Have We Weaponized Parenting?

The Mommy Wars can lead to maternal burnout. Here's how to cope.

Posted Oct 28, 2019

Have We Weaponized Parenting?

Ever feel like a bad mom? You’re not alone. New research published by the Journal of Family Communication demonstrates some reasons why mothers so often feel guilt and shame. Based on surveying more than 500 mothers, researchers at Iowa State University, led by Dr. Kelly Odenwaller, demonstrate that stereotypes about mothers and mothering contribute to this sense of inadequacy and that mothers tend to communicate these judgmental stereotypes to one another.

The “Mommy Wars” aren’t new, but this research demonstrates that the impact of negative maternal stereotyping can be more far-reaching than had been previously understood. Mothers are more susceptible to shame and guilt around their parenting than fathers are, and we know that guilt is a key component of parental burnout. Soon to be published research, conducted in France, demonstrates that among a sample of “exhausted” mothers, guilt is the primary contributor to maternal burnout.

“Not Good Enough” Ideation:

Basically, maternal guilt boils down to a sense of not being “good enough.” Consider this scenario:

Leeza sinks down on the couch, tired but relieved. Kids fed? Check. Homework? Check. Teeth brushed? Check. Kids in bed, more or less clean? Check. House is a wreck, and she still has tons of paperwork to get through, but at least the day went well. Sort of. She opens her social media apps on her phone, and suddenly, her heart is sinking. There’s Alicia’s roast chicken and salad dinner, with an accompanying comment about how her kids will never eat food from the freezer. Leeza thinks guiltily of her own dinner – chicken nuggets, tater tots, and salad? Nah. The only vegetable was the (possible) tomatoes in the ketchup. She then scrolls past a meme about how motherhood is all encompassing, with the unspoken message that working mothers can’t possibly be devoting enough time to their kids. Pinterest boards of elaborate braids and bento-box lunches make her cringe about her own efforts... She feels herself losing energy. Her previous motivation to jump up and restore order to the mess is gone. She turns on Netflix and grabs the nearest junk food.

Guilt and Parental Burnout

I’ve written extensively about how parental burnout has officially become a “thing.” Parents are finally admitting that parenting itself, not the daily juggling of work and parenting responsibilities, can contribute to burnout. It used to be too threatening to admit that parenting itself causes burnout; society tells us we’re supposed to love every minute of it, after all. But as the parenting stakes continue to rise, and the goals for success continue to shift, parents are finally admitting the extent of their burnout. (For more on understanding parental burnout, click here.)

In addition, attuned parenting can be protective of our kids, and we can’t attune to our kids when we’re burned out. Neuroscience research suggests that mothers who are burned out can’t engage in attunement, or the ability to intuit a child’s emotional state. Lack of attunement tends to increase parental use of harsh punishment and other counterproductive parenting practices. (For more on understanding how burnout blocks attunement, click here. For more on self-care, click here.)

Do you feel like you're "not good enough" as a mother? New research shows there's a reason for that. Here's what to do:
Source: olegdudko/123RF

No Recipe For Perfect Parenting:

The problem with parenting guilt is that it’s so pervasive and unavoidable. There is no way to be a perfect parent. If you spend a lot of time growing organic vegetables to feed your child, that is time you’re not spending with your child, or developing yourself. If you decide to provide your children with a lot of extracurriculars, you might read about how over-scheduled kids develop anxiety or lose motivation.

There’s no proven formula for raising kids; there’s no external checklist to say what is “right” and what is “most important.” Kids are different, families are different, and life is ever-changing.

The function of guilt is to warn us of moral transgressions. However, unlike guilt over an actual transgression (I shouldn’t have forgotten Grandma’s birthday, I’ll call her now and make it up to her) parenting guilt warns us of nebulous things that we might be getting wrong, with no clear way to fix them.

We need external validation of what works in parenting, but when we look for it in the larger Mommy community, we tend to find a lot of judgment, and that leads to more guilt.

Odenweller’s Seven Stereotypes:

  • Overworked: Wants to do it all, but is overextended.
  • Home, family-oriented: Prioritizes children, the family, and the home.
  • Ideal: Juggling several responsibilities, but gets it done without appearing stressed.
  • Hardworking, balanced: Not “ideal” but ambitious and dedicated
  • Non-traditional: Liberal and progressive; makes choices that are good for herself and family, whether at home or work.
  • Traditional: Embodies traditionally feminine roles, believes her main purpose is to raise children and maintain the household.
  • Lazy: Not nurturing, attentive, or hardworking — applies only to stay-at-home moms

Survey participants reported high levels of judgment towards the “ideal” and “lazy” moms, and endorsed aggressive attitudes towards these moms, reporting that they would exclude, argue with, or verbally attack a mom who fits this stereotype.

It Takes a Village to Create a Parent:

Parenting is an art and a skill. We all need our “Mommy Villages” to help us learn the tricks of the trade. We need social and emotional support from people who have been there and get it. The problem is, Mommy judgment and stereotyping, which is exacerbated by social media, tends to block us from getting it. Instead of understanding and support, moms receive the opposite.

Parenting is not a competitive sport.

We don’t score points by hurting the “other team” (whomever that “other team” might be). Let’s focus on supporting each other, so that we all say goodbye to unproductive guilt, as we all defeat burnout together. We are all “good enough.” We are all doing the best we can, with the tools we have. We are all looking to develop more and better tools. Let’s use those tools to build each other. 

© Robyn Koslowitz, 2019


Kelly G. Odenweller, Christine E. Rittenour, Megan R. Dillow, Aaron Metzger, Scott A. Myers, Keith Weber. Ambivalent Effects of Stay-at-Home and Working Mother Stereotypes on Mothers’ Intergroup and Interpersonal Dynamics. Journal of Family Communication, 2019; 1 DOI: 10.1080/15267431.2019.1663198

Raquel Sánchez-Rodríguez, Émilie Orsini, Elodie Laflaquière, Stacey Callahan, Natalène Séjourné, Depression, anxiety, and guilt in mothers with burnout of preschool and school-aged children: Insight from a cluster analysis, Journal of Affective Disorders, 2019 Volume 259, Pages 244-250, ISSN 0165-0327,