Mean Moms: How to Ignore, Confront and Avoid Becoming One
Owning Your Reaction
Every parent has a story about being the target of a judgmental comment from another parent. Frank or subtle, in person or online, we’ve all taken heat from other parents — sometimes even complete strangers — about our parenting choices. But why is spouting off our default setting? When did we stop thinking about the consequences of our words? And why don’t we hold back when we know those words might be hurtful? Kate Paquin, a therapist and coach with Apex-based A Family Coach, thinks it doesn’t really matter anyway.
“Just because a ball is thrown doesn’t mean you have to swing at the pitch,” Paquin says. “I’m not saying it’s not offensive, but [the commenter’s] motive doesn’t matter.”
These “mean moms,” she says, thrive because we care. Our feelings get hurt. We feel compelled to defend ourselves. But the most important thing, Paquin says, is to realize there’s only one thing you can control in any of these scenarios: How you react. “You own your feelings,” she says.
I asked Paquin to take me through some real “mean mom” scenarios I gathered from fellow parents. Here’s her advice on when to ignore, when to respond and why you might want to consider your own motivation if you realize you’ve been an offender.
Scenario: A mom posts a photo on Facebook of her child sitting in her new car seat — in the middle of her kitchen. A commenter pipes up to note that the child should be rear-facing. “In fairness,” the mom who posted the photo says, “I was not aware of car seat-in-the-kitchen regulations.”
What to do: If you posted the photo, respond in an unemotional way or ignore the comment. “I think part of [the motivation for this comment] might be, ‘See what I know?’” Paquin says. “OK is the best answer you can give. Or ‘I’m sorry you feel that way.’” Sometimes these types of comments reveal a commenter who feels isolated, she says. “A lot of moms feel disconnected, so when they can chime in or make a difference — even if it wasn’t asked for — they dive in.”
Scenario: A mom likes to dress her child in gender-neutral clothing. When the mom gently corrects strangers who comment on her child’s appearance, she frequently gets negative comments about how she should dress her child. Another mom reports similar comments about her twin daughters’ unpierced ears.
What to do: Respond without emotion and move on. “I wouldn’t correct [strangers who assume a girl is a boy] because it just doesn’t matter,” Paquin says. “My daughter didn’t have hair for a really long time, and I had a woman ask me, ‘Oh, is she sick?’” Paquin laughs. “I said, ‘No, but thank you so much for caring.’ It was inappropriate, but her intent wasn’t to be a jerk. She was really trying to provide empathy.”
Be confident and unflappable about your choices — and when someone comments on clothing, hairstyles, pierced ears or any other notes on appearance, be frank. “My approach is to always steer into the skid,” Paquin says. “Say, ‘No I haven’t [pierced their ears] because I’m their mother and that’s my choice.’ Answer without emotion.”
Scenario: A mom who recently quit her job to stay home with her child goes to visit her husband at a tradeshow near their home. Since she doesn’t have cash, he gives her $5 to get lunch. His coworker, a woman, remarks: “Is that your allowance?”
What to do: Take the sting out of these comments — for or against working outside the home — by assuming the motivation is “I could never do that.”
“To feel superior, a lot of us are taught to make others feel inferior,” Paquin says. “Again, steer into it. Say: ‘I know, it was a great sacrifice. I’m really glad I did it.’ If you go into the situation thinking you’re going to change someone’s mind, you’ve lost already,” she says. If you’re the offender, offer a supportive comeback: “Yeah, I understand. It’s really hard.”
Scenario: A sports parent implies that a mom isn’t doing everything she can to make her kids happy and successful because she hasn’t hired a pitching coach for her son or paid for her daughter to play on a travel softball team.
What to do: Don’t let the commenter get away with this one. “We have to make a decision as parents,” Paquin says. “Are we going to let others’ words convict us? There’s turning the other cheek, and then there are times you should stand up for yourself.”
Paquin classifies this comment — which calls the parent’s character and parenting skills into question — as the latter. “Say, ‘I appreciate your input, but you have no idea how my family dynamic works, and I wouldn’t make that judgment about your family,’” Paquin says. “Make it clear that they’re judging you and you need them to step back.”
Instead of addressing the issue, which can lead to a debate, this approach allows you to steer the conversation into a warning that the other person has crossed a line.
Are You the Mean Mom?
If you’ve recognized yourself in some of these scenarios, you’re not alone. But if you’ve been guilty of shaming instead of supporting, and you’d like to flip the script, therapist and family coach Kate Paquin with A Family Coach offers a few tips.
1. Realize there are many ways to parent. “The best way to support other moms is to stop thinking there is one right way,” Paquin says. “Support by seeing, sharing and moving on. Don’t see, overshare and try to convince.” If you feel compelled to react, walk away.
2. Recognize that the “mean mom” reaction comes not from your personal nature but from feeling out of balance. “No one tries to push down a person who’s behind them in a race, but we sometimes want to push down those we perceive to be ahead,” Paquin says.
3. Consider what you’re putting out into the world, and make a conscious effort to be more positive. “If you give off judgment, you will receive judgment,” Paquin says. “The law of attraction works everywhere. What are you attracting?”
4. Find your “buttons.” Realizing the issues and situations that light you up can help you better respond when they pop up, advises Paquin, who recognizes that her extroverted personality can cause her to perceive slights that don’t exist.
“Someone I didn’t know was giving me the cold shoulder and I decided to be as mean to her as she was to me,” Paquin says. “Fast forward four years: I found out six months before that encounter she had lost her younger daughter to a cardiac condition. I didn’t know, and she had no reason to tell me. I was the mean mom.”
5. Be careful how you comment on social media. With the popularity of the internet and social media, it’s easier than ever to quickly react without consideration for how your words could be received.
“Facebook’s whole purpose is to get likes and comments and shares — and then we wonder why everyone feels they can comment on everything,” Paquin says.
But, she adds, it’s also important to not look for reasons to be offended. “People aren’t necessarily being mean to you. Just because you perceive it doesn’t mean it’s happening.”
Aleigh Acerni is a writer and editor whose daughter loves daycare. Find her online at aleighacerni.com.