As appalling as it sounds, belittling a mother for her parenting choices has become normalised in the age of social media.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

As appalling as it sounds, belittling a mother for her parenting choices has become normalised in the age of social media. JASSMIN PETER-BERNTZEN finds out what triggers it and how what you can do about it.

Jenny Lee remembers the time she posted a picture of her toddler with an iPad in an aeroplane.

“Instead of wishing us a bon voyage, so many of our Facebook friends were busy pointing out that we gave our son an iPad – it was shocking,” recalls the 45-year-old, who works in hospitality.

“I don’t see how it’s any of their business.”

Welcome to modern day motherhood, where women are not just expected to be grateful for being able to have babies, but to also enjoy every minute of it – and not complain.

They are also expected to exclusively breastfeed for as long as they can (but not too long!), eat well, snap back to their pre-pregnancy weight overnight, make time for their husbands and take care of the household – all while holding down a successful full-time job.

Slip up, and you’ll be criticised for being a bad mother, not only by family and friends but complete strangers.

“I often observe mothers being criticised on social media, online platforms, playdates and mummy meetups,” says counsellor Silvia Wetherell, who specialises in maternal mental health.

“The shaming often includes harsh criticism over parenting choices whether it’s written in an open way or passive-aggressive manner.”

Advice vs shaming

How do you tell the difference between shaming and some “friendly” unsolicited advice?

“Advice is often ‘this is not okay, you should do this’, but shaming sounds more like, ‘you are not okay as a mother’,” Silvia explains.

While fathers aren’t spared from being shamed – remember how the Internet tore Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg apart when he posted a picture of his baby daughter at her first vaccination appointment – mums get the brunt of it because society has put them on an impossible pedestal when it comes to expectations, Silvia notes.

The demographic most at risk: Vulnerable, new mums, especially those experiencing postnatal depression and are already feeling low or numb to begin with.

Their biggest critics? Other mums. Controversial topics that spark these heated debates include whether to breastfeed or not; sleep training; discipline methods, vaccinations, and overall parenting philosophies.

Some take it hard

Not everyone gets affected by mum shaming. Some handle it poorly than others because for criticism to have an impact, it needs a “hook” on the shamed mother, Silvia says.

“The shame needs to be internalised for it to really impact someone emotionally, so it mostly impacts mothers who are feeling depressed, anxious or lacking confidence. Otherwise, it will be an awful event, but the mother can bounce back from it more or less unscathed,” Silvia adds.

“I don’t think a lot of people mean to ‘mum shame’ but they aren’t perceptive of how the mum is receiving the advice,” says Tiffany Johnson. She remembers clearly the backlash she got from family, and even strangers, when she decided to switch her baby boy to formula at six months.

“While you shouldn’t have to defend your decision to do something with your own child, I typically would go into a long-winded story about how my supply had decreased and his appetite increased the older he got, and I switched to formula as he clearly needed more milk than what I was able to produce.”

Sumathi Ratnam, 36, a senior correspondent, also felt the need to explain her choices when she left her baby in the care of a domestic helper upon returning to work.

“Everyone kept telling me how irresponsible it is to let a helper take care of my baby and that I was putting my job before my child,” Sumathi recalls.

“I felt really bad because I wasn’t confident of my decision, either. But I also have to pay the bills.”

“Instead of wishing us a bon voyage, so many of our Facebook friends were busy pointing out that we gave our son an iPad – it was shocking. I don’t see how it’s any of their business.”

Why mums shame mums

“I do think there is truth in that the most insecure parents are the ones most likely to attack others in a bid to reassure themselves that they are right and quickly get rid of any niggling doubts,” Silvia notes.

Insecurity usually stems from having deeplyentrenched views of how certain things should be done.

So, when they see a fellow mum doing something entirely different, they feel threatened and cut her down to make themselves better.

Another trigger – the power struggle between family members, quite often with the in-laws or sometimes even with the husband.

“This tends to be the harshest and most painful form of mum-shaming as we turn to those closest to us for love, support and understanding during that vulnerable first year or two of a child’s life,” Silvia points out.

