Being a lifelong social butterfly, the pling! of a new text message is always a welcome sound for me. Following one such pling!, I activated my phone screen and read the name of a boy I’d known sparingly in high school. I curiously opened the message—and cast my phone down as though it had scalded me.
I hadn’t realized that word about my identity as a birth mother would still leak after the birth; I thought hiding a bump would be the hardest part. The choice to handle my pregnancy and placement discreetly was, in my case, for the best. But the looming fear of what others would think always existed beside the noble reasons to conceal myself.
The fact that any woman would hide a pregnancy out of shame testifies to a broken society nursing ignorance and misogyny. The cowardly message I received spoke with the same voice as the abusive comments on birth mother blogs: minimizing our courage and magnifying our perceived mistakes. Social change continues to ripple with the help of education, but unfair assumptions continue to harm birth mothers.
Accepting shame diminishes your self-esteem and degrades your self-image. Facing it isn’t always as simple as banishing words from memory or ignoring cruelty. There are ways to work through persecution and face offensiveness with grace:
1. Put it in Perspective
Critical remarks from any source are unpleasant, but distaste from strangers implies much less of a relational impact than the same coming from a close friend or family member. Ask yourself: Does their opinion really matter? If the answer is no, take comfort in knowing that the judgment is only as consequential as it is perceived.
Hostility from a loved one, however, isn’t easy to dismiss. Deep emotions hinge on personal relationships. Sometimes, those who love us express their own disappointment through hostility. Being criticized when you need support can feel like a betrayal, but be willing to acknowledge how your choices have affected them, and approach a conversation with understanding. Often, damaged relationships can be repaired with time and communication.
2. Reject Flawed Social Notions
Part of the shame unique to birth mothers stems from the age-old sexual double standard. By its nature, pregnancy makes obvious an act that otherwise could have been private. Thus, birth mothers often have to bear judgment more frequently, given the physical indication.
Reject the idea that you should be punished or shamed because of the choice you made. This notion is flawed both in that it specifically targets females and that it suggests others should have the right to judge and make assumptions about a personal choice. Realize that you aren’t the only person to have ever conceived a child, whether under socially sanctioned circumstances or not.
3. Distinguish Between Guilt and Shame
Guilt comes from feeling that you’ve done something wrong. Because each of us is human, we make mistakes. Feeling guilt after violating your own ethics is actually productive. Guilt warns us when we’ve crossed a line and guides us toward doing better. But it is meant to come and go as a temporary reminder.
Shame is different. It comes from feeling that you are wrong. Internalized shame is a form of self-loathing. While guilt limits negative feelings about oneself to actions, shame suggests that a person’s entire being is somehow evil, regardless of their efforts. For many birth mothers, the feelings of shame are triggered by others who do not agree with their choices; however, shame can linger and be fed by internal insecurity.
Perhaps the greatest struggle in combating shame is recognizing that you play a role in harming yourself as long as you accept that negativity toward yourself is deserved or true.
4. Speak Kindly to Yourself
Women have an unfortunate gift for looking in the mirror and picking out the least appealing aspects before appreciating the attractive elements. When we reflect on our internal self-image, it may be easier to find an incriminating history than a résumé of good deeds and accomplishments. Often, we are told that thinking highly of oneself leads to over-confidence or cockiness. I don’t mean to address how you conduct yourself relative to others; I’m talking about how you think of yourself.
Name-calling is an especially damaging form of shaming because a name creates a false identity. We have unflattering names for various peoples, and there’s usually a name that cuts us more deeply than any other. When you speak to yourself mentally, take care to distinguish who you are. Never accept an identity built by abusive language as your own.
5. Reserve Judgment of Others
When I used to see young women walking around scantily-clad, I would sneer a little. I bore them no ill will, but some part of me would instantly make unfair assumptions about them. I would silently call them rude names. When I became pregnant at a young age and noticed similar sneers on the faces of others, I couldn’t help but wonder if it served me right for all the people I had judged. I shamed myself for shaming others.
Speaking ill of others suggests that it is acceptable for one person to judge another; if it’s okay for you to discriminate against someone, it’s okay for them to do so to you. Build a habit of thinking of others empathetically, and you will be able to think of yourself with more understanding as well.
You cannot control the words or actions of others, but your own thoughts are within your jurisdiction. You are never in this life without yourself; therefore, acknowledge your efforts, successes, and hopes with love. You deserve unity and understanding from yourself even if others will not unite and understand with you. Build your self-image, and you will have built a shield against the harsh judgments of others.