I had just solidified my place in what seemed like a great mommy group filled with smart, professional women who regularly met at a neighborhood toddler play class.
As I positioned my son’s stroller along the back wall and leaned over him to unfasten his seat belt, one of the new moms in the group stood over us watching. Suddenly, she let out a horrified, "Please tell me that’s not Cheetos dust on your son's hands!"
I felt a red hot flush come over my face. His little toddler paws were covered in the telltale bright orange powder; there was no denying what he’d been eating. I quickly fumbled for a wipe to clear away the mess, not to mention my maternal shame, and slinked quietly into the class, hoping I wouldn’t be cast out of the group as the failed mother who (gasp!) allowed her child to eat junk food.
Snide comments about your parenting -- what you feed your child, how you handle a public tantrum, where you choose to send your child to school -- can feel deeply personal and hurtful. If you are new to the job of mothering (or even if you’re not), you know that a well-placed criticism can cause you serious self-doubt about your parenting skills.
It’s the rare mom who never experiences self-doubt. It’s one of the occupational hazards that come with being a mom. So how do you know if you’re actually being a good mother? Figuring out what works for you and your kids and learning to trust yourself is the best way, experienced moms say. Here’s how to tune in to that self-confidence and own your Supermom within.
Parenting as a Spectator Sport
My Cheetos incident left me feeling inadequate. What kind of mother feeds her kid processed food that leaves an orange stain? But after the shame subsided, I was outraged. Who was this woman to openly chastise me for the choices I made for my son, no matter what they were?
"Motherhood has become like a spectator sport," Jen Singer, mom to two preteen boys and founder of MommaSaid.net, says. "People feel free to comment on other’s parenting skills. Throw into the mix the Internet and it all goes downhill from there."
Singer has written two books filled with real-world parenting tips -- her latest being Stop Second-Guessing Yourself -- The Toddler Years -- that use humor to remind moms they’re likely doing a better job than they think and, just maybe, we’re all taking ourselves a little too seriously. She says that today's bar for motherhood seems impossibly high.
Deborah Linggi, a communications consultant from San Diego and mother of a 5-year-old son, says the competition among mothers in some circles is palpable. "It used to be," she says, " that Supermom went to work and had kids and kept the house clean. Now it’s trickled into, ‘I breastfed until my kid was 20 and now feed him only organics, take him to piano, soccer, and oh, by the way, I’m a size 6 and my hair always looks great!’" The expectations for moms are unrealistic, she says. Yet we all know women who appear to be meeting them.
Singer suggests that moms looking to gain confidence about their mothering arm themselves with a dose of reality. Comparing yourself to that one perfect mom who seems to be able to do it all is damaging and not a worthy goal. "Supermom is faking it. She is very good at propaganda," Singer says. "The mom who looks completely put together and is baking 100 cupcakes for the school while running the fund-raiser and her own business is exhausted. She’s either employing some help or she’s about to fall apart. You don’t want to aspire to something that is impossible to maintain."
Ignore the Experts (Most of the Time)
With all the expert parenting information available to us today, you’d think as mothers we’d feel well-informed and prepared to raise a brood. But easy access to expert advice has had the opposite effect on Marybeth Hicks, a mother of four children ranging from 11 to 19.
"I felt the worst about my parenting those times when I was sitting in the pediatrician’s office reading articles about all the wonderful parenting you should do -- never yell or tell your child he was bad but rather that he made a poor choice. Then they get into the whole natural food thing and how you should never serve SpaghettiOs. I think we learn to distrust ourselves sitting in the pediatrician’s office reading magazines while waiting for our appointment."
Arming yourself with information can be useful. But too much expert advice can lead you into the trap of believing that there is one right way to do things and that if you’re not doing it that one way your kids will suffer -- a perfect recipe for mother’s guilt.
In real life, moms get stressed and lose patience. Sometimes, we yell. "But one of the things that those articles never mention -- and I’ve experienced -- " Hicks says, "is that children are very resilient. And they know that when you act in love that you’re acting on their behalf."
Going With Your Gut
Once you’ve talked to your pediatrician, read a few books, and perused some good parenting magazine articles, it’s time to step away from the schooling and start trusting your internal mothering guide. "We joke that kids don’t come with directions, but they do in a sense," Hicks says. "The directions are your values, and they are the basis on which all of your decisions are made."
If you feel strongly about the objectification of women in the media, for example, then a lot of your decisions about what television programs your kids can watch will be made with that in mind. That’s parenting.
"If you make those little decisions along the way, you start to create a path for yourself that looks different from everyone else," Hicks, who is also a columnist and author of Bringing Up Geeks: How to Protect Your Kid's Childhood in a Grow-Up-Too-Fast World, says. "Then you create a pattern of decision making. And the more you do it, the longer you do it, your family has its own unique personality. It just gets easier as you go, and people know what to expect of you."
Silencing the Critic
Still, it can be hard not to let those snide comments get under your skin.
Over the years, Linggi has developed some techniques for building a shield around herself when it comes to critics of her parenting skills. Rather than showing she’s been bothered by a comment or getting riled up, Linggi smiles widely and gives her standard line: "Thanks for the input!" That polite yet non-engaging statement seems to stop parenting know-it-alls in their tracks.
But it’s the internal critic that many of us need to muzzle because it does the most damage. Without that little voice inside our heads creating doubt about our mothering skills, comments made by others would be less likely to take hold. "I’m overly sensitive to what my mother says," Linggi says. "She can say, ‘Oh, he looks a little thin,’ and I hear, ‘You don’t feed your child.'"
Singer recalls an afternoon years ago when her two boys were young. "I was doing laundry with two toddlers nearby and I felt guilty because I wasn’t giving them "teachable" moments," she says. "God forbid you fold the underpants!"
Singer has since changed her tune, realizing that when your entire focus is on the kids, they think that the universe revolves around them. "You end up with the kid in college who doesn’t know how to order lunch," she says. In short, give yourself a break; it might actually do your kids some good, too.
Back to Basics
Doing what you believe is best for your children and your family makes you a good mother, no matter if it fits anyone else’s standard. There will always be decisions you make that others will be able to find fault with. "I think a lot of mothers need to get with the fact that their true allegiance needs to be with their kids," Hicks says. "When you’re comfortable with your decisions, you need to just stand in them and own them and recognize that the only one you have to answer to is your child later. I don’t have to answer to other people. It takes a little bit of guts, but it’s liberating."
Linggi says that slowing down the day-to-day juggling and negative self-talk lets her be in the moment with her son. That’s when the self-doubt fades and it becomes easy to tune in to what really matters. "We laugh and I look into his eyes and I see the sparkle, and he gives me a hug and I know he loves me. I feel that this is a solid, loving, bonded mother-child relationship and it feels good."