Sanctimommies now and then

The new American parenting buzzword seems to be ‘sanctimommy’, used both generally (for Parents Who Judge other Parents) (see http://www.startribune.com/blogs/cribsheet/?p=151),
but also more specifically, for mothers who focus particularly on pure eating for their children (see
http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F50917F93A550C778EDDAB0994DE404482)
(not free). It seems to me, however, that the concept of the sanctimommy fuses several separate concepts, not all of which are necessarily as new as the name.

For example, one blogger (http://mom-101.blogspot.com/2006/11/sanctimommy.html) talks about having a sanctimommy moment when:

Yesterday in the gift shop of the hotel, a trio of boys were whining for “just one Snickers” before breakfast. “Well, okay, just one,” the mom said finally giving in. “I don’t want you too hyper before breakfast.”

And I couldn’t help myself. I rolled my eyes big–really big–with the hopes that anyone looking in my direction at that moment could see just how awesome I am.

Now to an English person, the whole incident has strong class overtones (I would immediately stereotype the watcher as middle class and the family as working class). In the US things may be different, but I suspect that in Britain as soon as the idea of methods/styles of child raising came in, so did the conviction that the other classes were doing it wrong, whether it was feckless working classes, anal middle classes or emotionally cold upper classes. (There are probably also finer class gradations as well).

What is distinctive about the sanctimommy phenomenon is that it’s disapproval being applied within a class as well as between classes. I suspect it happens within all the classes, but I’ll focus on the middle class, as the only one I know well. The phenomenon of competitive mothers isn’t new (or indeed confined to the West). Anyone who remembers being told as a child by their mother ‘Why are you as clean/helpful/hard-working/well-behaved etc as X’s children?’ will recognise this. And boasting about one’s children’s achievements is a cliche of many cultures, from Jewish to Indian.

One significance change is the rise of internet discussions, which, as far, as I can see, intrinsically encourage harsher comments. (The rise of the internet comment may have done more to contribute generally to world hatred than all the specific hate sites put together). But the other important factor is the rise of intensive parenting (see my previous post). One side of this is that intensive parenting is a harder (if not impossible) job to get right, which intrinsically leads one to insecurity and the urge to belittle others as compensation.

But the other important change about the sanctimommy concept that ties in with intensive parenting is its focus on inputs (what the parent does) rather than outcomes (what the child is like). This has two effects. One is that judgement can start much earlier on in a child’s life/mother’s ‘career’. It’s not really possible to judge (except at the more extreme ends) whose 3 year old is doing ‘well’ and whose is doing ‘poorly’, since there is so much developmental variability. And it’s really only when you get to the exam/certificate stage that you can boast conclusively about your child’s superiority. On the other hand, you can feel positive about pureeing your own carrots from age 3 months.

The other reason why there is a switch to focusing on the inputs is one of the sad (or possibly happy) facts of parenting. What you do as a parent has only a limited effect on how your child behaves, despite all the efforts of us intensive parents. This is infinitely true at the micro level, particularly for young children. Anyone’s pre-schooler, however normally reliable, may, at an embarrassing moment, wet themselves, hit someone else, cry hysterically or balk at some minor task. But it’s also true to a certain extent at the macro level. L is (on the whole), bright, friendly and able to sleep through the night, but however much I might pretend this is due to our parenting, I’m aware it’s also partly down to genes, her intrinsic personality and dumb luck on our part. If mothers end up focusing on our own achievements and are prone to becoming snactimommies in the process, it’s because it’s something we have control over, at a time when we’re uneasily aware how much control we’ve otherwise lost

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3 thoughts on “Sanctimommies now and then

  1. Nice comment on the “sanctimommy” concept, but I think you slight the “sanctimonious” aspect of it somewhat.

    I regard sanctimoniousness – the belief that one has greater moral virtue than others – as a universal propensity, not in the sense that everyone shares it equally, but that it exists in all known societies. In many cases it is primarily expressed by reference to a shared religious or ethical code. From the Jewish tradition we have the Pharisees (“I thank God I am not as other men”), and around the world Chinese looked down on other Chinese (to say nothing of “barbarians”) for not following the precepts of Confucius correctly, while Muslims were being “holier than thou” in their own Islamic ways, and so forth for Buddhists and Hindus and (doubtless) Zoroastrians, &c.

    In the West, at least over the past century and a half, Christianity has been the dominant expression of sanctimoniousness – but what happens as society becomes increasingly secularized and the shared Christian code weakens or even disappears? One can still feel smug and self-satisfied about attending more prayer meetings or saying more rosaries or singing hymns more loudly than others, but outside recognition of one’s moral superiority tends to be limited to True Believers (in one’s own version of faith), not society as a whole. Your nextdoor neighbor may in fact regard the fact that you head off for church every Sunday and don’t allow your children to attend dances as evidence that you are an uptight prig, rather than as proof of your virtue! Alas.

    So – and here I speculate wildly – one way to assert your morality is to focus on particular issues (often sex-related) on which you believe there is a broader social consensus. E.g., at least in the USA, homosexuality. If this is a “sin” that does not particularly tempt you (and it’s always easier to resist temptations that are not tempting), you can reject it yourself, reprehend it in others, and insist on society repudiating it altogether. Even if you fail (as you will), you will have demonstrated your moral superiority by the vehemence of your protestations.

    But among a more liberal, secular constituency, it is much harder to find issues on which to take such a public stand in favor of virtue. Sure, you can be environmentally aware, and ecologically sound, and recycle everything (good on you if you do, by the way) but: (1) everybody else is doing it, unless you carry it to extremes that threaten to tip you over into the category of “crank”, and (2) it’s not all that clear that your own tiny contribution makes much difference in the grand scheme of things.

    Child-raising, however, is a glorious field for sanctimony. Everyone (for certain specified values of “everyone”) agrees that it’s important. Everyone knows that one’s own individual efforts can make a difference in one’s child’s life – at the minimum, they can screw him/her up seriously if done “wrong.” And yet all of us stumble along, making mistakes, making it up as we go along.

    But if you can somehow figure out/assert the Right Way to raise children – or even the right policy on any of hundreds of possible issues (starting with breast-feeding and moving on to sleep strategies, toilet training, permitted amusements, prohibited foods, and religious education) – you are then in a position not just to raise your child well (and bully for you if you do), but to Lord It Over all those who do not do exactly the same. The more humble among us admit that we’ve been lucky to find ways of doing things that “work” for our own child(ren), but might not for anyone else. Others, however, insist on universalizing their own experience and canonizing their own insights . . .

    . . . and thus: “Sanctimommy.”

    It’s not about the theory, or even the practice, of parenting. It’s about the attitude.

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    • If you’re going to talk about sanctimony, then you can’t ignore the fact that mothers in Britain feel themselves some of a beleagured (if not actually persecuted) minority. The UK has low birthrates and a culture that’s hostile to children (as the old comment has it, animal charities do much bettr than children’s ones). As a result it’s sometimes hard not to feel as a mother of a small child that you’re being seen as a potential if not active social menace whenever you’re out. In these circumstances, it’s particularly tempting to turn on those ‘bad’ mothers who can be seen as giving all of us a bad name.

      As for the public stand in favour of virtue, you’re ignoring the greatest field for such display, particularly for women: appearance and healthy living. There are few greater scorns than for the woman who has ‘let herself go’.

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  2. You’re absolutely right about “fitness” sanctimony. I overlooked it only because I am in a profound state of personal denial about this issue.

    And I intend to stay there.

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