What to Do When a Critical Family Adds to Mom Guilt

Family members, no matter how loving and well-intentioned, may contribute to mom guilt. I remember when I was in the hospital room, having just given birth hours before. I was holding my very precious bundle of joy, while surrounded by many loving relatives. It could have been a postpartum version of a scene from the 1990s movie “While You Were Sleeping” – the one where Sandra Bullock is surrounded by a whole clan of loving, concerned relatives. It should have been idyllic. Instead, I was having my first attack of mom guilt, one of many to come.

“You shouldn’t be holding your baby. You will spoil him. Put him down in the bassinet!” One aunt said.

The comments kept coming. “Your baby is crying. You’re holding him the wrong way!” “Trying to breastfeed? That’s why he’s crying. Best to give him some formula. You’re starving him!” “You put his diaper on wrong.” “His clothes are too loose.” “You dressed him too warm.” “He’s feeling cold!”

I remember thinking back then, Society is toxic to new moms! Little did I know that it’s not just for new moms.

It didn’t stop there. “Your baby’s room is so messy.” “Baby’s room is too cold.” “Baby’s room is too warm.” “Baby’s room is too bright.” “Baby’s room is too dark.” (Note: In these cases, baby’s room had the same temperature and the same level of brightness. Just different people visiting.)

It comes with mom territory. When you become a mom, people WILL comment on your parenting. It doesn’t matter what you actually decide to do. Did you decide to work outside the home? Did you decide to hire a nanny, or do all the work yourself? Which crib or high chair did you choose? How did you decorate the child’s room?

Whatever you decide on any of these issues and others, there will always be comments. Some may be said kindly. Yes, even kind comments can be annoying. You don’t need to feel guilty about being annoyed at even kind comments. Other comments may be nastier.

“You don’t let your baby watch videos on an iPad? He’ll be behind other kids his age!” “Poor baby. Mommy doesn’t let him go to the (crowded) mall.” “Why is he on a baby carrier? Put him down.”

“You should be spanking your toddler to teach him a lesson.” “You shouldn’t let him run around like that.” “Just give in and let him have what he wants.” “You should let him eat ___ (insert any food).” “You shouldn’t let him eat ___ (insert any food – sometimes the same food that others will say is necessary).”

This is the funny thing. I am a licensed pediatrician. Before I gave birth, people actually paid me to answer their questions about those things. People still do, in fact, when it comes to their own kids.

But when it comes to my own child, the same people who would ask me what to do about a certain grandchild, also couldn’t refrain from giving me parenting advice.

I realized, if I can be upset by all of this, after years of training and experience as a pediatrician, how much more confusing and disheartening can it be for other first time moms?

If you feel mom guilt, take heart. Know that you are not alone.

Some may advise us to just ignore everything and say, “My kid, my rules”. In practice though, it’s not that simple. However, it is possible to handle these comments without turning to arguments or other negative coping mechanisms.

Here are some techniques that may help to resolve criticisms without arguments or angry feelings.

1. Evaluate the advice.

Some of the comments might be constructive criticism. It is constructive if it has specific actions that you can take to help with a problem, and not just general statements of what you are doing wrong. If it is constructive criticism, evaluate whether following it is actually applicable for you or if it is consistent with the principles of child development.

For example, a relative might share a tip for how she was able to get more sleep while taking care of an infant and a toddler. This might be great advice that you can follow!

On the other hand, many new moms are pressured by relatives or caregivers to let their babies use educational apps. In this case, you can politely listen, but you know that screen time including educational apps is actually harmful for babies below two years.

Other examples of advice you may have to ignore may include practices like rubbing saliva on baby’s forehead (VERY unsafe now with the COVID pandemic!), or putting a binder around baby’s belly.

2. Avoid taking it personally.

It’s easy to get defensive and take things personally. When a family member judges your weight or appearance, it’s hard not to take it personally. You feel attacked and vulnerable, but the key is to remember that their opinion isn’t the only one that matters.

Keep in mind that comments about you or your child are a reflection of THEM, and NOT of you or your child. For example, when they criticize your child’s appearance, they may actually have insecurities about their own looks. Family members may attack others because it’s an easy target for them and it takes the focus off of their own shortcomings.

You also need to evaluate where the advice is coming from. Many times, after hearing a family member’s constant advice and criticism, it turns out that she is pitching a product that she is selling. She may be commenting on how thin your toddler is, and it turns out she is selling a multilevel-marketing supplement or milk formula. You should always check with your child’s doctor, even if the family member says, “Don’t ask your doctor because doctors don’t know about this.” Comments like this are red flag signs!

An observation I made is that I was NOT getting comments from pediatrician friends. They were the ones who had the actual training, but unless I asked them specifically, they did not give advice. And often, their answers were much less opinionated. They would recognize when something is a matter of preference.

This made me realize that many unsolicited comments are actually opinions rather than facts. Many of them also stem from other people’s need to feel useful and involved, rather than anything I was doing wrong.

3. Know your triggers and have a plan of action for specific situations.

Triggers are things that can set you off. They are comments or actions that affect you deeply. By becoming aware of your triggers, you can learn to notice when others are “pushing your buttons”.

For example, there may be certain family events where you regularly hear criticism. Decide whether it would be better to avoid these situations by not attending, or whether it would be better to face them head-on. If you will attend, have a plan of action.

For example, you may decide to stay with your child at the kids’ table. You may spend a few minutes talking with the toxic relative and then run after your child. (This is very easy to do with a toddler who is always running around!)

Now that families are in quarantine, hopefully these situations will have decreased. There is always social media though. The technology that allows us to stay connected can also allow us to be continually exposed to these types of comments. If that’s the case for you, go ahead and take a social media break. Do not feel guilty about not replying to some threads or comments.

4. Share how you feel, if you feel that it is safe to do so.

In some cases, your family may not be aware that they’re hurting you. They may even think that they’re helping by pointing out your faults so you can work to overcome them. To nip this in the bud, share your feelings and let them know that their negative comments are painful to hear. Explain that you’re aware of your issues and don’t need constant negative reminders. It’s up to you to make them aware that they’re not helping.

On the other hand, you may not need to respond to all their comments. For example, it’s very common for relatives to criticize the way a mom feeds her toddler. “He’s so thin. Are you feeding him?” “He’s quite chubby. Are you just letting him eat anything he wants?”

When you reply that your pediatrician says his weight is just fine, they will say, “What does your pediatrician know? I know better – I raised [three/five] kids!” Especially if your relative has already proclaimed her idea to the whole clan, she is probably not going to back down just because you point out a few facts to her.

Think about when it would be safe or not to share how you feel. In some cases, if you open up about your feelings, this may lead to additional criticisms that you are too sensitive, you’re being ungrateful, or that you don’t listen to your elders.

It may be easier to just decrease the amount of time you spend with critical relatives as much as possible, especially if these are the ones that you are not particularly close to.

5. Set clear boundaries.

You can teach others how to treat you by setting clear boundaries. Let your family members know that you won’t accept some things. They will eventually get used to you standing up for yourself.

Be prepared to take action if they overstep these boundaries. In this case, you may have to decrease time with them or take other measures to let them know that you’re serious about the boundaries. You can’t control everyone, but you can make it clear that you won’t tolerate rude or negative comments.

Although you may feel obligated to spend time with your family, you don’t have to spend time with people who hurt you on a regular basis. You deserve to be treated well, even by your family members. If your family is constantly sharing negative comments or criticisms, it will benefit you to learn how to deal with them.

It’s not an easy process, but it’s important for your sanity and well-being to manage your emotions and their comments.

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