Gender, Parenting, and Public Shame

Yesterday I had a piece in the Motherlode blog of the New York Times. I talk about the ways that parents of kids with disabilities are shamed when their children act in atypical ways. And I argue that this shame matters – that it drives parents to isolate and works against my goal of an inclusive society.

When Nico was born, I was worried about bullying and teasing from other children. I was worried about the “r-word” and other cruelties. I find, though, the real problems are the constant, subtle acts of judgment from adults. They make me feel as if we don’t belong in public spaces. Nico doesn’t feel bullied. I do.
We’re not alone. All parents of children with disabilities experience these kinds of subtle aggressions. They cause us shame and embarrassment, and lead to self-isolation.

Here are some follow-up thoughts.

One of my primary assumptions is that there are bad parents out there, but that no bad parent ever improved because of public shame. Public shaming, therefore, has no effect except to make you feel superior. So don’t do it.

Asking for inclusion does not mean abandoning all norms. If you are in a symphony or say dining at French Laundry, it’s reasonable to expect parents not to bring children who simply cannot function within the norms of that space. More relevant, if a child comes up and hits you or knocks over your shopping cart or otherwise causes you harm, it’s reasonable to expect a parent to engage in some way. And it’s certainly reasonable and appropriate for YOU to engage in some way. Believe me, though, in the case of parenting a child with disability, the parent is mortified and likely feeling helpless. Be compassionate. (Be compassionate anyway, in my opinion, but that’s a separate conversation).

But those things are not what I’m talking about. I’m really talking about the kinds of episodes I relate in the piece – where my child is acting in an atypical way, is not in fact making your life any worse, but pings a need to scorn the parent who you deem is a failure, too lax, spoiling their children, etc. It happens a lot.

There are gender distinctions in the types of criticism fathers and mothers face, but I’m not sure anyone benefits from these distinctions, which is unusual. I think it’s because of the nature of caregiving.

Generally, I assume that patriarchy will make life easier on men, because generally it does. In this specific instance of parenting a child with special needs, though, I’m not sure that applies. Patriarchy forces men to conform to certain kinds of norms. Caregiving is not one of those norms.

There are, though, differences. Here’s my hunch on how it works. Fathers get criticized through a lens of presumed incompetence, especially when things seem to be going haywire. Our incompetence both shields us from a certain kind of judgment and means we’re more likely to be interfered with by others, especially women, when they think we’re doing it wrong. Bad child behavior is chalked up to our inability to function as parents. This is infuriating, of course, especially if like me you’ve been the primary parent for years (as an academic I have much more flexibility in my schedule than my corporate-scientist wife), as I think I’m a pretty good caregiver. But it also shields me from “bad parent” value judgments.

Mothers, on the other hand, are presumed to be natural caregivers (see again patriarchy, worse on women). This means that when their children act in an atypical fashion, they are judged as having personally failed their gender’s calling. Comments about dads are – Oh, he’s so overwhelmed and just doesn’t know what to do! Comments about moms are – Look at that lazy mother gabbing on her phone and ignoring her spoiled brats (I literally just saw this comment on a facebook thread).

To me, that means it’s more likely that dads will get certain types of interventions (like the lady in the produce section telling me to wipe my son’s nose, as if I didn’t know) and that moms will get judged as failures to Motherhood!

I’m not really interested in which is harder/easier, but I do think noting the distinctions is important.

What do you think?

One Reply to “Gender, Parenting, and Public Shame”

  1. MBJ says:

    I very much enjoyed your piece in the NY Times. Being a parent is so hard; why are we so quick to judge each other? Thanks for the reminder to give each other a break and offer more understanding.

Leave a Reply