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Perspective | Magazine

That time a mansplaining stranger told me I was a terrible mom

I said I didn’t like being a stay-at-home-mother. He said “I should report you to DSS.”

SHUTTERSTOCK

Not long ago, I struck up a conversation with a woman seated next to me at the nail salon, as one sometimes does. When the topic of raising kids came up, I didn’t think twice about explaining that I hadn’t enjoyed being a full-time stay-at-home mom.

“I really didn’t like taking care of my kids when they were little,” I said, with gusto. “Where is that elusive payoff that motherhood is rewarding, because I still haven’t seen it!” I was animated, I was good-natured, I was laughing, I was exaggerating (slightly), but mostly, I was speaking the truth.

The woman next to me, whose kids were grown, nodded in agreement, while the twentysomething nail technician looked confused. And a then middle-aged guy getting a pedicure across from me spoke up. “I should report you to DSS,” he said.

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What?

Did this absolute stranger really think I was abusive? I don’t think so. Yet he obviously had decided I was a terrible mother — and that it was OK to tell me so.

“I assure you,” I said, as if his comment were worthy of reply, “my kids are very well cared for.” (I fought off the urge to tell him that DSS is now called DCF, for the Department of Children and Families.)

He wouldn’t let it go. “You said you hated them,” he said.

“No,” I corrected him. “I said I didn’t like taking care of them. There’s a difference.”

Because I didn’t revel in the drudgery of child rearing, this man assumed I actually hated my kids. But let me be clear: He was not expressing concern about something I did; he was threatening to call the authorities for the way I felt. He was castigating and criminalizing me for expressing opinions he had judged were unbecoming a mother.

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Society is steeped in the myth of motherhood as a higher calling. “Our society has two contradictory legacies,” says Nina Silber, professor of history and American studies at Boston University. “We live with this idea that women can pursue any kind of career, but also the backlash that says if you have the opportunity to stay home, you should take it because it’s wonderful.”

We all have to do things we don’t like. For parents, that includes aspects of child rearing. Yet mothers are expected to embrace it all. If a mom doesn’t enjoy [insert tedious task here], does that mean there’s something wrong with her? No. In fact, disliking the role of unappreciated second-class citizen at the beck and call of a not-yet-thinking, uncaring heathen is absolutely normal.

But women are allowed to express opinions like these in only a few places, offline or on-, and there are rules about how. On the popular blog Scary Mommy, for instance, moms offer in-your-face stories about parenting, though those are often anonymous. There are countless Facebook memes depicting moms in need of a big glass of wine, but those couch the message in humor (“I wish my tolerance for my children would increase as much as my tolerance for wine,” reads one).

But for the most part, says Brooke Foucault Welles, assistant professor of communication studies at Northeastern University, “the performance of motherhood is curated to show only the very best.” That means amiably reasoning with tantruming offspring at the playground, as though they are rational adults, and filling your Facebook feed with happy vacations and smiling, first-day-of-school photos.

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If people see only a sanitized version of motherhood, is it any wonder that they feel empowered to lash out at strangers when real life doesn’t match their ideal? In mid-September, the Daily Mail mom-shamed Chelsea Clinton for campaigning on her daughter’s first day of preschool, leaving dropoff to her husband and a nanny. I’m not sure if the man at the salon had children, but he clearly felt just as disgusted.

Meanwhile, struggling mothers and fathers too often react with guilt. Amy Brinn, a Boston-area social worker and parenting coach, is struck by the number of parents who feel as if they are the only ones who have not figured out the whole parenting thing and feel terrible about it. “The idea that everybody knows what they’re doing and loves every minute of it is completely false,” she says.

Why is talking about the challenges of motherhood still taboo? Dr. Steven Ablon, a Boston psychiatrist, explains that it’s because people don’t like to think about painful, difficult feelings. “We are not proud of feelings like hatred, envy, and destructiveness, but they are basic parts of us. It’s all part and parcel of being human.” But, Ablon continues, “nothing harmful comes from the feelings — it’s the actions that matter.”

And with that I was vindicated. Just as I had figured on my walk home, fresh from the wrath of the mansplaining, pedicure-getting busybody, it’s not what you say (or in this case think). It’s what you do.

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Marni Elyse Katz blogs about design at StyleCarrot.com. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.