It's time to end the Mammy wars
Rather than judging other mums for their parenting choices, let's finally call a truce, writes Heidi Scrimgeour
I'm waving a white flag as I write this; I've had enough of feeling obliged to choose between one 'side' or another on every decision I make as a parent. So from the trenches of the Mammy Wars, this is my heartfelt plea for peace.
Working mother or stay-at-home mum? Breastfeeding v bottle? Baby-wearing or pushchair? It seems every realm of child-rearing is dogged by the Mammy Wars; this notion that all mothers fall into one of two vehemently opposing 'camps' on every single issue that affects the upbringing of their kids.
Denise Van Outen and actress Natalie Cassidy famously attacked the other's working lives online, proving that even celebrity mums are embroiled in the Mammy Wars, and Gwyneth Paltrow recently stoked the fires all over again with her suggestion that 'normal' working mothers have a much easier time of it than she does working 14-hour days on a film set.
Lea-Anne Ellison, a Los Angeles-based mum, faced a barrage of online criticism when she posted photos of herself on Facebook lifting weights just two weeks before giving birth, and she hit the headlines again this month for publishing yet more pics of herself working out again so soon after having a baby.
"I hope to inspire other ladies to be healthy and fit while pregnant and after," she wrote in her defence, adding a barbed: "If you don't like it, sit your ass on a couch and eat a doughnut."
"Parenting is personal, complex and emotional, and deeply informed by how we ourselves were parented," says child psychologist and Babies Know co-founder Kitty Hagenbach. "At a conscious level, we hold strong views about what is wrong and right, but at an unconscious level we're often defending our own childhood experience," she explains. "This, together with widespread insecurity and the desire to be seen to be getting it 'right', fuels the fire of competition and judgment. After all, we cannot convince ourselves we are right if others parent differently."
But why such vitriol between groups of women who should have more reason to relate than retaliate?
Oliver James, chartered clinical psychologist and author of Love Bombing – Reset your Child's Emotional Thermostat, says the Mammy Wars stem from mums feeling threatened. "Stay-at-home mothers sometimes wish they could have the status and money – as well as freedom from the hassles of childcare – of the working mums, and they, in turn, fear they are missing out on their children's lives and damaging them by not being there," he explains. "The animosity is so intense because each feels the other's life is a condemnation of their own."
Working mother Emma Campbell agrees. She lives in Dublin with her husband Malcolm and their children Lorcan (3) and Grace (seven months). "At baby groups and even online, new mums share huge amounts of very personal information about themselves," she observes. "That's a very delicate and unique social setting, so the slightest difference of opinion can become something quite intense."
But working mother Andrea Mara thinks the Mammy Wars are a myth of our own making. She lives in Dun Laoghaire with her husband Damien and their daughters Elissa (6) and Nia (4) and son Matthew (2). She writes a blog called www.officemum.ie
"The Mammy Ways certainly exist online; one celebrity mum says something about another and people comment, saying things they'd never say in real life, and it turns into this big furore and the website gets loads of hits, but it's not indicative of how the world of mothers in general truly view each other," she says. "Most mums are far too busy juggling their lives and judging themselves to have time to judge their peers."
Indeed, guilt seems to play a bigger part in the Mammy Wars than you'll ever see represented in any celeb mum spat. "It can rankle a bit if you feel guilty or insecure about a choice you've made as a parent – which most of us do – and then encounter another mum doing the 'opposite' to you," agrees Andrea.
"All our parenting choices are an inherent judgment; or are perceived as such by other parents," agrees Emma.
With so much riding on the 'little' issues of what our babies eat and where they sleep, it's little wonder we're defensive and judgmental. So what's the antidote, and how do we declare a truce? If our judgments are thinly veiled reactions to our own guilt, then perhaps the answer lies not so much in cutting other mums more slack, but in going easier on ourselves.
Between prohibitively expensive childcare, a tax system that discriminates against mothers who choose to stay at home with their children, and a dearth of flexible, family-friendly working opportunities, Andrea feels mothers ought to conscientiously object to the Mammy Wars and conserve their energy for much more pressing matters.
"Other mothers are not the enemy," writes Andrea on her blog. "Previous generations of women fought for the right to work but the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction; many families would prefer one parent to stay at home but because of the economic necessity of two incomes to pay the mortgage, countless parents feel trapped into working, whether they wish to or not. Let's focus on creating a society where every parent has the choice to stay at home, to work part-time, or to take time out when their children are small. That's more worthwhile than fighting imaginary Mammy Wars."
Role models matter, too, adds Emma. "Without many full-time working mums to relate to, I do find myself asking whether I'm trying too hard to have it all."
Parenting expert and author Sarah Ockwell-Smith agrees that the Mammy Wars are artificially manufactured, and blames misogyny, society's undervaluing of mothers, and the media's penchant for pitting women against each other.
"We're always being told that mothers should get back to work, support the economy and pay taxes so they don't leech off government and working society, but in the same breath they're told they're causing damage if they put their children into childcare," she says.
"Motherhood is grossly undervalued in modern times, whereas even a hundred years ago it was held in high esteem. This has left mothers feeling insecure and undervalued about their role, and many unconsciously compare themselves to other mums."
At the heart of the Mammy Wars lies this dichotomy: other mums can be our greatest threat – when they pose a challenge to the inadequacies that lie beneath our parenting choices – or our greatest allies.
But my mum friends are the women I'd want to raise my kids if I couldn't do so myself.
Our friendships have sustained us through everything from giving birth and marital difficulty to grief, miscarriage and financial uncertainty – parenting differences notwithstanding.
So isn't it time we sang the praises of other mothers instead of perpetuating the myth that mammies are always at one another's throats?
How you can escape unscathed
Even if the Mammy Wars are largely mythical and blown out of all proportion by celebrity mums hungry for publicity, you're still likely to find yourself caught in the cross-fire of the occasional Mammy War moment – be that online or in real life.
Here are three failsafe ways to escape unscathed:
* Two ears, one mouth
Ask your 'opponent' open-ended questions about their choices, and let them talk. Instead of going on the defensive, try asking someone why they think using cotton wool and water is better for their baby's bottom than the baby wipes you've practically got shares in. Letting someone say their piece can take the adversarial sting out of a Mammy War debate pretty quickly.
* Don't judge, lest you be judged
It's human nature to judge others, but if we were slower to question the actions of other mums we might not feel quite so condemned when our own parenting choices are queried.
* Laughter, the best medicine
Humour is a powerful weapon in any mother's arsenal. Crack a joke about your choices or poke fun at your critics. Humour defuses tension and laughter helps to promote bonding; even between 'warring' mums.