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Emily Writes: I’m not parenting at you, I’m just parenting

Spinoff Parents editor Emily Writes has noticed a lot of parents online are really upset, often with each other. Here she shares some ideas to make the village a little less hostile and a little more kind.

For the last two years (at least) I’ve been pretty fully immersed in the world of parents talking about parenting online. I have been admin to massive mummy groups that have had thousands and thousands of members. I’ve had my own blog for two years and that has a fairly large platform. I’ve run Facebook pages for volunteer-run organisations that support mums, feminist mum playdate groups, and given advice to new bloggers who want to write about parenting.

I’ve been editor of this section for just over six months – and I’ve been chief moderator for the Spinoff Parents page the whole time too. I feel like I’ve seen it all.

There’s one thing that I feel I often have to repeat when trying to put out fires between mothers online or rebuild broken bridges between parents who have a lot more in common than they think. So I’m sharing it here.

When someone shares an experience in parenting, they’re not parenting at you. They’re just parenting.

This happens again and again and it happens everywhere and even though I think the whole Mummy Wars thing is bullshit – a misogynistic spin for mainstream media to hate on mothers – I do think we have shall we say communication difficulties when we talk about parenting online.

I believe those difficulties come down to the idea that every piece of parenting “content” out there has to be related to every single parent. This approach gives us no end of trouble and here’s why:

You parent the way you parent, and I parent the way I parent, and she parents the way she parents – and we can’t provide one experience that fits all.

Why would we want to? Are we so locked down in our approaches that merely hearing another experience will destroy us forever? Surely not.

I realised a little while ago that the reasons why I felt so judged and upset by comments online were often that I felt that they were directed at me (I mean a lot are – don’t get me wrong – that’s the peril of being in this business). But the comments that were not “Emily Writes is a shit mother” were not directed at me at all. They just weren’t. No matter how much they felt like they were.

But because these comments shared an approach that was so incredibly far away from the way I parent – I felt that they were digs at me. It took a lot of unpacking for me to realise that I was just rubbing up against a way of parenting that just didn’t apply to me. It wouldn’t work for my family and it wouldn’t work for me. The reaction to that was to feel defensive – like I was meant to be doing things that way. Even though I absolutely knew it was the wrong way for me.

Not the wrong way full stop. Just the wrong way for me and my family.

The fact is, they weren’t parenting at me, they were just parenting. And they were putting a voice out there to say “this is what I’m doing” often in the hopes that they’d find their people, those who they can feel solidarity with, those that can support them in the specifics of what works for them.

I now have an approach based on this idea to stop me feeling judged or for judging myself – I unpack it.

I ask myself: Why does this comment about someone else’s experience upset me so much?

I do my best to begin at a point of empathy always. And I ask myself the following questions to get to the root of that particular big question. I ask myself:

“Am I just jealous?’ This is a big one for me, I feel real jealousy for people whose babies sleep. I feel really angry when they come to my page and say shit like “My baby slept from two weeks old! Sorry lol!” or “I did sleep training and it only took half an hour”. I used to get really upset about it, and sometimes that anger flares again when I’m really tired. I’ve realised though – it’s just jealousy. I am just jealous. I often felt like it was kind of rude to find the most exhausted mums ever and then shout that you’re well-rested, but I realised that these mums who do that are just seeking connection too. I don’t want to miss out on that connection and community because of envy.

“Is it just that it’s badly worded?” I feel an affinity with this one given I’m a writer who writes most of her rants at 3am. I try really hard to word things carefully and I still get it wrong. I never blurt out posts (unless I’m drunk on lust and I promise I won’t do that again) and I still say things that upset people without meaning to. Surely we can give a mum the benefit of the doubt when we read something online that makes us think “what the Hell?” that maybe she just worded a comment badly. I mean, given that we are all sleep deprived? Haven’t we all put our foot in it?

“Is she just feeling defensive?” Sometimes I read a comment and think “what the fuck did I ever do to you???” and then I break it down a bit and ask this question. I wonder if the mum herself has been feeling judged, maybe she has family who are cruel to her about her parenting choices. Is it realistic to assume that this is all me? That this is a reaction to me and my parenting choices? Probably not. I think back to the times that I’ve felt like crying because of horrible things said about me, how it made me want to lash out. I stop myself doing the same.

“Am I just feeling defensive?” Sometimes I comment back to someone, going against my rules, and I’ll get a message from someone saying “what they said wasn’t that bad”. And what that person doesn’t see is the ten messages I saw before this one that I managed to let slide. When my defences are down and I’m feeling defensive and defenceless, it’s so much harder for me to just let things go. I try to recognise that I’m holding this person to account for everyone else’s comments, and that’s not fair.

“Is she just trying to help?” I know that unsolicited advice is the worst, dear God I know. But I try to assume positive intention in actual conversations online. I save my snarkiness and bitchiness for you here in my columns. Some people feel the best way they can help is by giving advice. I have been there – I mean I literally have bought cabbage leaves for friends when they have come home with their baby. I know it works. I mean I don’t – it worked for me, so I make assumptions, but I am just trying to help. Most of the time I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing so I feel really excited to have just one thing to share that worked for me. So when I get unsolicited advice, I just take a deep breath and think “they’re just trying to help”. And then I bitch about it to my friends.

