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July 27, 2016

When you have a baby you’re suddenly surrounded by parenting ‘experts’. It seems everyone has an opinion. Psychologist Dr Ruth Jillings has some suggestions for coping with all the comments while finding your feet as a parent.

Becoming a mum was not an easy job for me. My eldest child, a beautiful daughter, screamed night and day. After a few months of acute sleep deprivation I feared for her safety and my sanity. It got to the point where I wasn’t sure if the crying I could hear in my head was real or imagined.

What is clear to me is how vulnerable I was as a new mum. My confidence was already low and plenty of people saw me stressed out and skinny and made comments that caused me to doubt myself even further. I know people didn’t mean to be unkind but I felt judged every time I heard “Don’t you ever put that baby down?” or “Doesn’t that baby ever sleep?”

Others gave me their advice. One of my favourites was: “You should rest more” (Really? I hadn’t thought of that), followed closely by “You should take some time out for yourself.”

Some comments are easy to laugh off, but many cut to the core. Being a parent is so central to our identity that any hint of criticism hurts deeply and isn’t easily forgotten. This is intensified in the early and often exhausting days of parenting when confidence is already low.

A friend recalls sitting at a café with her very young baby, feeling so happy and proud just to have made it out of the house. When a passerby remarked, “That baby should be at home in bed”, she suddenly felt awful and, worse, that she was a bad mother. She went from feeling pleased with herself to crushed in just 10 seconds and the experience is one she can still recall vividly, years later. 

Being a parent is so central to our identity that any hint of criticism hurts deeply and isn’t easily forgotten

But take heart, there are strategies to manage these sorts of interactions. Strategy number one is to expect comments. Recognise that it is going to happen. Comments and advice seem to come with the territory, so don’t feel you have been singled out. It happens to everyone and more often than any of us would like. Remind yourself every time that most comments aren’t personal. Also, be honest, who among us hasn’t done it? I was insufferable to my sister-in-law when I helpfully gave her lots of advice BEFORE I was even pregnant.

Strategy number two is to be prepared. When dealing with strangers and random comments my favourite technique is the ‘thanks and ignore’. All you need to offer is something vague like “Mmmm thanks” or “I’ll keep that in mind” and then off you go and ignore the advice and, most importantly, leave the comment behind. Don’t dwell on it or overthink the experience, just let it go. People can say dumb things but you don’t have to let their dumb comments impact your day.

It is also important to be kind. Don’t forget that most people who give you advice will be well-meaning. Sometimes people just want to connect with you and your little family and they think their advice is genuinely helpful. It can be useful to try and look beyond the advice, because often people just want to be heard and by ‘helping’ you they can relive their own parenting days.

With family and close friends you can try the ‘thanks and ignore’ technique and see what happens, but it is likely you will need more options. The key here is to think before you act.  You don’t want to snap out a hurtful response to their suggestions and potentially create a rift. You will need support from your family and friends and because they know you well they may have useful input.

There is a big difference between the stranger at the playground who casually observes that in their day no child would have got away with a tantrum like that, and a close friend who mentions that your baby might not need a beanie and socks in mid-summer. It can be worth taking a moment to check yourself – are you too sensitive? Maybe the advice is well-meaning and you are just feeling judged because you have barely slept and are vulnerable.

Sally, a young mum, had this experience. With her firstborn, all her mother’s comments made her feel totally inadequate. It seemed to her that her mother criticised everything she did: from how she bathed the baby, to how often she breastfed. When her second child was born her mum was much the same and offered advice on anything and everything. The difference was that this time Sally felt more confident and was able to take bits and pieces of the advice and leave the rest. Second time around Sally was able to hear the love beneath the suggestions. The first time around she could only hear the judgement.

On the other hand, sometimes you have to stand up for yourself. I have a friend who is a vegetarian and has raised her three (healthy) children on a vegetarian diet. Her normally loving mother couldn’t get her head around the lack of meat for the children and continually made comments along the lines of “If she were mine, I’d give her a big steak” and “Kids can’t grow just on veges”. My friend felt undermined at every turn. Her first strategy was to discuss it with her mother and put her point of view across. My friend decided that she wanted help and support from her mum but only if she respected her way of doing things. Often, clearly (and kindly) stating your needs does the trick, but in this case, unfortunately, nothing changed. My friend resorted to withholding time with the kids. She felt bad about it because her mum was a loving grandma but she had a point to prove. Luckily she made her point quickly and after two weeks without seeing her grandkids her mum decided to keep her thoughts about their vegetarian lifestyle to herself.

If you feel very strongly about something it is important to state your case, but you don’t have to justify your every decision. If you give the impression your parenting strategies are up for discussion, they will be. If you are confident in your choices and not going to change your mind then don’t even get into a debate.

If family or friends don’t want to drop the subject then you have a couple of strategies. Distraction works with them just as well as it does with toddlers. Cut through the conversation with a story about something funny that happened with your child and you should be off the hook.

Another option is to respond to criticism or suggestions with interest. Ask more about what your in-laws did with their babies and get stories about the crazy things your partner did as a little one. Often, the people who give the most advice are really just looking for a way to talk about their own parenting and relive that time in their lives. Encouraging them to talk has double benefits: the focus is off you and secondly, maybe there is some wisdom to be gathered there after all.

It is also important to give yourself permission to trust your instincts. This advice might seem obvious but it is harder to put into action than it sounds. Have faith that you know way more than you realise and in fact, you are the expert on your child. Every time you follow your intuition when making decisions about what is best for your child your confidence will grow and the next time will be easier.

Finally, break the cycle. Make it your mission to give others the support you wish you had. If you see a mum having a hard time in the supermarket, give her a smile and a couple of kind words. If you know one of your friends is struggling with some aspect of parenting don’t give advice – give support. Think about something she is doing well and let her know.

 One of the best things you can do as a parent is to work on your resilience. Develop a thick skin. As the saying goes,

I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.

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