A few years ago, when I was newly postpartum with my third child, we took a family trip to the zoo on one of the first really nice summer days. The place was more crowded than usual, with lots of kids (and parents) relieved to finally be outside after a cold and rainy spring. When we got home, I noticed something surprising – I hadn’t had any negative thoughts about my body all day.
I started reflecting on my usual routine, trying to find out what was so different about that particular day at the zoo. I was spending more time than usual on social media, stuck under a nursing or napping baby for most of my days, and I’d been feeling really down on myself. I’d clearly fallen into the social media comparison trap. That friend looks like she’s having way more fun than me. How does this other one keep her house so much cleaner than mine? And this other one looks waaaay happier with her newborn than I do. Seriously, my college roommate’s baby is sleeping through the night? I’m clearly doing something wrong. Let’s not forget about my old neighbor who appears to be back in her pre-maternity clothes already. Get it together, Carolyn.
It wasn’t hard to see how much shame I was feeling as a result of my social media scrolling. I wasn’t keeping up with my house like I should. I wasn’t as happy as I should be. My baby wasn’t developing like she should. My body didn’t look like it should. So many shoulds. And so little positive regard for myself.
But that day at the zoo, I was seeing other families in REAL LIFE. There were no filters making parents look like they’d gotten a full night’s sleep. There were no cropped photos showing the perfectly made up face but neglecting to show the layers of spit up on snot all over her shirt. There was no carefully timed video of the kids staring peacefully at the giraffes and editing out the screeching baby in the background. I got to see other parents struggling to get everyone to eat lunch. I got to see other moms tugging their shirts down to cover their barely zipped pants. I got to see other toddlers throwing everything out of the stroller while their parents’ backs were turned. I got to see the struggle that I’d previously felt so alone in.
This selective reality isn’t just a social media phenomenon. Think about getting ready to take your baby to their first music class/story time/playgroup/etc. Did you just throw some shoes on, grab the diaper bag, and go? Or did you make sure to pick out their cutest outfit, dry shampoo the hell out of your hair, put on some makeup, find clean clothes, and make a significant effort to look “put together”?
Why do we do this? In safe spaces – groups of other moms, the pediatrician’s office – why do we put such an effort into making ourselves look different than we do on any other day? Why do we feel the need to hide our true selves? The answer is simple: shame.
We fear that we aren’t enough, so we go to great lengths to present the very “best” parts of our selves. Now there’s nothing wrong with this in isolation. But the problem comes when it becomes part of the shame-pretend-shame cycle. Within ourselves, this cycle looks something like this: I feel ashamed of the state of my home, so I only post pictures on social media of the one clean corner of my living room or I spend hours cleaning before allowing anyone to come over, but now I feel trapped because I can only share this carefully curated version of my home, which leads to me feeling even more shame about the state of my home. It’s easy to see how this cycle can be really damaging and contribute to ongoing anxiety, depression, and isolation.
Things get even scarier when we look at how the shame-pretend-shame cycle shows up in larger society. A group of new moms, all strangers to each other, is getting together for the first day of mommy and me music class. Several, if not all, of the moms feel some shame about their postpartum appearance so they make sure to present their best physical selves that day. Clean, styled hair. Makeup. Nicer clothes than they’d usually wear. During music class, the moms are all checking each other out. They don’t know what lengths the other moms went to to look like they do right now; they assume this is just how the other moms look on any given day. What she does know is that isn’t how put together she normally looks, which leads to her feeling even more shame about herself.
Not only does this cycle increase shame in moms, but it does the absolute worst thing we can do to moms: it causes isolation. If I’m feeling like my body doesn’t look like it should and my home isn’t as neat as it should be and my baby isn’t developing like she should be, how on earth am I supposed to feel like I can form a friendship with another mom? Friendships require vulnerability – the ability to share the parts of ourselves and our lives that we feel like we could use some support around. But if I think every other mom has it way more together than me, then no way am I going to be vulnerable with them. And that vulnerability is exactly what new moms need to feel safe sharing. We need to be able to reach out to another mom and say this sucks, I’m in pain, I’m struggling, this is hard. Shame blocks vulnerability. Shame leaves me feeling like I’m the only one going through it. Shame isolates.
So what do we do about this? The only way to interrupt the shame-pretend-shame cycle is to flat out stop pretending. Inject some vulnerability in there. Share the picture on social media that shows the mess that is part of daily life with little kids. Take a selfie that isn’t heavily filtered. Show up to music class in yoga pants and no makeup. Tell your friends about the awful night you had with your newborn. Be honest when someone asks how the kids are getting along. Take the risk. I promise the discomfort will be short-lived because your vulnerability will open the door for others to say “me too!” and join you in sharing their truth. This is the foundation of the community building that is essential to relieving the shame and isolation that is so devastating for many moms. This is the beginning of stepping into your authenticity. This is the beginning of healing.