“Is it a parenting philosophy thing that I just need to ignore?” Parenting philosophies aye? For some people they really help – they’re like a road map. For some, there is a clear ideology that they’ve found and that supports them in their parenting. For others, they pick and choose from many different types of parenting philosophies and that works really well for them. For others still – and I put myself in this camp – I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m reasonably OK with that. I don’t have a philosophy and I believe that all of us parent from the same point: wanting the best for our babies. Wanting to give them the best start the best way we know how.

Sometimes philosophies work so well for you that you want to share that wherever you can, so you do. And it can be confronting when you’re just trying your best and muddling through and someone is up in your grill about some parenting philosophy that is really hard out and full-on. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with muddling through myself, but I know on rough days I sometimes feel quite challenged by mums who have strong and clear parenting philosophies. They seem so sure of everything and I have to again remind myself that they’re just parenting – they’re not parenting at me. They’re telling me about their approach because it works really well for them and they think it’s the right way. Just because I don’t share that view, it doesn’t mean I need to tell them that. I can just ignore it, and keep on doing what I think is best for my kids.

“Do I need to care about this?” Do you really care what this person thinks? So she says dummies are evil or she would never do XYZ sleeping method because it’s blah blah blah – do you need to care about what she thinks? Does it change the way you do things? Of course it hurts when people say things about your parenting – trust me, I’ve cried a lot reading emails and comments – but most of the people who attack are doing so because they’re hurting themselves. They’re clinging to the things they do as parents and are attacking the things I do as a parent because they’re feeling insecure, or judged, or tired or any number of reasons. You don’t have to worry about that – so don’t. Don’t carry other people’s baggage.

“Do I feel guilty?” Now, I’m not going to gaslight you here. I am not one of those people who think people feel guilty because they should feel guilty. I think that’s a shitty and mean position to take when so many mothers feel awful, unnecessary guilt because of all of the pressure put on them. No, what I mean is this: If I feel guilty, I will not make another mother feel guilty. If what she’s said hurts me and makes me feel guilt, I will try to remind myself that I am a good mum who loves her babies. I will not return guilt with guilt. I will not shame her or do what she’s doing to me. Guilt is a terrible, terrible thing and sometimes we think if we can push it on to others we can spare ourselves. I believe this is why we see so many comments that really hit us in the guts. People are trying to escape that guilt by shooting it toward others – don’t buy into that.

“Do I need to counter her experience with my experience?” The answer to this is almost always no. I promise you, it’s no. There is this thing that we do when we see an experience that’s different to ours where we say “that can’t be true because it’s not my experience”. This is a shitty reaction that we need to breathe through and then actively confront.

Time and time again I see comments from people who felt the need to do this when they shouldn’t have. When a mum shares something about her traumatic birth, instead of consoling her a mother will say “I was at the same hospital and that didn’t happen to me”. When a mum says she got a sleep consultant and it didn’t work and she’s crying because she’s so tired it hurts, she’ll get a comment saying “Well I got one and now my baby sleeps 12 hours every night”. When a mum says she needs a break from her child another mum will comment “I would never leave my child even for a few hours”. When a mum says she’s struggling with her child’s early childhood centre, it’s not useful for you to then say “We don’t put our child into daycare because we could never leave her with strangers”.

What does this achieve? Really? Half the time mums are looking only for connection when they share their stories, we need to provide that and if we can’t – step back and not make it about us. When a mum says she used a sleep consultant and it didn’t work, she’s not invalidating your experience. When a mum says she needs a break from her child, she’s not saying you need a break from yours. When a mum shares her traumatic birth story, it doesn’t change your birth story. When a mum talks about early childhood education, she’s not attacking your position about keeping your child at home with you.

It’s not about you.

This is the thing we need to keep coming back to. It’s not about us. We are all tired. We are all struggling in our own way. We all have good days and bad days. But we have to unpack our assumptions and reactions to each other before we respond. And we need to remember – there’s another mum at the end of that comment. She wrote looking for connection and you’re making a point for some greater good? No. Speak to her. She wants to hear you. You need to hear her.

I read about a wonderful method of communicating online and I can’t find the origin (if anyone can let me know I’ll link to it here). It was outlined in a group that’s fairly respectful as far as closed parent groups on Facebook are.

It says you should never JADE with your parenting – you should never feel the need to justify, argue, defend, or explain the way you parent to people you don’t know online. I think this is a great approach. When someone replies to you online and you feel defensive or want to snap back because maybe they’re defensive or tired or have a philosophy that’s very different: Don’t JADE.

Just let it go.

Connection matters in parenting. We cannot parent in isolation. We are missing out on a lot when we close ourselves off and run around sure that everyone is parenting at us. They’re not.

Your experience is yours. Someone having an experience that is different to yours does not invalidate it.

When you feel disconnect, seek connection – say something kind to another mother. Build her up. Open yourself up to other ways of parenting.

When we say we’re all in this together, we truly are. You get to choose how you will connect with others in this village – but remember we all live here.

Emily Writes is editor of The Spinoff Parents. Her book Rants in the Dark is out now. Buy it here. Or support The Neonatal Trust by buying a signed copy for Mother’s Day here. Follow her on Facebook here.

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