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Motherhood is hard, and many moms apply their own out-of-reach standards to fellow moms — depleting support networks that have grown increasingly important in a pandemic-plagued world that’s posed new mothering challenges and lowered parenting bars, according to an Iowa State researcher.
Communications studies assistant teaching professor Kelly Odenweller has spent years investigating “mommy wars” — and their implications — and she’s discovered certain stereotypes can incite contempt and even harmful behavior from peers.
“Mothering is so difficult to begin with,” Odenweller told The Gazette. “There are so many choices, so many times where we feel like we’ve made the wrong choice, where we doubt ourselves, and we need those people in our lives — especially other mothers who are going through similar things — to be able to turn to and ask advice and get support from.”
Yet Odenweller’s research involving more than 500 mothers found many harbor harmful stereotypes, Odenweller said.
“They’re actually not providing that supportive network,” she said, noting some — in extreme cases — “would actually emotionally or physically harm them.”
“So it’s really very detrimental for women just being able to find their people that they can connect with.”
Q: Tell us more about your research into these stereotypes.
A: Odenweller wanted to produce scientific findings related to the “mommy wars” term that began circulating a decade ago.
“I wanted to see, are mothers really at war with each other?” she said. “Do they really compete with each other and judge each other? Or is this just something that the media is perpetuating?”
Q: What did you find?
A: Odenweller tackled the question by first dividing her subjects into groups — stay-at-home moms and working moms — to investigate whether they see each other “as so different that they can’t get along with each other.”
“I discovered moms, in fact, do view each other in terms of these groups,” she said. “They value the choices that they make in their life, and they have a really strong identity to their work or their home. And because of that, they start to evaluate other mothers — and themselves — against certain conditions to decide who is a good mom.
“Who is doing mothering right, and who’s not?”
Q: What were the general stereotypes you identified to ask these women about?
A: “I had seven stereotypes, and they were shown one of the seven, and they were made to believe that they were later going to be paired up with this woman,” Odenweller said.
The stereotypes she identified through prior research include mothers labeled as:
- Overworked — wanting to do it all but visibly overtaxed;
- Family-oriented — prioritizing children and partner needs at home;
- Ideal — capable of juggling responsibilities without appearing stressed;
- Hardworking and balanced — though not ideal, ambitious and dedicated;
- Non-traditional — modern and progressive, focused on doing what’s best for herself and her family at work and at home;
- Traditional — embodying roles “expected of a woman,” believing her main purpose is to “raise children and maintain the household”;
- Lazy — applying only to stay-at-home moms who aren’t nurturing or hardworking.
Q: What were the stereotyped mothers judged most harshly by their peers?
A: “The one that is incredibly detrimental for women’s friendships is what I labeled as the ideal mom — the mom that really has it all together,” Odenweller said. “She appears to be cool and calm and really enjoys her mothering role, and is really good at it, and her kids are well behaved.
“She’s not stressed. She’s crafty. That kind of quintessential mom,” she said. “That kind of mom gets some admiration from working moms. But gets envy and resentment and feeling like, why are you so much better than me? And that usually brings out a lot of nasty stuff from people.”
Another type of mom that received some of the harshest criticism was the one labeled “lazy.”
“And then the other one that’s surprisingly the other side of the lazy mom is the mom who’s overworked,” Odenweller said. “The one who’s sort of frazzled and stressed and is trying really hard but not quite doing it well enough to the point where she’s always tired and she’s overextended and feeling anxious and probably voicing those concerns.
“If she’s a stay-at-home mom who complains about being overworked, that mom gets a lot of nasty comments and treatment because mothers are saying, ‘Well, you're at home all day. Why are you overworked? You don’t even go to a job.’”
Q: How did you structure the research, and how did you find out how the moms felt about the stereotyped mothers?
A: Odenweller offered her subjects descriptions of other moms they were to pair up with in person — although they never actually met — and asked how they felt about the woman and how they would treat her.
“These people thought that eventually they were going to meet up with her or virtually chat with her, and they were still saying a lot of nasty things about her,” she said.
Q: Like what, exactly?
A: “They were asked a series of questions, like tell me how likely you would be to exclude this mother, ignore her, help her, verbally attack her, physically attack her — that was even a question,” Odenweller said. “And, not to an extreme degree, but there were people who were actually admitting that they would verbally and physically attack the mother.”
Q: What mother stereotypes had the most positive feedback?
A: The family-oriented mom and the hardworking and balanced mom received the highest ratings, according to Odenweller.
“It seemed like they really liked the women who somehow still fit their family life into whatever else they had going on — whether that was employment or just other volunteer work,” she said.
Q: Did your research look into what sorts of specific behaviors might draw the most criticism — like screen time or nutrition or extracurricular activities?
A: Odenweller said she’s done some research on what mothers feel they’re most judged on — and they’ve identified things like breastfeeding, child care, screen time, junk food, self-care, among many others.
Q: So what are implications of these judgments and behaviors?
A: Research, she said, shows mental health consequences of these judgments and the need for peer support in mothering.
“Women face so much scrutiny and bias and discrimination in our society, and then we have this evidence that it’s not just men or childless people doing this to women,” Odenweller said. “It’s actually mothers doing it to each other.”
Q: Do you think COVID and the new challenges and choices it’s presented has exacerbated mom judgment and implications?
A: Odenweller said preliminary reports show things like home schooling and increased family time have “opened up a lot of other things that moms can be judged on.”
“I imagine that mom-shaming increased over COVID — especially because people are posting about what they’re doing,” she said, referencing social media.
Q: How do you think social media has played into mother judging and shaming?
A: “There are definitely some social-media-focused studies that look just exclusively at mothers consuming other mothers’ content online and how that can elicit a lot of competition,” she said. “People, face-to-face, are a little bit more reserved and maybe won’t come right out and say some of the hurtful things that they’re thinking.”
Online, she said, they’re more likely to.
Q: Are you a mom? Did that play into your interest in this topic?
A: Odenweller has a son and daughter, ages 11 and 8, and her research has informed her own interactions and communications.
“There’s definitely been some situations in my life, like with family members or acquaintances and certain interactions, that inspired this research,” she said. “Just thinking about, ‘Wow, that was kind of a hurtful comment. I wonder where that was coming from?’”
Q: What have been some of your biggest take-aways from your findings?
A: Odenweller suggested two main behavioral shifts her research supports — one for mothers making and acting on their judgment, and another for those receiving it.
“For the person who might be saying something hurtful, do more listening and less talking, especially when you’re meeting somebody for the first time,” she said, suggesting learning more about a person to avoid assumptions.
“If somebody is saying those things to you, don’t go to that first instinct of being offended,” she said. “Even though they might be talking a lot about their kids and what a great mom they are, maybe they’re not trying to do that to insult you or to compare themselves to you.
“Just looking at each other like, we are both moms, and we are both doing the best that we can. And while we might not articulate it the best, if we can come together and see here are some of our shared experiences … we can form those networks with each other and we can have more of an understanding about how we parent and what our families are going through.”
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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