Australia ranks as one of the top 10 countries in the world to raise a child, but sometimes, all it takes is a visit to a local restaurant to change all that.
Recently, I took a friend and her three kids out to dinner for her birthday. I thought I’d picked the perfect family-friendly restaurant. It was only a short drive from her home, which meant I could pick them up. I had been reassured there would be a high chair available for Little Miss A (just nine months old) and there were even balloons and colouring pages (even if Miss 12 and Miss 14 considered themselves far too grown-up for either).
Yet there were still many things I had neglected to take into account. I didn’t have a car seat fixed in my car and it proved too much trouble to remove the one that was in hers, which meant my friend had to bring her car anyway. Little Miss A wasn’t too fond of her high chair so the rest of us had to take turns holding her—with the exception of Miss 14 who was banished to the end of our long table because she had the flu.
When Miss 12 needed to go to the bathroom, we discovered there were no bathroom facilities in the restaurant or even on that level of the shopping centre. In the middle of dealing with everyone’s food orders and simultaneously looking after the extremely wiggly Miss A, we reluctantly allowed Miss 14 to accompany Miss 12 to find the nearest bathroom.
As we anxiously waited for the girls to come back, I imagined the social media posts our fellow diners could create about this situation: “Careless adults allow young teens to find bathroom by themselves!”, “Baby allowed to crawl around instead of sitting in a highchair!”, “Food orders are clearly more important to these adults than protecting their kids!” Fortunately no such posts have turned up in my Facebook feed as yet.
But I can’t help but wonder why a restaurant would go to the trouble of having balloons and colouring pages, yet fail to have a change room available for parents with babies.
What if my friend had been on her own and Miss A had needed changing? Would she have had to leave her other kids in the restaurant and gone to search for a bathroom with her baby? Or would she be like Stephanie Plahn at a Brisbane café, who reached for a changing pad and attended to her baby’s needs as best as she could on a restaurant table in front of all the customers, as reported by several news outlets late last year?
I also began thinking about all the social media content I’ve seen lately, from blog posts to newspapers and even my Facebook news feed. Even though I’m not a parent, I’m constantly inundated with stories about mums who have been shamed for nefarious activities like—gasp!—daring to feed their children in a public space. We’re at an age where a mother’s every move is first scrutinised, quickly judged and promptly uploaded on social media.
Australia is a great place to be a mum, according to a 2015 report by Save the Children on the countries where mothers and children fare best. In fact, it comes in at number nine out of 179 countries. (Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden were among the very best, in case you were wondering.) The report explains that the top 10 countries are rated based on high scores for mother’s and children’s health as well as educational, economic and political status.
Mothers on parenting website Babyology have credited this ranking to additional reasons such as Australia’s sunny weather, natural beauty, abundance of outdoor activities and the laid-back lifestyle. But unfortunately none of these things can protect mothers from experiencing the rising trend of “mum-shaming” by the “mummy mafia”.
A study conducted by the C S Mott Children’s Hospital in Michigan, USA, found that six in 10 mothers of children under the age of five had been criticised about their parenting decisions.
A whopping 61 per cent said family members had shamed them, including their own parents and their partners. Seventy per cent of these women were shamed for the way they disciplined their children, 52 per cent were shamed for their child’s diet and nutrition, and 39 per cent for their choices to breastfeed or bottle-feed their babies.
Sarah Clark, co-director of the study and associate research scientist in the paediatrics department at the University of Michigan, observed that in some cases, the shaming stems from people feeling unsure about the choices they made themselves.
“When you’ve struggled with something and decided that the best thing is X and you see someone choosing something else, it calls into question your choice a tiny bit—and therefore, they must be wrong,” Sarah told Yahoo. “But there are very few things that are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Putting your child in a car seat is right, but what daycare they go to or how you feel about breastfeeding is just a choice.”
Sarah’s observations seem somewhat simplistic, considering that breastfeeding is not an option for every mum, but she makes a valid point. Some parenting decisions—such as breastfeeding—are not black-or-white and do not have a definitive answer as to whether they are right or wrong.
Was the mother meant to abandon her meal, leave the café and search for the nearest available facilities?
“I breastfed my kids but I would never look down on someone else who chose not to,” says Anna King, mum of five from Western Sydney. “Some mums can’t produce sufficient milk for their babies or can’t get them to latch on properly. There might be any number of reasons why a baby is being bottle-fed. Unfortunately people judging mums who bottle-feed their children usually aren’t privy to the whole story.”
Anna believes that social media has a big part to play in the rise of “mum-shaming”.
“In my mum’s generation, if someone didn’t approve of another person’s parenting choice, they would say so to that individual. These days, people can upload posts to social media and anybody who has access to that particular platform can read about it, making the ‘mummy-shaming’ process easier,” she observes.
Social media certainly does play a role in making “mummy-shaming” a more public movement. Even a celebrity like singer P!nk is not exempt, having faced criticism from the media and the general public for a photo she uploaded to Instagram. The photo features P!nk cooking dinner while holding her infant son in a baby carrier, her daughter watching from her perch on the nearby counter. Internet trolls instantly began commenting on P!nk’s parenting “prowess” (or lack thereof), warning that her kids might get hurt while watching her cook and accusing her of being a negligent parent.
However it’s not enough to blame social media for its role in making “mummy-shaming” more public. As I think about the headlines I’ve seen splashed across my news feed, I can’t help but consider how many of those headlines might have been rendered unnecessary if our society as a whole was more accommodating to parents and children.
While I have to admit I don’t like the idea of a mum changing a baby’s nappy on a café table where people are eating, have we looked at the reasons that might have driven her to make that choice? Clearly there were no change room facilities in the café or within close proximity. Was the mother meant to abandon her meal, leave the café and search for the nearest available facilities?
“As a mum of five kids, I’m always paranoid about going out with all of them, especially if I’m on my own,” says Anna. “[My husband] Jack and I even struggle when it’s the two of us. If we go out to a restaurant that doesn’t have its own change room or bathroom facilities, that means one of us has to leave the restaurant with the child that needs to go and hunt down a bathroom. That leaves the other one looking after four kids alone. Neither is an ideal situation and we try to avoid complicated situations by going out as infrequently as possible.”
A few days ago, I was walking through a shopping centre when I saw a woman with a load of groceries in one hand and a baby in the other. Trailing a few steps behind was a screaming toddler.
“Mummy, up! Up!” he was shrieking, tugging at her skirt with his free hand. He clearly wanted to be carried like his baby sister.
Even from afar, I could see the look of desperation in the woman’s eyes—she obviously wanted to pick her child up but couldn’t. His wails grew louder and louder. People were turning to stare.
I started to make my way over but another woman beat me there. “Can I help carry something for you?” she asked sweetly.
And just like that, a crisis was averted. The mum smiled and allowed the woman to take her groceries. With some shuffling, she was soon carrying her baby on one hip and her toddler on the other.
What if our society stopped thinking about shaming mums and started thinking about how we could help them instead?