Our son was just four years old and had started school; my husband and I were really excited about our first interaction with his class-teacher. We were summoned into the classroom where she sat on a big chair, and we were asked to sit on tiny kiddy chairs. We found it a little unusual but as we were new to the power structure within a top league school in the UK, we sat down and the teacher started telling us in no uncertain terms what was wrong with our child. He was restless, did not listen or do what he was told and was always in his own world.
The odd thing was that she seemed to be looking only at me with a highly disapproving expression and I could sense cringing shame freezing me. The same kiddy chair that was tiny a little time back seemed suddenly too big as I started to feel smaller and smaller. It was like I was back in school and being reproached for being such a failure. But this time as a mom. Obviously, in her eyes I was messing it up — working mother, Asian and not teaching right manners to my child (yes, she actually mentioned his manners). I tried to clear my throat to speak, but only a croaking sound came out.
Then suddenly, I thought of our son, our vibrant, curious, warm-hearted little boy and realised that I would not leave till I had my say. In a tentative voice, I asked her, “You have told us all that is wrong with our son but I wonder if there is anything you have to say about what he is doing well. I am sure in these three months with him, you would have picked up something?” From the look on her face she was not expecting this question and as she fumbled with her papers, desperately trying to look for an answer there, we got up and left. And in a week’s time we had taken our son out from this prestigious school and put him in a little school by the river where he spent happy days gathering tadpoles in tanks and where I was accepted with all my working mother scruffiness.
I do not think there is any mother who has not experienced shame sometimes or the other in her life. It comes with the territory. Become a mother, make guilt your middle-name and live with shame. It really does not matter if you work or you do not, if you are tall, thin, big-built, outgoing, introverted, urban, rural, famous, working or not working – shame will find a way to you somewhere or the other. Some of us become more vulnerable if our children are not seen as being good enough — not pretty enough, not intelligent enough, not of the right sexual orientation or gender, socio-economic level or accomplishment. Then there is that nauseating shame that is directed at women who cannot or choose not to have children or mothers of children with disability as if saying, “Your child is defective and so are you.”
To the dads out there, please do not feel upset that I am excluding you but I am sure you will admit that this variety of shaming is quite unique to moms. It is relentless and there is no way out. For example, working mothers are told, “Why did you have kids if you wanted to work?” or “I would never leave my kids with maids.” Stay-at-home mothers are told, “You are wasting your time sitting at home and doing nothing.” Then, of course, we have all these sticky labels that are directed at us — helicopter mom, tiger mom, drill sergeant mom, hummingbird mom, free-ranging mom and the latest I heard was snowplow mom! Why is there this compulsion to brand us into neat boxes when we all know there is nothing like that? If you are like me, then in a day you can switch from tiger to helicopter to “leave me alone” depending on what the day is like, what the kids have been up to and honestly, who is watching and judging me.
Whatever kind of parent I might be, one thing I am sure I am not – a perfect parent. I have made mistakes and continue to do so that could be enough material for another column or maybe even a book. And I am fine being imperfect though I must admit in my most vulnerable moments I sense shame creeping in very stealthily.
The thing is mom-shaming is coded into our culture – it has deep roots in our history but due to various reasons, this problem is getting amplified to a whole new level now. Parenting has become one of the most significant measures of our worthiness. Social media makes it even worse as every achievement is being plastered for the world to see and your absence of glowing updates is there for the world to judge. The saddest part is that it is women who end up policing and judging each other. A mother shared with me, “My school mothers’ WhatsApp group is giving me sleepless nights — they are constantly trying to outdo each other. Being a working mother, I cannot keep up with all the homework, exams, after-school activities. I am too scared to ask for help as I know immediately I will be made to feel ashamed of neglecting my child.”
Parenting is not a race!
It is so easy to judge others but we really have no idea what is happening in their lives. The child wailing on the floor of the mall might be on the autism spectrum and struggling to self-regulate in the high sensory overload and the mother who ends up missing her daughter’s performance in school could have a last-minute crisis at work. She would be feeling horrible enough already for us to make it worse by our judgments. We would not judge a father for missing it, so why do we have a quick judgment for mothers? I have a special request for the teachers — PTMs are not an easy time for all parents and their kids, so please be compassionate. Each parent is fighting a battle you know nothing about. And all of you perfectionist moms, stop being so harsh on yourself. Ann Lamott spoke for all of us when she said, “Never compare your insides to everyone else’s outsides.”
Keep your sense of humour
If there is one thing I have learned as a parent is no matter what happens, keep it light and see the funny side. Your child will say things that will embarrass you in public; she will not pretend, perform and perfect the way society demands, but if possible, laugh it off. After our PTM fiasco, we refused to let that description define our son and instead turned it into a family joke. Humour is a great antidote to taking the edges off shame-inducing experiences.
Shame festers in silence, secrecy and judgment, so speak up. Talk about your hardships with postpartum depression after childbirth, your son’s struggles with dyslexia, your daughter’s bullying in school, your teenager’s mental health difficulties. Children have sensitive radars for secrecy and shame as they immediately tend to attribute it to themselves. As a teenager told me, “If my mother believes she has been a failure as a mother, it means I have been a failure as a son.” If they see you talking about it openly and lightly, they take it lightly too. You do not have to put it up on social media but share your stories with people you trust and who make you feel stronger. No matter what the society tells you, it is not your fault so look the shame in the eye and walk away.
It takes a village
We are all in this together, and as we muddle along, let’s commit to stop judging each other and reach out and take collective responsibility. Offer to send a weekly update to a mother from your son’s class whose child might be struggling academically, or invite the lonely child for a playdate and teach your child a wonderful art of being inclusive. Start a parents’ group which is not about flaunting your children’s latest achievement but having authentic conversations on real, messy side of parenting. Share, support, laugh it out and show solidarity because as the spiritual teacher Ram Dass put it, “We’re all just walking each other home.”