I ran into Stephanie in a playground last week. While our two-year-olds made birthday cakes out of wet sand, she told me, “I love that you write about parenting. What’s your next article about?” I confessed I had no idea at the moment. “Can you write something about when other people tell you that your kid is spoiled?” I was so shocked I could barely ask what she meant. “My friends ganged up on me at lunch the other day about spoiling my daughter,” she explained, “They kind of shamed me, even though none of them have children yet.”
The next day, I saw Mary-Ann and her son at an activity. She had just returned from a family trip, and we laughed about the challenge of getting a toddler to sleep in a hotel room. She glanced around cautiously and whispered, “I actually ended up putting the pack-n-play in the bathroom. But then during naptime, I really needed to use it! I had to ask a maid to let me use one in an empty room. She made me feel so ashamed.”
There’s that word again.
There's been a lot of discussion recently about motherhood and shame. It’s almost as if the two go hand in hand. Moms are made to feel shame about whether they breastfeed or formula feed, co-sleep or sleep train, whether they return to work or stay at home. Potty training, pacifiers, organic produce, weight loss, discipline, the list goes on. If you can think of it, a mom has probably been criticized for it and told that she should somehow be doing it better.
A lot of women have stood up and refused to be shamed. And I applaud them. Sharing our stories publically and starting a larger dialogue about these issues is important. But no matter how much we write about mom-shaming, it doesn't seem to be going away. So, what’s the answer? Do we just accept that shame is an inevitable part of motherhood? Kind of like psychological stretch marks?
Researcher and author, Brené Brown, who has written several books about the concept of shame, has a theory: "the opposite of shame is empathy." Brown sees the act of emotionally connecting and supporting another person as a kind of magical antidote to shame. She writes:
“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive. …Because shame is a social concept—it happens between people—it also heals best between people. A social wound needs a social balm, and empathy is that balm...There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone.’”
You practice compassion for a mom struggling with a situation you have never known.
Brown isn't alone in focusing on empathy as a key to both human connection and social progress. A 2014 study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education surveyed 10,000 middle and high school students about their values and rated them on an empathy scale. Parents and educators were stunned by the results: 80 percent of kids chose high achievement or individual happiness as their top priority over caring for others. The report explained that the children’s values reflected what they believe their parents value.
The Harvard research group, the Making Caring Common Project, later released a set of recommendations for parents to help children develop and practice empathy. These include setting high ethical expectations, having family meetings, practicing conflict resolution and encouraging your child to consider the feelings of those who may be vulnerable. But the most important and effective method of raising caring children is modeling and demonstrating empathy ourselves.
This means that even though you breastfed, you reach out to that mom holding a bottle of formula. It means that even though you work full-time, you find common ground with that woman who stays home. You practice compassion for a mom struggling with a situation you have never known. You listen to a mom telling her story of shame, and you kill it dead with empathy. You stop mom-shaming in its tracks, and through your example, stop future generations of shaming, too.
And that's something all moms can get behind.