A decade or so ago, Facebook came online and forever changed the way users share personal information with friends and family members.
Suddenly, the opportunity to reveal the “best of” one’s self and kin exploded, from once-a-year holiday cards to instantaneous image-sharing, 365 days a year. Now, every time Facebook users log on to the popular social media site, they are bombarded with images posted by their “friends.” For the scores of female Facebook users between the ages of 25 and 54, aka the “mom” demographic, these images tend to include pictures of smiling family members linked arm-in-arm on fabulous vacations; beaming, medal-laden youths posing with their sports teams after a victorious championship win; mom-slash-marathon runners reveling in the physical conquest; even videos of music recitals from children-slash-music savants. For mothers struggling to feel adequate in an increasingly competitive society, browsing the social media site can provide yet another way to judge themselves as “less than.”
Facebook and other social media outlets may fuel the intense feelings of judgment that mothers pile on themselves (and other mothers), but they can in no way be blamed for the deep-rooted source of the problem. Herein, we take a look at the confluence of factors fanning the flames of mothers’ self-doubt and judgment, the resultant negative and potentially serious consequences, and some real-life strategies for combating them.
Why moms are so hard on themselves
Cecelia Rio, an associate professor in Towson University’s Women’s and Gender Studies department, blames mothers’ critical self-judgment on the “intensification of motherhood.”
The term, derived by social scientists, describes an every-day phenomenon in which mothers commit inordinate amounts of time and resources to their children, as if their lives—or, perhaps more accurately, their perceived expectations of how they should be living their lives—depend on it. It can manifest in a variety of ways, from mothers feeling the need to plan elaborate birthday parties for their young children to agonizing over whether their kids gain entry to a select school or sports team.
When mothers aren’t striving to ensure that their kids have the “very best,” they’re often turning their judgmental eye inward, Rio notes. “Women’s insecurities run deep, in terms of how they look. Many feel that being a mom isn’t enough. You have to be a glamour mom,” she says.
Countless mothers fail to accept, for instance, that a woman’s body changes during pregnancy, and that some of those alterations simply are not reversible. Or that the demands of motherhood mean less time for personal endeavors like regular exercise to maintain a pre-pregnancy shape or weight.
The weight of a career
As if this competitive mindset among mothers isn’t causing enough internal anxiety and stress, many mothers also confront the added factor of workplace pressure. The percentage of mothers who serve as their households’ only or principal source of income for their families has skyrocketed in recent decades, from 11 percent in 1960 to around 40 percent today, according to the Pew Research Center.
It’s not uncommon for even the most satisfied of career moms to endure nagging feelings about their situation on the home front. “The career mom has her career, but she is always feeling inadequate because of tensions about caring for her kids,” says Rio, calling the conflicted feelings of working mothers a huge problem. “That compression of time [spent with children] is really stressful,” she says.
“I certainly judge myself,” admits Baltimore mom Elizabeth Mount. When the executive director of the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance is attending an evening work function, she admits to sometimes thinking about her friends in their kitchens making homemade meals. Or, when she is at home attempting to do household chores after a long day at work, she feels guilty about putting her toddler-aged son in front of the TV after he’s been in daycare all day, rather than playing with him.
“If I’ve got eight things to do today, I ask myself, ‘How do I make sure three of those involve my son?’ I get really hung up on that,” Mount says.
Origins of the ‘Mommy Wars’
Moms in the workforce aren’t the only ones who feel pressure, admits Rio. “Mothers who don’t work outside the home don’t necessarily get societal validation that someone with a career does,” she points out.
“It’s very understandable that with all that anxiety, pressure, and guilt, mothers tend to take it out on those closest to them,” Rio says. In many cases, she says, the target of this release is other mothers; hence, the ill-fated Mommy Wars.
The now-household term was coined by Leslie Morgan Steiner, author of the landmark book “Mommy Wars” (Random House, 2006), in which she interviews 26 mothers—a mix of career and stay-at-home-moms—about their career and family choices.
Steiner eloquently sums up the internal strife that so many modern-day mothers face, regardless of their employment status. “The most difficult battle rages inside each mother’s head, as we struggle to feel at peace with our own unique and wonderful approach to parenthood. In a world filled with messages about everything moms supposedly do wrong, we need to focus instead on how much we are all doing right as we seek to balance working and raising children,” she says.
Ask any mom. Steiner’s advice is, as the saying goes, easier said than done.
When the pressure cooker explodes
Linder Dalder, a social worker at Sheppard Pratt Health System, regularly sees the results of mothers who fail to achieve peace with motherhood. Some are accompanying their children and adolescents to a medical visit at the Towson medical institution where she works; others are patients themselves at her private practice.
“As a whole, [us] women tend to be too hard on ourselves,” she says. “I see a lot of moms break down in my office and admit they need help,” she says.
In our individualistic society, it’s quite an admission. “It’s hard to say you need help. It’s kind of like admitting that you’re not a super mom,” says Towson’s Rio.
And it’s an attempt to be a “super mom” that sometimes lands women in Dalder’s office. She frequently sees mothers suffering from depression and anxiety, which sometimes manifests as substance abuse or body image disorders.
The guilt, insecurities and feelings of being overwhelmed that burden so many mothers cannot disappear overnight. Fortunately, says Dalder, the stigma of mental health issues and the need to treat them—with therapy and, when warranted, psychotropic medicine—has dwindled in recent years, making it more acceptable and commonplace for mothers to seek professional help when they need it.
Clearly, the daily demands and self-imposed expectations of motherhood don’t lead all mothers to require professional help. But all moms can benefit from a few simple practices, Dalder says.
“Self-care is extremely important. I urge mothers to implement a self-care plan on a daily basis,” she says. She stresses mindfulness, too. “Try to focus on what needs to happen today—not tomorrow and the day after,” Dalder says. She also has some advice regarding those perfect-seeming families smiling from their Facebook pages. “Take a break from social media, and from people with whom you feel competitive.” BC