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“You’re Doing It Wrong”: the century-old roots of mom-shaming

The stereotype of the “ideal mother” hasn’t changed since the 19th century, according to a new book. And it’s hurting everyone.

Engraving by Ernesto Mancastroppa from a painting by Raffaele Faccioli, from L’Illustrazione Italiana No 40, August 18, 1887
Engraving by Ernesto Mancastroppa from a painting by Raffaele Faccioli, from L’Illustrazione Italiana No. 40, August 18, 1887.
De Agostini via Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

In the first few months of my son’s life, I spent more hours than I care to count anxiously scrolling through what I came to call the Breastfeeding Internet.

This Internet — composed of websites of varying degrees of legitimacy, message boards, and Instagram ads for lactation cookies — sometimes offered me solace, reminding me that I was not alone in the various challenges I faced while nursing my baby. More often, though, it added to my stress, as I read post after post instructing me that if I really wanted the best for my child, the absolute least I could do was to subsist on a diet of nothing but baked chicken and sweet potatoes while using a breast pump every two hours.

I’m exaggerating, but only a little. As Bethany L. Johnson and Margaret M. Quinlan write in their new book, You’re Doing It Wrong! Mothering, Media, and Medical Expertise, our behavior around conception, childbirth, and parenting is “judged with scrutiny exercised in few other arenas today.” But that scrutiny isn’t new.

Johnson and Quinlan, a medical historian and a communication studies professor at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, point out that a lot of the messages about women’s reproduction haven’t changed much since the 19th century.

Both mothers themselves, Johnson and Quinlan studied newspapers, books, magazines, and doctors’ records beginning in the 19th century, and conducted interviews with parents and would-be parents today. They learned that for more than a century, pregnancy and parenting advice has sent the message that “the ideal mother is a cis, white, middle- or upper-middle-class, educated, and able-bodied female.” All other parents (and even plenty who do fit into these categories) are “doing it wrong.”

Of course, a few things have changed since the 19th century. While messages about “the ideal mother” once came from family members and maybe a pamphlet or two, you can now get access to information, misinformation, and judgment on social media at all hours of the day and night, right in the palm of your hand.

I talked to Johnson and Quinlan by phone about what’s old and what’s new in parenting advice, how blaming parents (most often moms) stands in the way of social change, and how parents can navigate the onslaught of information at their fingertips. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

Rutgers University Press

Anna North

I want to ask specifically about social media. I struggled a lot with this, especially early on when I was breastfeeding.

Can you talk a little bit about the pros and cons of social media advice at different stages of people’s lives?

Margaret Quinlan

I’m very open that I had to take social media off my phone, because I go to dark places. [I start to think] everybody is happier than I am, everybody’s healthier than I am, everybody has a better relationship with their child, and their marriage is better, and they’re able to offer their kids all these wonderful opportunities. Bethany and I were both like, “Is this self-torture, that we’re writing this book during this really difficult time in our lives?” We knew we had to finish off certain chapters before one of us got pregnant, because it would have been unhealthy to be going through it as we were writing it.

There’s been really beautiful moments of social media — it has connected me with people whose children fell off the growth curve, or were going through some similar things, and people said some nice things that I needed to hear in those moments.

This is an example: My son, who’s now 14 months, at his 12-month checkup, he was tested for high levels of lead, and I felt very, very alone. It was like, I was embarrassed —

Bethany Johnson

Even though there’s no way you could have prevented that.

Margaret Quinlan

You know, but you still think, “Oh, my gosh. Is the house that I’m living in toxic? Has he been eating paint chips?” It was through social media that I connected with people who had been through it. It turned out that with my son, it was a false positive. [But] I still stay connected with people [whose children tested positive for lead]. There’s so much that’s out of our control, but we’re expected to control the environment, and pollution, and all of those things, because it’s much easier to blame it on the woman than to think about the policies that we have around some of these issues.

Bethany Johnson

It’s so much easier to say that those parents are bad parents than it is to say, “We need to change all the pipes in the city.” But changing all the pipes in the city is what should be happening.

Anna North

In the book, you focus largely on messages directed at women, as well as trans and nonbinary people who conceive and carry children. But obviously cisgender men have reproductive lives too. What’s different about the messages that they get when it comes to having kids?

Bethany Johnson

Men are reproducing. Men do take care of young children, toddlers, and babies. The difference is, in our experience, cis men who do the very least, very basic things, like changing a diaper, are lauded as if they have just cured cancer. No one congratulates me for changing a diaper.

Anna North

I know we experience that in my family. If my husband takes the baby out to a restaurant for lunch, he’s constantly praised, which is nice, but ...

Bethany Johnson

And thank you, to these men. We both have cis male husbands. We love our partners, and they’re really involved, and they get credit for everything they do, and we don’t get credit for any of that, because we’re expected to do it.

That’s the difference. Not that we don’t want to say, “Hey, thanks for being a great partner.” It’s that we would love for our social structure to give mothers any credit, other than some weird breakfast on Mother’s Day.

The reason that we keep coming back to mothers and women is because the medical model and the social model still define child care as mothering by women, and that is problematic. We can’t include everyone else that is missing from the conversation until we start to deconstruct that a little bit, and say, “Hey, that’s been the model. It doesn’t work anymore.”

Bethany Johnson
Bethany Johnson.
Courtesy of Bethany Johnson

Anna North

Can you talk a little more about who’s excluded by the way American society talks about childrearing today? Are you talking about trans and nonbinary parents as well as cis male dads?

