A mom compliment that really isn't?

There is something I noticed that moms say to other moms all the time: "I don't know how you do it!" Seems harmless, right? Even celebratory. A pat on the parenting back. Well, I'm dubious. Sometimes I think it's said because mom A is truly impressed with the way mom B rolls (juggling a high-powered career while raising three smart, well-adjusted kids and still finding time to volunteer OR being a stay-at-home mom to four and still finding time to shower and get dressed). But, just as often, I suspect it's a euphemism for "I would NEVER do that/put up with that/I feel bad for you/I think you're kinda crazy…."

While one can, sincerely or otherwise, comment to another mom about what she does ("you're still breastfeeding? I don't know how you do it!" "You cosleep with your three kids? I don't know how you do it!" "Your husband golfs every single weekend? I don't know how you do it!"), the phrase becomes particularly prickly when exchanged between working moms and stay-at-home moms…

My sister, Meghan, a working mom with a big job in New York City was recently at a women-in-business luncheon where the keynote was the CIO of a huge corporation. The woman travels a lot and shared that  she often hears other moms tell her, "I don't know how you do it," quickly followed by, "I could never leave my kids for that long." The speaker admitted how upsetting and unhelpful that is to hear, as if it's easy for her to leave her kids. Ugh! When Meghan heard the speech, a light bulb went off for her and she realized that a lot of people say those exact things to her...and may be judging while they do (because most people leave the second part of that phrase off, right?). She had to go back to work part-time when her daughter was six weeks old and a few days before her start date, she was hanging out with another new mom. When Meghan told her she was heading back to work, this new mom, holding her baby in her arms, said, "Wow, good for you…I don't know how you do it!" and simultaneously kissed her baby on the head, snuggling her tight. "She was implying—not so subtly—that she could never leave her baby and it made me feel like I was somehow less of a mom because I was," says Meghan. Obviously my sister didn't want to go back to work when my niece was six weeks old (and she was leaving her with her husband and sister-in-law so it wasn't the end of the world) but, well, sometimes we don't have a choice, right? And it turns out my sister really likes being a working mom and when she hears what life is like for her stay-at-home-mom friends, she often thinks, "I don't know how you do it..I could never do that!"

I polled a bunch of moms (the ones at the bus stop, my book club girls, my sisters) and it seems that people are divided on this. Some couldn't care less what other parents (or people) say to them about their parenting choices so even if this phrase was meant to be a dig, they don't even notice. Others try not to say it to people who don't have a choice in their situation (a special needs child, a husband out of work, unexpected twins...). Some find this phrase a genuine compliment, others consider it kind of condescending. And some admit to saying it to mask their judgment. Full disclosure: If someone were to tell me that they cosleep with their three kids, I might say, "Wow, I don't know how you do it!" when I'd really be thinking: "OMG, that sounds awful. I would die." So I guess I'm not as sincere/honest/nice as some of my friends. And then there's another friend of mine who had this to say: "That comment gives me strength. It justifies that what I am doing is hard. It's hard to leave my babies everyday. I hate it, but knowing that some people absolutely couldn't do it gives me the strength I need." Interesting, right?

I'm curious: What do you think? Do you ever say, "I don't know how you do it!" to other moms? Do you always mean it sincerely? (Be honest!) Do people say it to you about your choices? Does it bother you? Let's discuss.

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