A popular member of the “mums group” I’m part of once whispered in my ear that my one-year-old son was “a bit too thin”. I almost choked on a French fry before the anxiety kicked in. My son had been weighed plenty of times by his doctor and there were no problems until this “friend” put it in my head that there may be.
Another mum liked to congratulate the rest in our group loudly when our children hit any of their milestones, as if she were monitoring every step. "Is he talking yet?" she would often ask of my 16-month-old who, as she repeatedly told me, had walked early at 10 months.
The same mum hinted, by private message on WhatsApp, that the medication she was on might help me through the pandemic blues. Parading herself as everyone's BFF, this mother of four assumed the role of group matriarch; an aspirational earth mother who baked cakes all the while generously doling out advice to the rest of us bumbling parentals, warranted or not.
More recently, a friend advised I should not be offering my children snacks between meals. This nugget of parenting widsom was dropped after my four-year-old picked at his dinner, while her two much older boys cleared their plates.
Then there was the over-friendly colleague who asked if my unborn baby was alright when I was pregnant, as my bump was “so tiny … are you sure he’s OK in there?” I can still see her brazen, questioning face. I was aghast.
I've been a full-time working mum and in the past year, a stay-at-home mum. I have borne the brunt of critical and sympathetic looks from other mothers because given the choice, I would prefer to work and further my career; a career I have invested 20 years in.
I believe it's healthier for my sons to see mum going to work (or working from home) and not only dad; it gives them a more balanced view of the world. I realise I'm lucky to be at home with my two beautiful boys, but at the same time, the past year has been tough. I know for a fact that I've been criticised behind my back for moaning that my son is overactive or wakes up too early.
This gossip-fuelled demeanour can lead to feelings of paranoia and anxiety for the parent caught in the spotlight. I have read about passive-aggressive mothers on parenting blogs and even binge-watched relatable, often hilarious shows about motherhood, such as The Let Down, Workin' Mums, but naively, I was no less shocked to field judgmental comments. All parents are navigating one of the most relentless, unpaid jobs in the world, so why are some mothers so harshly critical of each other?
Dr Rebecca Steingiesser, clinical psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia Centre for Well-being, says parental judgment often stems from insecurities about a person's own choices as a mum.
"Parents feel undue pressure to 'get it right' because [they believe] there is no room for failure. Some may begin to view their choices as being superior to those of other parents and become judgmental. Sometimes this can be done subtly and quietly, while at other times this can be obvious and expressed as a form of attack and humiliation."
Parents also often forget they are all in the same boat and tend to focus more on their differences, says Dr Laila Adel Mahmoud Mohamadien, specialist psychiatrist at Medcare Hospital Sharjah.
"First, we have to know that we are parents; not gods or superheroes. We are not exempt from making mistakes or sometimes making the wrong judgment. We are human."
Steingiesser outlines five ways in which mothers who are feeling judged can deal with perceived criticism.
Five ways to deal with criticism as a mother
- Surround yourself with supportive people In a sea of people who judge and criticise, there are those who support, nurture and encourage, too. Keeping them close is important to remind yourself that you are not alone.
- Build resilience Hold on to the positives, build strength from them and use this strength to distance yourself from negativity. Try to differentiate between constructive and negative criticism and the intent behind it; why does this particular person think the way that they do?
- Practise self-compassion Be kind to yourself. Remember that no one is perfect and you are doing your best.
- Understand your sensitivities There may be particular things related to parenting that you are sensitive about. Try to understand and acknowledge these sensitivities and your reactions if they are triggered.
- Adopt an attitude of mindfulness Remember how it feels to be judged for your parenting choices and be conscious of not doing the same; this promotes acceptance of self and others.