Conflict is something that most of us tend to avoid, and yet it is an inevitable part of family life, and of life in general. It’s too bad that we tend to shy away from conflict so readily, because it can be a powerful messenger – a gateway to understanding both ourselves and another person on a deeper level, and to greater compassion and empathy. If we shifted our perspective about conflict and saw it not as something catastrophic but rather as a potential opening to stronger connection, we might even embrace it.
Emotions tend to run high for just about every mom on a regular basis, for lots of reasons – one primary reason being that there is so much at stake in the responsibility moms feel to raise children who are happy and healthy, who are empathic and kind, who are able to navigate the roller coaster that life can be, and who can both succeed in reaching their goals as well as learn from their challenges with grace. Talk about pressure! So where does that pressure come from? Some of it comes from a self-imposed internal pressure that many moms place on themselves; many of the moms we’ve met over the twenty years we’ve been working as parenting professionals hold themselves, and by extension their children, to impossibly high standards that set both parent and child up to feel like there is a benchmark that is nearly impossible to meet.
But a mom’s friends and family, the media, and society add their own pressure, too; a mom often feels a kind of collective admonishment from the world that she had better be a “good mother,” whatever that means, or else some sort of harm will come to her child, and it will all be her fault.
The implication seems to be that you’re either being a good mother or you’re not; there’s little room for anything in between. But the reality, of course, is far more nuanced; if you yell at your kid for any reason, are you being a bad mom? If you respond immediately to your child’s every need, are you being a good mom? Who is the judge who decides guilty or not guilty?
What this all adds up to is a lot of heat for a mom on a regular basis. But why do moms sometimes turn this heat on each other? It’s a complex question with lots of potential answers, but some possibilities include:
- Because a mom is afraid to fail her child in any way, when another parent is making choices that are radically different from the choices she would make she becomes defensive. Some people express defensiveness as judgment.
- New moms sometimes judge others because they are evaluating everything about parenting as they try to decide what’s best for their child. Being a new parent can sometimes bring up strong feelings about “right” and “wrong” ways to parent as your mama-bear protective instincts kick in.
- Sometimes a mom mistakenly assumes that what works for her and her child could or should work for others. For example, a mom who’s always rocked her child to sleep and enjoyed peaceful nights may imagine that another parent whose child isn’t rocked and doesn’t sleep well is doing something wrong.
- Feelings of shame can arise when a mom doesn’t feel confident about her choices and decisions, or when something from the past is triggering strong emotion (for example, every time your child cries it reminds you of feeling unsupported as a child yourself, and sadness overwhelms you). Unconsciously, some people project that shame outward onto others via judgment and criticism.
- A mom may be feeling uncertain about her place in life if there is upheaval of some kind going on – a sick child, couple conflict or a recent divorce, financial strain. Uncertainty creates a climate of fear, and sometimes we lash out in fear instead of asking for what we need (emotional support, help from friends who can watch little people or drop off takeout, a hug).
Whatever the reason, when we judge or criticize we are usually recognizing something about ourselves in the mirror of the other person – our inability to accept our own imperfections, or even our own strengths. In judging another, we are inevitably judging ourselves.
So what’s the antidote to judgment? Compassion and kindness, which stem from a feeling of connection. This is where the proverbial “mom village” comes in.
The benefits of having a trusted circle of moms are immense – whether a handful of friends you know you can rely on; family that you stay connected with through visits (if you live near each other) or via phone, email and text; or a mom group run by a trained facilitator. Motherhood is extremely layered, and a mom needs others who can help her take a deeper look at what triggers strong emotions for her and help her uncover what is really at the root of that reactivity. What we’ve seen in the groups we facilitate is that inevitably, the root of that reactivity is planted in fear: fear of being vulnerable, fear of not knowing what to do as a mom or how to do it, fear that she’s the only mom who doesn’t have motherhood all figured out, fear of failing herself and her child. Once a mom can acknowledge these fears to at least one other witness, there is almost always a chorus of “me too” – these fears may manifest differently in different people, but the overarching themes of how those fears play out are incredibly common in motherhood. As each mom receives the emotional support she needs, she usually feels a tremendous amount of relief, knowing she is not the only one who feels anxious and worried at times and knowing that she is not alone. Once moms have offloaded the too-heavy burden they’ve been carrying on their own shoulders, there is usually some laughter in the wake of the stress she’s released, and any tears that have been shed. Generally, we tend to feel the best about ourselves and life when we’re connecting with others and sharing our stories, without becoming those stories.
Finding the sisterhood in motherhood does not mean that every mom will agree with every other mom’s parenting or life choices. But just because a particular choice wouldn’t work for you, that doesn’t mean that it’s wrong for another. No one is standing in anyone else’s shoes; no one can know what another person is feeling or experiencing. What’s more, at any given moment in life, everyone is fighting some kind of battle.
In motherhood, there can be room for differences of opinion without it getting personal. A mom can agree to disagree with another mom’s decisions or path without drawing conclusions about who that mom is or isn’t. Learning to disagree with someone without getting emotionally wrapped up in judgment and projection – which requires the willingness to accept and tolerate differences – is a healthy way to move through conflict. Deciding to turn toward judgment or compassion is a choice, and each mom is infinitely more empowered when giving and receiving support and understanding than when criticizing.
Let’s be honest: there is no certainty in motherhood, other than knowing that you love your child. And that uncertainty can make a mom feel more than a little unsettled at times. But where that uncertainty takes you – whether to judging yourself or another, or to reaching out for connection or support – is a choice.
Every mom, single or married, can benefit from learning to trust herself more, and in trusting herself more she can open up to trusting others more, too. Motherhood must include both the honesty of, “Holy $*%*# this is so hard, and there are days I’m truly not sure I can do it” and, “At the end of the day, there is definitely more good than bad to this gig, and I’m incredibly blessed to be a mom and to have this opportunity to give and receive so much love.” Owning both makes you neither a good mom nor a bad one, but an honest one – and a mom who is in very good company with plenty of other moms who feel exactly the same way.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS FOR YOUR OWN CIRCLE OF MOMS
Why not have a get-together with your own mom friends and keep the conversation going? Here are some questions to get you started. You can also join us each Thursday at 10 am PST on our Facebook page for a virtual mom group where we’ll talk about all that’s on your mind and in your heart. Join us!
1. Have you found yourself judging another mom or feeling particularly angry at the way she is handling an important situation with her child? Can you connect with anything you, yourself feel frightened of in the things she was saying or the way she was approaching a situation? Is there a particular fear that was triggered in you when you watched the other mom’s situation play out?
2. What have you felt judged for as a mom? What is it that you feel others may not understand about your life that is unique to your situation?
3. What has been your experience of offering compassion or support to another mom who is struggling, or of receiving that support? Do you feel more empowered as a mom yourself when judgment is present (whether yours or another’s), or when there is compassion and connection?
“There Goes the Motherhood,” a docu-series that follows six moms through an eight-week parenting group, airs on Wednesdays at 10/9c on Bravo. For more information, please visit sleepyplanet.com.
Jill Spivack, LCSW, is a licensed psychotherapist. Jennifer Waldburger, MSW, is a meditation and mindfulness teacher. Jill and Jennifer are co-founders of Sleepy Planet Parenting, where they draw from their background in child development and family systems to offer groups and private sessions that help families thrive. Their publications include The Sleepeasy Solution and Calm Mama, Happy Baby.” Please visit sleepyplanet.com or find us on Facebook or Twitter.