Margaret Quinlan

One of our research participants, Liam, he had a baby at 31 weeks, and he ended up having a C-section. [The baby] was in the NICU for two months. That will be $350,000 out of pocket. He bought a breast pump. He [had had] chest surgery, and bought the gear to be able to pump in the hospital but did not feel comfortable pumping in the hospital, and he worked with four lactation consultants that all didn’t know how to help him. He’s devastated.

Bethany Johnson

Here you have someone that wants to chest-feed, is interested in doing this, has had a baby after transition, is going through a lot of complications, is reaching out for help, and their response is, “Oh, we don’t have anything for you.”

Just how we’ve structured this as women and mothers and breasts being the breastfeeding conversation, Liam doesn’t exist.

Anna North

In your book, you talk about messages around motherhood that have been really constant over time. One thing that stuck out to me was the idea of failed femininity — that if anything in your reproductive life doesn’t go as planned, it’s probably because you didn’t behave like the right kind of woman. Can you talk a little bit about this message, and about others that have been consistent since the 19th century?

Bethany Johnson

The failed femininity thing is a constant message. You are always failing your femininity in a different way, so it’s a moving target. Some things have changed in that, in the Victorian age, the idea that you would work outside the home and you would not be a stay-at-home mom, is failed femininity. Now the conversation is much more barbed, because there are many women and people that identify as women that [work outside the home]. There can be defensiveness around this, and then the conversation looks like it’s happening between stay-at-home moms and moms who work.

By making sure that the conversation is about, what is the proper type of femininity, then we can fight with each other instead of tearing down the systems that make these feelings possible in the first place.

One of the other things [some women are told] is, “Just relax. If you can’t have a baby, just, you know, do some meditation.” Now, Maggie and I have both done yoga, meditation, acupuncture, dietary changes. We are not anti-any of those things.

[But] if you’re being told to just relax by your doctor, by your family, by your partner, by your acupuncturist, by anyone that wants to support you and may mean really well, it’s actually really stressful to constantly be told to just relax.

Margaret Quinlan

What we really try to do throughout the book is to complicate these messages in terms of race, class, various abilities. We’ve done a lot of research on [myths around African American women]. They’re supposed to be hyper-fertile, and when they can’t get pregnant, there’s a lot of violence and stigma around talking about this sort of failure.

Bethany Johnson

You can trace that hyper-fertility back to Thomas Jefferson’s [Notes on the State of Virginia]. He’s pretty clear in there what he thinks about the fertility of people of color. These are old, old tropes, and we keep recycling them. When Reagan came out with the “welfare queen” language, there’s this idea that you can just go around and have all these children.

In fact, women of color are more likely to be infertile. Not only is it a stereotype that damages them, it’s a stereotype that is the opposite of lived reality. How do you even enter a conversation about fertility if you are the one mislabeled as hyper-fertile? You don’t exist in the conversation.

Anna North

What are the different sources where women are getting advice about their reproductive lives right now?

Bethany Johnson

We have any traditional or any nontraditional medical practitioner, so that could be anyone from a surgeon to a specialist to a family doctor to a homeopath, a nutritionist, a dentist. Anybody involved in nutrition, wellness, working out, lifestyle, people that kind of straddle it all, and throw in some fashion and skin care, like the Goop folks. Anybody that is an Instagram influencer, no matter what education or actual expertise they have, and then on social media, anyone that’s just confident, so that could just be any human.

Margaret Quinlan

We were terrified that this would somehow be ticked off as an advice book, and that is not what we’re doing. I think we can help people to think through some of the advice that they’re receiving and potentially are giving, but it’s definitely made me more aware of the things that I say to people who are going through infertility, or who are pregnant, or through any of these stages, and that if somebody’s asking for advice on Facebook, I’m not the person to be chiming in on that conversation.

Bethany Johnson

Like when people post pictures of their kids’ rashes, I get really nervous. People come into the comments, and they’re like, “That’s topical dermatitis.” How do you know?

I think that the feeling behind it is like, “Hey, I want to put this person at ease. I want them to feel heard.”

Well, social media is there all the time, and there are a lot of confident people there, but that doesn’t mean they have the expertise that you need for that moment.

Margaret Quinlan
Margaret Quinlan.
Courtesy of Margaret Quinlan

Anna North

From doing all this research while you were in the thick of having babies and young children, what did you learn in terms of how parents can navigate all the information, advice, and judgment that they get?

Bethany Johnson

For parents or caretakers of small children that are approaching these conversations on social media platforms, there’s two things we would love for them to remember. One way to feel less stress is to think about whose story is not being told. It’s very easy to feel attacked when people go into their very solid camps, but remember the camps are primarily doing the work of upholding white, cis, straight femininity as ideal motherhood.

Who is not being talked about here? What about trans parents? What about nonbinary parents? What about parents with low socioeconomic status? What about parents who haven’t had an education? What about people of color? What about undocumented people? Can they make this choice? Because if you’re out here saying, “You are not a good mother if you don’t do X,” then you have just said a lot of people who don’t have access to this resource are not good parents, and if that is the case, how will we ever have a functioning society?

The second thing is, remember that — and this is the historian talking — there is no room for context in these posts.

You cannot, in the comments section, give people the amount of context that will allow them to make a great decision, and it is okay for people to remember, “I don’t know this person. I don’t know their expertise. I don’t know their education. I don’t know the amount of research they’ve done on this, and I do not have to take it on.”

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