because we can’t wait for every man to have a daughter before he can see women as regular human beings. Likewise, we can’t wait until every woman becomes a mother to stamp out pregnancy discrimination and wage inequality, which are directly tied to false assumptions and judgments made about women and mothers. We shouldn’t need to share another person’s experience in order to treat them fairly and kindly. Let’s rely on basic human empathy instead.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.