Life with Gracie: Do mean girls grow up to be mean moms?

Liz Doto was used to mean girls. From the time she was in middle school, she was the object of their criticism and near-constant harassment.

So was Jessica Hayun, but it never occurred to either of them that any of those mean girls would turn into mean moms, too.

Doto, 32, of Woodstock and Hayun, 28, of Marietta are members of the Mommy and Minis Meetup group and, to their dismay, they’ve seen how this plays out.

It’s pretty ugly.

A recent online survey of 1,000 American women by baby food brand Beech-Nut backs that up — 80 percent of millennial moms deal with mom-shaming; 68 percent think the issue has gotten worse over the past five years; and moms who have experienced shaming are more likely to shame another mom.

No surprises there for Doto, Hayun or fellow Woodstock mom Heather Payne.

Me either. There seems to be a shortage of grown-ups these days, but that last little bit did surprise me. I always thought suffering made us more empathetic and less critical of others.

Insecurity, though, breeds insecurity, said Linda S. Lucas, a licensed mental health counselor and assistant professor of psychology and human services at Beacon College in Leesburg, Fla. It also makes the criticizer feel more acceptable.

And that, unfortunately, appears to be the norm.

What’s fueling it?

“I believe it is fueled by a lack of moral reasoning, insecurity, and self-centeredness,” Lucas said. “We appear to be raising individuals that make impulsive decisions based on their feelings. If it feels bad, it must be your fault? The bad feelings are targeted at something — maybe another mom.”

In Doto’s meetup group are some 1,310 young, primarily stay-at-home mothers from Roswell, Woodstock, Sandy Springs, Johns Creek, Marietta and Cumming. About 20 percent of those work from home like Doto, who co-owns an online apparel shop with her husband, and Payne, a sales representative with Savvy Shopper.

Doto, who was invited to join the Roswell meetup three years ago, is among the group’s 200 most active members, and though she says members are very supportive of one another, she’s seen it all.

Moms who speak negatively about other moms behind their backs. Moms who criticize others for working. Moms who make comparisons and compete with each other.

Doto thought it was kind of funny, but also shocking at first because she thought that sort of thing only happened in school.

RELATED: Mothers moving away from ‘perfect mom’ stereotype

“We’re all competitive, but it’s the over-the-top behavior that makes you a mean mom,” she said. “I think we all have that potential to be a mean mom, especially when something happens to our kids.”

One-upmanship is particularly common, she and the others said.

“One will say my kids go to some private school, and the other will respond my kid goes to this private school and it is better,” Doto said. “They’re always trying to one-up each other.

“It takes a village to raise kids, especially if you are a stay-at-home mom. You need that support from other moms who are going through the same phase of life as you are, but if you’re being critical and trying to one-up someone, it’s disappointing. And it’s not just the words. It’s the faces they make when your kid misbehaves or they don’t agree with your parenting.”

Hayun remembered being kicked out of the first meetup group she joined because she wasn’t breastfeeding her son.

It didn’t matter that she tried but wasn’t producing enough milk.

“I tried everything,” Hayun said. “I went to a lactation nurse. I took vitamins and nothing worked.”

When they found out, they told her “you can’t be in this group anymore.”

A visit to the park, though, is worse than any meetup group you could ever join.

“I’d like to do an undercover reality show,” Doto said. “It would be eye-opening mean mom reality TV.”

RELATED: 13 Cast Members of ‘Mean Girls’: Where are they now?

According to Lucas, mean girls are a captive audience (during the mean mothers’ parenting process) of a lack of moral reasoning. Mean mothers create difficult, insecure and disorganized attachments that later impact further relationships within their children’s lives.

“That later relationships, or cliques may be at risk of mean behavior only further exhibits the child’s extreme need to create security and control for themselves that these individuals obviously did not internalize while growing up with mean mothers who taught them by example behaviors that promoted insecurity,” Lucas said.

Women, she said, should respond according to their “value system.” If they value being kind to someone, do not allow another arrogant, angry person to control or change that. Stay true to who you are.

Our society promotes free speech, but does not always delineate the motives behind the free speech, Lucas told me. Because of that, many moms don’t feel obliged to use a filter when talking to or about others even if it hurts.

They speak their minds and aren’t likely to stop until we get back to teaching empathy and treating individuals like we want to be treated.

Until then, Lucas said, we’re setting ourselves up for a fall.

I couldn’t agree more.

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