So, are you a good mother or a bad mother? If you’re a mother, you’ve probably been called both, either directly or by implication. You’ve probably also used those labels on other mothers, or at least thought them.
The problem is, there are so many definitions of “good” and “bad” mothering. There are individual’s opinions, expert’s opinions, and the prevailing cultural values. Between the three, it’s impossible not to worry that one is a bad mother at some point. And if you realize that you don’t worry about it, you might start to worry that you’re not worrying enough.
I picked up Ayelet Waldman’s Bad Mother last week and this is what the summary on the jacket says: “Today, we have only bad mothers. If you work, you’re neglectful, if you stay home, you’re smothering. If you discipline, you’re buying them a spot on the shrink’s couch, if you let them run wild, they will be into drugs by seventh grade. If you buy organic, you’re spending thier college fund, if you don’t, you’re risking all sorts of allergies and illnesses.” Whoo! Isn’t that the truth! It doesn’t matter what you do, there is always someone ready to jump down your throat about it. And I admit it, I’ve jumped down a few throats myself (Which means I lose points in the Mommy thing because obviously, a good mother would never be judgemental of anybody. Tch! Such a display of bad character will surely give my children lifelong emotional troubles!).
Although Ms. Waldman and I are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, and although I found plenty to disagree with (particularly her annoying habit of creating strawman arguments) I still think the book makes a very good point. If “good” and “bad” are dependent on what others think of us, none of us can ever be a Good Mother. There are simply too many high expectations and far to many critics. She and I do have one thing in common, if for different reasons: There are people who are ready and eager to call us Bad Mothers.
It’s not always blatant. Sometimes the labeling is hidden in “an honest question” like “I’m not judging you or anything, but how can you justify injecting your children with poisonous heavy metals and disease that everybody knows causes autism?”. (Implication: Good Mothers avoid vaccinating their children) Sometimes it’s a hard-to-miss judgement like “Well, I’m sure the birth experience is important to you but I personally care more about my baby’s well-being” (Implication: if you do your best to avoid interventions in birth, you’re a Bad Mother because you clearly care more about your feelings than your baby’s health) Sometimes it’s a backhanded compliment like “Wow. Uh. Still nursing at 15 months? Well…uh…Good for you! Yeah! That’s so nice! Me, I didn’t want them nursing in preschool, so I weaned while weaning was still easy.” (Implication: Eww. Good Mothers don’t keep their children dependant on breastmilk for that long!) And there’s always the classic “I don’t know how you manage. I’d go crazy!” which is a dart that can be thrown at almost any mother for anything she’s doing that the speaker considers wrong, or weird, or Not Christian Enough or Not Feminist Enough. Every once in a while someone just blurts out that they think you are a Bad Mother. It’s usually over something petty or stupid like whether, on a warm April day, a perfectly comfortable baby needs to be swaddled in heavy blankets and hats to protect him from the breeze, or whether it’s OK to let a baby hang around in socks but not shoes.
I do not believe, though, that it’s simply a matter of every choice every mother makes being equal in value and equally good. And I think there is room for having our own opinions about what is best. There are a few things I’m willing to debate ’til the cows come home, and I’ll unapolagetically state that I think my opinion about them is the correct one. But even those things which we know are objectively the best choice in general terms cannot always be accomplished due to circumstance. If a mother cannot manage the best choice for whatever reason, that does not make her a Bad Mother by default. If she makes the choice based on the knowledge she posesses, and on her understanding of the best interests of her child, then she is doing what Good Mothers do, even if her “Good Mother” options are severely limited. Conversely a woman could be a legalistically “Good Mother” when it comes to the practicalities of motherhood and find that in the end, she’s missed the whole point. There’s no need for a confessional, but I’ll freely admit that in my mothering, I sometimes do things that would fall into my own Bad Mother category. Alright, just one confession: I’m a Yeller. Bad Mom. Bad Bad Mother. I envision my children on psychiatrist’s couches sobbing and detailing all the psychic trauma I caused them when they were 5 years old and Mama blew her top when she couldn’t take the sibling-squabbles for one more second.
Ultimately, though, I think most of us are somewhere in the middle. That’s pretty much the worst place to be since we then feel battered by both sides on almost any issue. For my part, I have decided that rather than insist everybody stop talking about things or making judgements, it’s better to take what’s good and ignore the rest. Often people call such debates “The Mommy Wars”. If that’s the case, I think there are actually very few mommies on clearly defined sides of any battle. Most of us are muddled together in No Man’s Land. We need to hunker down and let the Bad Mother missiles pass over our heads, and just keep plugging away at doing right by our own children. Even if we can’t do it perfectly. Even if it means others will view us as Bad Mothers. In the end, a Good Mother is one who does just that, tuning out the noise of everybody else and tuning in to what will be the best for her own children in the particular circumstances she’s been saddled with.
It might also do us all some good if we could look at the other mothers around us and find it in us to say “You know what, you and I have made different choices, and we may even vehemently disagree on what’s the right way to do this mother-thing, but I can tell you love your kids and want the best for them. I just wanted to tell you, you are such a Good Mother.”