Nurul Ahmad, mum to one-year-old Adam, is all too familiar with this. The 35-year-old teacher admits to being shamed by her father-in-law for parenting differently than him.

“I’m very particular about what I feed Adam, but my father-in-law isn’t and has always been relaxed with his kids.

“So, when I put my foot down at junk food, I think he feels threatened and mocks me in front of my son by saying things like, ‘poor Adam can’t even have a marshmallow’ or ‘nobody died from having chocolates’.”

“It saddens me when mums have to start their posts online with a disclaimer or an apology to cover any negative comments relating to their query.”

The role of social media

Some form of mum-shaming has always taken place, notes Silvia, even decades ago when motherhood felt more like a sisterhood in comparison to today’s “mean girls club”.

But there wasn’t much awareness of it because it would have happened on a smaller scale and a more private setting. The rise of social media has changed that.

“Being a mother on Facebook creates plenty of opportunity for complete strangers to attack a woman’s choices,” Silvia explains.

“Becoming a mother is a life-changing transition with many hurdles and difficulties. Sharing those challenges in the public arena leaves a woman vulnerable to judgement, particularly for those who often use public forums seeking advice and guidance.”

Social media is also the easiest way to shame a mum because hiding behind a screen gives people more confidence to speak out and criticise, compared to a face-to-face confrontation.

Quick reactions and rapid- fire replies result in comments that are not well thought out and can sound short and sharp online.

For Lianne Kenny, 38, a virtual assistant, the fear of feeling judged online stopped her from reaching out to other mums for support and connection.

“It saddens me when mums have to start their posts online with a disclaimer or an apology to cover any negative comments relating to their query,” adds Lianne, who has an 18-month-old.

“Like if someone asks about co-sleeping, they feel they need to defend their option to do so.”

At the end of the day, it’s your choice to address an issue or let it go. Knowing that puts you in control. Also remember, if you’re going through it, so is every other mum out there. It pays to put out the kindness you want to receive.

Lianne sums it up well: “We’re all just trying our best and muddling through parenthood. I don’t think any mother has got everything 100 per cent right and everyone is entitled to their own opinion and their own ways of doing things.

“We need to support fellow mamas because happy and confident mums will bring up happy and confident little beings.”

Surviving the shame

The bad news is that mum-shaming doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. The good news? You can work around it with these tried-and-tested tips.

Own your choices “If you’ve made a decision based on your own beliefs and what works for you, don’t feel guilty because of others doing things a different way,” says Rebecca Aldridge, 37, a committee member at New Mothers’ Support Group (NMSG), a not-for-profit organisation for mums in Singapore.

“Every child is different, and every mother has the right to make their own decisions and have their decisions accepted not shamed.”

Don’t feel the need to justify, explain, elaborate or expand on your choices either, says Silvia. It makes you sound defensive and encourages the other person to up the criticism.

Trust your maternal instinct – deep down, you know what’s best for your child. Even if you do make mistakes, forgive yourself quickly. Be open and flexible about changing your mind regarding your parenting choices.

Don’t carry the guilt with you Shame doesn’t live in the light; it grows and festers in silence, secrets and shadows. The more you talk about it, the less control it has over you.

“But be very mindful of picking trustworthy friends with whom to share shameful feelings,” Silvia advises. “Some of the mummy groups can be highly competitive and judgmental. Pick your mummy tribe carefully.”

Normalise the topic “I find normalising the topic when someone is about to start with mum-shaming me works,” says mum Nerissa Mae Jandayan, also a NMSG committee member in her 30s.

“I would say something like, ‘It’s great that works for you. I hope it will work out for us, too. For now, we are doing good with our arrangement, but we are always open to changes’.” End the discussion there.

Set rules on social media Silvia often encourages the mothers she works with to take a mini-sabbatical from social media while they concentrate on building up their confidence as a parent.

“Be more mindful of when you start getting caught up in the ‘I’m not good enough’ stories of the mind. And don’t take your inner critic’s judgement so seriously. Mothers are by far their very worst critic and that is the most harmful one too,” warns Silvia.

If you must be on social media, tread carefully and keep healthy boundaries. Don’t overshare because it makes you vulnerable and exposed to emotional harm.