Opinion

Shame on you, mom-shamers!

Taking aim at 'sanctimommies' and others who feel they have to comment on whether, how and when women should have children

25 August 2019 - 00:00 By Pearl Boshomane
A pregnant Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. Cradling her 'baby bump' attracted bizarre criticism about being too enthusiastic about expecting her first child and thereby slighting women who find it difficult to conceive.
A pregnant Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. Cradling her 'baby bump' attracted bizarre criticism about being too enthusiastic about expecting her first child and thereby slighting women who find it difficult to conceive.
Image: Tristan Fewings/BFC/Getty Images

To say that everything the woman formerly known as Meghan Markle does is criticised by the British press, social media trolls and bigots in the Daily Mail comments section is now as revelatory as saying that the South African economy is in a shambles.

The Duchess of Sussex has been attacked for everything and blamed for, among many other things: Prince Harry’s hair loss, increasing human rights abuses and murder because she loves avocados (I’m not making this up), and single-handedly increasing global warming because she flies in a private plane (rather than what, easyJet?).

But some of the most interesting criticism against her has had to do with motherhood. She was criticised for falling pregnant “too quickly” (one blog published a piece saying Markle’s pregnancy “stung” for women who have been struggling to conceive) and for cradling her baby bump “too much” (an action that was accused of mocking childless women — I kid you not).

Once Baby Archie was out in the world, his mom was attacked by writers and social media users for how she held him when she was photographed at the polo with her son.

When it comes to South African celebrities, one of the most relevant and famous women on the receiving end of mom-shaming is Zodwa Wabantu. Her sexual image and revealing clothing have resulted in her parenting skills repeatedly being called into question.

“What kind of example are you setting for your son?” is a popular one. In an interview with TshisaLIVE she said: “My son is happy and taken care of, I don’t think anything else matters.”

But mom-shaming isn’t reserved exclusively for high-profile figures: attacking women for their mothering choices and styles is probably as old as motherhood itself. Everything women do is scrutinised, but you can multiply that by 10 where child-rearing is concerned. As Charlotte Hilton Andersen wrote in Reader’s Digest, “when you’re a mom, everyone is a critic”.

A father can just hold his child’s hand in public and everyone fawns

The standards for mothers are impossibly high, while men only need to know how to make their own sandwiches to be praised. And when it comes to parenthood, this is amplified. A father can just hold his child’s hand in public and everyone fawns. A mother has to throw herself in front of a burning bus to save her child’s life for people to applaud her parenting.

While writing this piece, I turned to the in-depth, most respected form of research: Twitter. “Have you ever been mom-shamed?” I simply asked. One of the responses was: “I don’t know a single mother who hasn’t been. It starts with conception and just doesn’t end.”

Bleak. The answers were interesting and quite similar: women had been shamed for having C-sections, giving birth at home, going to the mall with their infants, and for not breastfeeding.

That last one is especially common — probably as common as being shamed for breastfeeding in public (which is a Western concept that’s strangely made its way into South African culture. In many black communities breastfeeding in the presence of others isn’t unusual, or at least it wasn’t. I grew up seeing women nonchalantly whip out a breast at gatherings to feed their babies. But do that today and it’s considered uncouth).

Zodwa Wabantu's fashion choices prompted strangers to call her parenting skills into question.
Zodwa Wabantu's fashion choices prompted strangers to call her parenting skills into question.
Image: Tebogo Letsie

Many women told me they had been attacked for working too much. One woman who travels a lot because of her job wrote: “I have been shamed for leaving my son with my mom in another province and not hiring a nanny and staying with him here.”

Said another: “A male colleague asked why I was not at home with my baby in a condescending tone. It’s funny because we both have kids and were both at the office late that day.”

One mother, who travels a lot for work, replied: “Even some colleagues who I’m travelling with for the same work will be asking, ‘But don’t you feel bad? What about your baby?’ So now I must not have a career because I’m a mom?”

The working mom vs stay-at-home mom debate is decades old, of course. Since women have been allowed to join the workforce and get jobs with more power than, say, being a factory worker, they have been judged and have judged one another. Let us not forget that among the main culprits of mom-shaming are other women.

While researching, I came across the delicious portmanteau word, “sanctimommy” — mothers who are permanently riding their high horses and looking down their noses at moms who aren’t as perfect as they are.

In her book Yes, Please, US actress Amy Poehler writes: “There is an unspoken pact that women are supposed to follow. I am supposed to act like I constantly feel guilty about being away from my kids. (I don’t. I love my job.) Mothers who stay at home are supposed to pretend they are bored and wish they were doing more corporate things. (They don’t. They love their job.)"

