The XX Factor

The Mom-to-Mom Open Letter Aims to Empower Mothers and Absolve Them of Guilt. I’m Skeptical.

Two people clearly in need of validation.

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The open letter is a popular literary form in the digital age and one that’s particularly beloved by parenting bloggers. While the subject matter of these entreaties vary, one of the most common formulas features a message from one mother to other mothers encouraging them to let go of their guilt. The latest blockbuster is from Australian blogger Constance Hall: Posting on Facebook alongside a photo of a shaggy-haired, tattooed mom at the beach with two infants, she offered a series of salutations for all those mothers who put themselves first. 

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To the woman at the park, looking at her phone, ignoring her children,

I salute you.

For not giving into the public perception that you should be switched on, 24 hours a day.

For giving no fucks about what “constable mother’s group” thinks.

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To the woman with piles of dishes and washing who walks straight out the door for a coffee at her friends,

I salute you.

The post, which as of now has more than 290,000 likes and nearly 140,000 shares, goes on to salute moms who take antidepressants for postpartum depression, moms who ask for help, and moms who don’t lose all the baby weight. “A brand new 24 hour job that doesn’t pay and won’t end for around 20 years is NOT a good time to give up cake,” Hall writes.

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Hall’s setup is similar to those found in other mom-to-moms open letters. They offer a list of things they presume moms either feel pressure to do or feel like a failure for not doing and then tell them that it’s OK. Often, they conclude with the declaration that the reader is a good mother anyway, despite the alleged transgressions. A few examples:

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• “I’ve seen you around. I’ve seen you screaming at your kids in public, I’ve seen you ignoring them at the playground, I’ve seen you unshowered and wearing last night’s pajama pants at preschool drop-off. … No matter how far from perfect you are, you are better than you think.”

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• “I know it feels like the weight of the world is on your shoulders and that it really doesn’t matter if the dishes are done or that no one really cares that you stayed up till 2 am folding laundry or that you are just overlooked. … But, you can do this. I know you can.”

• “I want you to know that it’s OK if you made a clear decision not to breastfeed and you enjoyed the conveniences and freedom of bottle feeding.”

• “You have to stop this, mama. We can’t do it all. It’s impossible. We are superheroes in our own right, but even superheroes need help. And guess what? That’s OK.”

I understand the appeal of these letters, for both the writer and the reader. Mothers, new ones in particular, tend to be an insecure and vulnerable bunch. The transition to parenthood comes hard and fast, and it’s difficult reconciling old identities and expectations with new ones. Making matters worse, this internal chaos is matched by an equally pernicious external one—the result of both a new baby to take care of and living in a society that doesn’t provide adequate support for families. As such, women are left with very little time and headspace to figure out which part of “it all” they want to have. The success of these open letters suggests many moms don’t manage to work this all out and are thus eager to get validation for these feelings of failure from wherever they can find it. Those who have made it through this transition are eager to provide it.

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But as well-intended as these letters are, they are partly responsible for perpetuating the guilt they aim to relieve. For one, the mom-to-moms open-letter writers tend to have a habit of enumerating the things moms shouldn’t feel guilty about. Sure, I understand that in order to break a taboo, one must first identify it. But if I read letter after letter telling me it’s OK to have a messy house or be on my phone, it starts to reinforce the idea that it’s not. Perhaps more insidiously, this listing and dismissing of parenting taboos does little to challenge the culture of granular-level scrutiny that mothers live amid. Hall and others are still viewing motherhood through a looking glass and employ a near-Levitical precision when telling us what is OK and what is not.

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The other issue with these open letters is in implying that moms need affirmation from other people. You’re a good mom! I salute you! All this virtual high-fiving between strangers suggests that moms are lacking in an ability to trust themselves. I’m not sure these letters help much with that.

If I were to write an open letter to moms it would go something like this: Hi moms! It’s not my place to tell you whether you are a good mom. I have no idea if it’s a good idea to be on your phone right now or whether your house is messy in a way that is hazardous to your children’s health. I also have no idea whether it would be best for you to exercise or eat the cake. That’s up to you, and I believe that you are fully capable of figuring out what is right and wrong all by yourself.

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