Mom wars: Mothers often sharply criticize their peers based on stereotypes, unfair judgments

AMES, Iowa — Being a mother is often thought of as the most difficult job in the world, and mothers are usually their own toughest critics. But a new study out of Iowa State University found that women with children often criticize their peers just as strongly as they judge themselves, leading to incivility and some downright bad behavior.

Kelly Odenweller, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of communication studies at ISU, says that negative experiences with other mothers could be detrimental to their overall well-being. In such cases, having a strong support network can be extremely helpful.

“It’s not unusual for moms to have low self-esteem or feel they’re not living up to the standards of what it means to be a mom,” explains Odenweller in a university release. “If other moms treat them poorly, even when they’re trying to do a good job, they may feel they can’t turn to other people in their community for support. It can be very isolating and all that self-doubt can lead to anxiety and depression, which can negatively affect the entire family.”

Odenweller used previous research to identify seven common stereotypes of stay-at-home and working mothers. Her research team, which included collaborators from Virginia University and Chapman University, surveyed over 500 mothers to understand their attitudes, emotions, and occasional harmful behaviors toward women who they believe fit into one of the seven stereotypes.

The stereotypes Odenweller and her team identified were:

  1. Overworked: Wants to do it all, but is overextended and it shows
  2. Home, family-oriented: Prioritizes children, partner’s needs and responsibilities at home
  3. Ideal: Juggling several responsibilities, but gets it done and doesn’t appear stressed
  4. Hardworking, balanced: Not an ideal mom, but ambitious, dedicated
  5. Non-traditional: Modern, liberal progressive – makes choices that are good for herself and family, whether at home or work
  6. Traditional: Embodies the roles expected of a woman, believes her main purpose is to raise children and maintain the household
  7. Lazy: Not nurturing, attentive or hardworking – applies only to stay-at-home moms

The results showed that ideal and lazy mothers came under attack by their peers the most, particularly from both working and stay-at-home moms. The overworked stay-at-home mom was a close third. Odenweller said survey participants admitted they treated lazy or ideal mothers poorly by excluding her, arguing with her, or verbally attacking her.

Not all responses were negative, however. All mothers in the survey expressed pity for overworked matriarchs and were more willing to offer help to them than other stereotyped mothers. Working mothers expressed more admiration for ideal moms. Odenweller said this response was likely because working mothers see ideal moms as champions for their cause.

“Working moms juggle a lot and want more support for all mothers with careers. For them, it may be more of a social statement that women can be great at their careers and being moms,” Odenweller said.

Positive and negative responses depended on how the mothers categorized themselves and the stereotypes they put on othermothers. Odenweller says the way that a mother treated another is largely based on their perception of the other woman. A working mom, for example, could feel envy or contempt for a stay-at-home mom, but she could view herself differently.

Odenweller also acknowledges the role that larger societal norms play in mom stereotypes. Media like television and movies perpetuate sometimes unrealistic standards of what a good mom looks like or does. This piles on the pressure for all mothers.

Women can’t control how others judge them, but they can control the impression they make. Odenweller says that by establishing common ground and shared interests, mothers can connect and shed the pre-judgment and stereotyping. A good behavior for mothers, then, would be to wait until a relationship is formed before boasting about their kids and sharing pictures.

“Mothers should think of other mothers as an ally, not someone to compare themselves to,” she said. “Try to avoid coming across like the best mom. Talk about things you have in common, things you both enjoy as mothers and do not feel like it’s necessary to be better than her.”

The study was published in the Journal of Family Communication.

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