I recently stumbled across the Facebook post for an essay I wrote a few months ago on a mainstream parenting site. I won't say what the article was about, but I will say that it reflected on a fairly harmless choice I made about one of my sons during a transitional phase. In my writer's mind, this essay was simply a heartfelt piece about baby milestones and the struggles that all moms face when their kids start growing up.
Boy, was I ever wrong.
Even if you had warned me, I could not have prepared myself for the judgment and shame that rained down upon me in the comments section of this post. You would have thought I was advocating for punching my kid in the face every night at bedtime, or some other equally terrible behavior.
If many of the commenters were to be believed, I was a selfish, lazy mother who was ruining her child's life. (That's not hyperbole, though I wish it was.) There were also plenty of supporters and defenders, fellow kindred spirits who thought the detractors should maybe just calm down a little bit. It was hard to hear those more reasonable voices over the cacophony of other people – other women, other mothers – boldly declaring that I had this whole parenting thing completely and utterly wrong.
I know I'm not a bad mother. I know that I'm not selfish in the choices I make for my kids. I also know that I'm not, as so many called me, lazy. My husband laughed at my outrage over that particular insult, above all others. I'm a homeschooling mother of three boys, ages six, four, and two. They are generally always fed and polite and happy and reasonably clean enough to be presented in public, which takes no small amount of effort. A lazy mother, I am not.
Once I recovered rom my initial surprise over the negative reaction to the piece – and brushed off my regret that it hadn't been received the way I'd hoped – there was still a lingering, nagging sense of dejection and discouragement.
Why are mothers so mean online? Why do we share in another mother's experience and then tell her she is no good at mothering, just because it's a different experience than our own?
I'm well aware that I voluntarily put this piece out into the world. Maybe that means I have no business lodging a complaint against people who respond unfavorably to my writing. However, I'm not talking about mothers who simply voice alternative opinions – I don't expect every mother to agree with all of my personal viewpoints or raise her children the same way I raise mine.
What I am talking about is the unabashed, unreserved kind of scathing judgement that can only be found online, in connection to nearly every article about parenting. The “mommy wars" rage in the comments section of articles about everything from breastfeeding versus formula-feeding, to choosing a preschool, to life as a stay-at-home mom (or a working mom, or a work-from-home mom).
Mothers who make mistakes – ranging from innocent and mostly harmless, like allowing their kids to play outside alone, to devastatingly tragic, like accidentally forgetting a child in a hot car – are frequently subjected to vile criticism and accusations of abuse and neglect.
Like it or not, these public lashings are coming almost exclusively from other mothers. A quick glance at the profile pictures of commenters on hot-button articles shows one woman after another, smiling in selfies, cuddled up next to their cute kids.
I'm not the first person to wonder what in the world happens to decorum and civility on the internet, or why basic human kindness disappears as soon as people log onto Facebook. What I can't understand is why, if the internet is truly where our parenting tribe exists now, mothers are so plain mean to one another there.
We are physically and emotionally separated from our friends, neighbors, parents, and extended families more so now than any other generation. We don't live in multi-generational households, with parents or in-laws blended into our daily routine. We don't sit in our neighbor's kitchen on a Tuesday morning, chatting over coffee while our kids play together outside. Our friends are online. Our family is online. Our community is online. Yet we insist on burning that community to the ground with our vitriol towards one another.
I don't expect the internet to be a safe place, but couldn't we make it just a little bit nicer? There are far too many mothers getting a thrill out of being morally superior, finding satisfaction in telling another woman that she isn't good enough, isn't making the right choices, isn't doing everything in her power to raise a perfect human being.
This is The Era of Kindness, as far as modern parenting is concerned, but that philosophy gets thrown out the window every time we find ourselves behind the anonymity of the internet.
If I started chatting with another mother on the playground about our kids and, through conversation, I mentioned the same issue I raised in that essay about my son, that complete stranger would never look me in the eye and tell me I'm lazy. She would never say, “Wow, I would never do that! You are so selfish! Do you, like, not even care about your kid at all?"
She would say, “You know what? Don't sweat it! Do what you gotta do. He'll turn out just fine." If she was an especially friendly mother, she might even confide in me about something she does that's unpopular or weird or not recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. As if to say, I get it. I totally get it.
Because that's what sharing stories about our kids is supposed to be about – making the great big world of parenting just a little bit smaller. It's about making connections. I share stories about my kids because there have been times in my motherhood when I have felt totally alone –desperate, even. I have felt like I was hanging off the edge of an enormous precipice with my kids standing over me, lifting up my fingers one by one to loosen my grip.
When I read some other mother's story about the exact same thing I'm going through, just like that, I'm able to pull myself back up again. The precipice doesn't seem so high. The struggle doesn't seem quite so hard. My world is suddenly a little bit smaller – all because some other mother reached out and said, I get it. I totally get it.
Moms, let's learn a lesson from ourselves. More than anything, parents today are trying to raise children who are kind and thoughtful, compassionate and empathetic. If we really want to make the world a kinder place through our children, we have to be kinder to one another, too.
Maybe we could start in the comments section.