We live in a culture and a moment in which childhood bullying is constantly being thrust into the spotlight. News segments, parent education, and teacher training encourage open, clear conversation about preventing, spotting, and stubbing out this type of behaviour. It’s wonderful! But since becoming a mum myself, I’m learning that it’s also kind of hypocritical. Teaching our children about bullying is great, but what good are we doing if we can’t apply these same principles to our own lives among our adult peers?
When my daughter was 8-weeks-old, we attended a mummy-and-me yoga class together. I was nervous about leaving the house, nursing in public, and so much more. But if I thought my own anxiety about pulling out a boob was tough, I can only imagine how horrible the woman on the next mat over must have felt when she made a bottle for her little guy at the end of class and was chastised for it: “Did you try to breastfeed?” the other mums wanted to know. “Are you pumping at all, or does he just get formula?”
Their barrage of judgmental questions might have worn the thin veil of “concerned” support, but it read to me like a textbook case of adult bullying. Shocked, the best I could muster was to interrupt them by complimenting the mum being bullied on her yoga pants to change the subject. Later, I wished I’d said, “What the hell is the matter with you guys? Her feeding plan for that baby is absolutely none of your business. Back off!”
There have been plenty of times when I’ve been victim, too. When I was strolling around a nearly empty department store’s lingerie department on a Thursday morning with my 3-week-old in search of a robe for myself, why on earth did a woman I’d never met charge over to me and demand to know how old “that baby” was? When I responded, she retorted, “She’s way too young to be out in public,” wagging a finger at me. (I left without the robe; I just needed to get to my car and cry stat.)
Then there was the new-mums group where co-sleeping arrangements came up. Some detailed their bassinet usage, others said they chose to cuddle all night. One had set up a baby swing in the master bedroom, and another had remanded her husband to the couch. We were all giggling and bantering supportively, but when it was my turn to share and I told them my daughter has slept in her crib since the first night home from the hospital, jaws dropped. I was accused of “not nurturing” her. Then came this nugget of gold: “Aren’t you worried she’ll develop abandonment and mental health issues?” [pause] “You don’t want her to become a serial killer.” [laughter all around]
Yes, that really happened. A fellow mum had the nerve to suggest that my decision to gently rock, sing to, nurse, and swaddle my infant before placing her in her crib among white noise and a careful temperature, tip-toe out of the room, and watch her on a video monitor, could turn her into a serial killer. That was the moment I finally decided to stop swallowing my feelings and cowering against the mum-bullies and stand up instead. So I did. I stood up and left, but on my way out I made sure to say some version of, “Everyone has their own mode of parenting, but for you to say anything that cruel to me about our family’s sleeping arrangement is disgusting and unwarranted.”
Ever since that watershed moment, I’ve learned my way around the playground and I don’t tolerate it. I’m by no means a Robin Hood on a quest to snub out ringleaders of the Mum-fia, but I also will not sit on the sidelines and let myself or another mother be treated badly. It doesn’t matter the topic — everyone has a reality and a point of view. No one has a right to belittle or offend another mother who is doing her best with what she has.
This rampant mom-shaming has got to stop. There is no one universal parenting truth. We are lucky to have our friends, our doctors, our own parents, and the Internet to help us make informed decisions about our kids. But we have no right to turn around and be nasty to another mum over hers. My daughter is still a baby so she doesn’t get it yet, but I hope she learns a few things from my no-tolerance policy about bullying.
First, it’s never okay to start or engage in any kind of bullying. Second, if you see it happening, it’s not enough to not get involved. You as the non-oppressed person in that moment have a social obligation to swoop in and put a stop to it. Diversion is the easy way out, but sometimes it’s just enough to fix the problem before it grows. (In the case of the mum feeding her baby formula during yoga class, this did work, but I wish I had done or said more).
Even better is to verbally nip it in the bud. “It’s not okay to talk to [me, her, etc.] or anyone like that, ever,” is a good one. Sometimes you do not even need to address the actual topic, because it’s the behaviour that’s the real problem. Getting into a verbal scuffle over co-sleeping or not is probably not worth your time, since a calm and educated debate is out of the question once we’ve crossed over into bullying territory.
Stronger still is to personalise your message: “I get that you do things a certain way and (s)he does it differently, but wouldn’t it hurt your feelings if someone attacked you for your choices?” is a good all-purpose strategy. Or, you could just hop on your sassy horse and face them with my new, bold two-liner that’s sure to stop any mum-bully in her tracks: “We’re absolutely fine and happy. No judgement needed here!”
I hope that when my daughter encounters bullying of any kind, she can draw on the strength her mama is trying to model for her. And that she understands that it’s never okay to talk down to someone or make them feel small. It is our job to teach our children this, and to demonstrate it when the circumstances arise. We can go on and on about schoolhouse bullying, but the message comes out muddled if Mean Girl Mummies aren’t held accountable.