Why can’t we all just get along?

One woman told me she gets attacked for going on holidays without her children, a debate I have seen several times on Twitter.

Know what else women get shamed for? Not being with their children 24/7. If you’ve given birth and your child isn’t yet in high school, attending social gatherings solo almost guarantees that someone will ask: “Who is taking care of the child while you’re here?” (The answer, of course, is: “Hyenas. I’ve dumped my child in the bush while I have a good time.”)

But daddy can be at Taboo nightclub every night until 2am and people won’t care or remember that he’s a father, because taking care of the children (the eldest often being her husband) is a woman’s job.

And of course a man had to jump into the conversation at this point, tweeting: “Leaving your children with who?” he said when it came to going away without the little ones in tow.

He then proceeded to attack an article I hadn’t even finished writing yet, saying: “Basically, the article is about making sure that even those who are really bad mothers are given excuses as per all feminist-written articles with an aim to convince everyone that there’s no such thing as a bad mother, even though there are a lot.”

Calm down, bruh.

Another thing women get shamed for? Getting pregnant too early. A woman in her early 20s who had her children at the age of 18 and 19 sent me a private message about how she was constantly shamed for being a pregnant teenager. The looks she got “were really bad — not to mention the comments”.

How did she deal with it at the time? “I used to feel really bad about myself and what I had ‘done’. I was ashamed but … [eventually] accepted my life and have been doing my best ever since. It really sucks, I won’t lie, because it makes everything worse, you don’t even enjoy the pregnancy, you just want to hide.”

The teenage boys who have impregnated the girls, as we know, don’t ever get the same treatment.

Another woman, who had a child at 18 and is now 30, said: “[I] gave birth on a Monday and the following Monday I had to go back to school. My daughter has been living with my mother since she was born. I get shamed a lot about why I’m not living with her now.”

While teenage pregnancy is concerning, we don’t talk enough about how to support young mothers.

It seems there’s a very small window period when it’s societally considered acceptable for a woman to procreate

Which brings us to another form of shaming: the age at which a woman chooses to have children. It seems there’s a very small window period when it’s societally considered acceptable for a woman to procreate — somewhere between the ages of 25 and 28. After that, people start asking when you’re having kids, why you don’t have them, they comment on your biological clock ticking, and suddenly become medical experts in the field of women’s eggs and their life span. All of this without considering the possible reasons a woman may be child-free.

Maybe she’s having a hard time falling pregnant; maybe she is unable to have children; or maybe — shock, horror — she doesn’t want to be a mother. It’s ridiculous that women are also mom-shamed for not being mothers: because how could you be so incredibly selfish as to not procreate when this planet of 7.53-billion people so desperately needs it?

And for mothers who don’t live with their children — like me — we get judged harshly, too. I refuse to be shamed and proudly call myself a “child-free mother” — I miss my kid a lot, but I also value the freedom to pursue my career with vigour.

When I was pregnant, my newly widowed mother-in-law offered to take care of my child full-time since her father and I both work long hours, and my job as a journalist means I travel an awful lot. But not everyone appreciates that. “A child’s place is with her mother,” I’ll hear.

You're doing it wrong, online commentators told Meghan after she appeared at a polo match with baby Archie in July.
You're doing it wrong, online commentators told Meghan after she appeared at a polo match with baby Archie in July.
Image: Chris Jackson/Getty Images

“There’s no greater love than a mother’s love,” they’ll say. “Oh, but what about the bond between you two?” they’ll sweetly ask. “Aren’t you afraid she won’t know who you are?” Funny, considering these are the same people who will tell you that the bond between mother and child is unbreakable, yet because I don’t see my child every day she’ll suddenly forget that I’m her mother.

But there was one form of mom-shaming that surprised me: women on Twitter told me that they have been shamed for, wait for it, being too affectionate towards their sons, in particular.

One told me: “When I do so in public, black men in particular like to ‘call me out’ on it. Comments range between ‘he’s gonna be soft’ and ‘he’s gonna be gay’.” Regarding the latter: that’s a problem how, exactly?

Another woman said she was accused of spoiling her child because of her affection towards him, with people saying “uyam’mosha lo mntwana” (you are ruining this child) and threatening her with the idea that he would turn into a “mama’s baby”. Terrible, because can you imagine anything worse than a boy child who loves his mother?

Unsolicited advice wrapped in judgment from strangers is unwelcome, but I would like to follow the lead of mom-shamers by offering my own advice: do you know the secret to glowing skin? Sunscreen, sheet masks and minding your own bloody business. It seems that many people need to try that last part. As rapper AKA said in a video: “You take your business and you mind it.” Wise words indeed.


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