Most Mothers Feel Judged, With Families Often the Worst Critics

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The Checkup

Nearly two-thirds of mothers said they felt they had been criticized for their parenting decisions, according to a national poll released in June from the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Michigan.

Researchers asked 475 mothers of children up to the age of 5 across the United States about feeling judged for their parenting skills. Sixty one percent felt that they had been judged, with most of the criticism coming from close to home, said Sarah Clark of the Child Health Evaluation and Research Center at the University of Michigan, the co-director of the poll.

“What stood out was the perception among so many more mothers that criticism is coming from folks within their own family,” she said. “It was almost equal parts their spouse or partner, their own parents, and their in-laws. The stereotype would be the in-law would lead the parade on that, but it didn’t turn out that way.”

The researchers wondered whether mothers would report more criticism coming from acquaintances and strangers, or people online. But only 7 percent of the mothers, who were surveyed in January, reported cyber-judging via social media.

Mothers were three times as likely to report being criticized within the family as from the outside, Ms. Clark said. “I wonder if when a comment comes from someone so close, the comment feels different,” she said.

“Mothers start getting input about their parenting when they’re pregnant, people pat their abdomen, people say, you should be getting off your feet,” said Dr. Barbara Howard, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “There are a thousand things people feel they have permission to say about their parenting.”

Dr. Howard is a developmental behavioral pediatrician, and the children referred to her are, by definition, children with behavioral issues. And often, she says, family members have strong opinions about how those behaviors should be managed.

“I talk about it all the time, I say, who else has an opinion about how to handle this,” Dr. Howard said. When there are differences of opinion between spouses about how to handle an issue, she said, they need to negotiate their parenting style — but not by criticizing and undermining one another in front of the child.

She was not at all surprised by the topics around which mothers in the poll reported criticism. They are the same topics she hears about in the office, she said: “It’s discipline, sleep and diet, that’s always it.”

Among the mothers surveyed who reported being criticized, 7 out of 10 had been taken to task over issues of discipline. “More often what we see are different interpretations of what this kid is doing right now in terms of behavior and what’s reasonable to expect,” Ms. Clark said.

Grandparents who live at a distance may see a child only on special occasions, when the routine is disrupted and the child is perhaps unusually excited. If the grandparents offer criticism, or at least what the mother hears as criticism, it can further divide families who are already geographically separated.

“About half of the moms said they avoid certain people who give too much criticism,” Ms. Clark said. And while that may be fine if the critic is a nosy neighbor down the block, “if it becomes a reason to limit that kid’s time with grandma, I think we lose things that way.”

For parents who are upset by the criticism, Dr. Howard said, it’s important to remember that a grandparent, especially a grandparent at a distance, may be trying, however awkwardly, to be involved in a child’s life. “People may go out of their way to avoid relatives they find are too critical,” she said. She suggested being more direct and saying, “I’m not going to come over here anymore if you keep putting me down.” And then say, “I really want you to be part of my children’s lives.”

What mothers hear as criticism, especially from their own parents, may also reflect concern for the mother’s well-being; the grandparents may look at the child’s sleep problem and see an exhausted mother.

“They’re often in pain for the parent when the parent is struggling with a behavior,” Dr. Howard said.

Mothers who were surveyed reported very low numbers for criticism coming from the child’s health care provider (8 percent) and the child’s day care provider (6 percent). Ms. Clark suggested that this was because mothers expected advice and guidance from these quarters, and therefore didn’t hear the suggestions as criticism.

“How does mom translate the statement?” she asked. “From the doctor, we’re just trying to keep this kid healthy, from the day care provider, we’re trying to help this kid have a happy day.” It goes to show, she said, that the criticism is partly what the sender says, and partly what the receiver hears. “It’s received as coming from someone who’s trying to help my kid be well and succeed in life, as opposed to comments from the family where we don’t always perceive that intention.”

But it’s also possible that pediatricians are seen as uncritical because they don’t raise some of these fraught topics, like discipline and parenting. “I’m guessing that pediatricians aren’t giving enough advice, they may not be seen as critical because they aren’t saying enough about it,” Dr. Howard said.

What is the impact of the criticism? Sometimes mothers do need to find out if they’re doing something wrong. “We were happy to see that a sizable chunk of folks said that in response to something they perceived as criticism, they went out and sought more information,” Ms. Clark said. “They either asked the child’s doctor or went and looked online.”

But 40 percent of the mothers in the survey said the criticism made them feel unsure of themselves as mothers. “If you get to the point where the voices of criticism potentially raise that level of anxiety, that’s where we worry,” Ms. Clark said.

“No one ever says anything good to parents, like ‘Oh, I think you handled that tantrum beautifully,’” Dr. Howard said. Unless perhaps you are the Duchess of Cambridge, whose efficient handling of her 2-year-old daughter’s brief tantrum last month made news headlines around the world.

“How often does anybody ever say to you, ‘You did a magnificent job of managing that,’” Dr. Howard said. “We all know positive feedback is much better than negative feedback.”