By Carla Naumburg
“Have you tried cooking with her?”
This is the question I usually get whenever I describe my eight-year-old daughter’s selective eating.
For years I’ve responded to such unsolicited advice by describing all of the different tricks and tactics I’ve tried, including, yes, cooking with her. Halfway through yet another conversation last week about her food habits, I suddenly realized something.
I was being momsplained.
We are all now familiar with the term mansplaining, in which a man tells another person (usually a woman) how to improve a situation or solve a problem, regardless of whether he has any idea what he’s talking about, or even a decent grasp of the entire situation. Well-intentioned or not, it’s rarely helpful.
We moms do it to each other all the time, too.
Here’s how it usually goes down. You bemoan your latest parenting challenge—perhaps your child isn’t sleeping or refuses to practice piano, or maybe you’re at the end of your rope with the constant meltdowns or mouthing off. Inevitably, another mom jumps in with a story about How She Solved the Problem. She then dives into the details of the star chart, parenting guru, or Pinterest-worthy solution that had her kid on time for school, every single morning.
Momsplaining happens on the playgrounds and soccer fields, in Mommy and Me classes, and anywhere moms congregate and chat between sips of coffee. I’ve been momsplained so frequently in response to my online parenting rants—when I’m really looking for empathy—that I now either come to expect it or I explicitly note that I’m not asking for advice. I almost always receive a litany of suggestions anyway, most of which I’ve already tried or aren’t relevant.
As frustrating as it is to be the recipient of a momsplain, the truth is that I’m just as guilty of dishing it out as the next person, if not more so. I am a clinical social worker, after all, who works with parents, and I’ve written two parenting books. My desire to help is so strong that I have turned it into a career. That’s okay in my professional life, as folks come to me specifically asking for advice.
But my personal life is a different story, and I’ve had to dig deep to understand my desire to share the same unsolicited advice I have very little interest in hearing. When a friend is struggling with a situation I’ve already successfully managed, yes, of course I want to connect with her. And I also want to yell something like, “I can help! You don’t have to suffer through this the way I did!” Though I can probably count on one hand the number of times a piece of unsolicited advice has solved a parenting problem for me, that still hasn’t stopped me from telling everyone I know how I got my kids to take their antibiotics or play quietly in the afternoons even after they dropped their naps.
This common tendency among mothers is understandable; we’re parenting in a culture of constant counsel, often in the form of articles and listicles, expert opinions, and summaries of the latest research. Even so, we should all try to curb our urge to momsplain, for a few different reasons, some of which are not so different from the problems with mansplaining. Not only is it unpleasant to be on the receiving end of any kind of ‘splain, but it can leave a mom in need feeling even more isolated and incompetent, right at the very moment she is seeking support and connection.
Momsplaining also perpetuates two of the most insidious and damaging myths of our parenting generation: first, that every child-rearing challenge can be solved if we moms (and yes, this does seem to be a mom-centric dynamic) just work hard enough. There’s nothing wrong with hard work, of course, but the subtle implication here is that if our child is dealing with a persistent problem or developmental issue, it’s not because growing up is an inherently bumpy road, it’s because we moms haven’t done enough to smooth the way.
This brings us to the next myth of momsplaining: that someone out there is getting this parenting thing right, that someone out there has been able to integrate all of the research and advice and suggestions coming at her from every direction, and has thus unlocked the secret to managing the tantrums and power struggles and debilitating exhaustion in a consistently calm, graceful, and effective way.
Neither of these ideas is true. Not even close.
I’m not saying that we momsplainers are lying. But that particular hack or moment of parenting brilliance, the one that happened to work wonders, isn’t the whole story. I have no doubt that the smiling mom loitering after school was able to figure out how to get her child to sit still at the dinner table. But that doesn’t mean she’s not struggling with other issues, or even that whatever solution she found will keep working for her. Most importantly, it doesn’t mean it’s going to work for me or you.
The reality is that parenting is hard and messy for all of us, and unsolicited advice rarely makes it easier. Instead, for me, it reinforces the mistaken belief that I am the only one still bumbling around.
So the next time I’m moaning about my daughter’s wheat and cheese diet, let me vent for a minute. If you have a potentially helpful idea, ask me if I’m looking for advice before you share it. Otherwise, please don’t suggest a new food or cookbook or blog I should check out. Tell me about the time your kid only ate toaster waffles for three weeks, because what I really need to hear right then is that I’m not alone in this craziness.
Carla Naumburg, PhD, is a clinical social worker, the author of two books on parenting and mindfulness, and a (mostly) recovering momsplainer. You can find her online at www.carlanaumburg.com.