Bad mothers, good mothers, and mothers who think about motherhood

If you would have asked me at 18, I would never have predicted that by the time I was 45, I would have been a mother for over half my life. My son will be 25 this summer, and I’ve lived more of my life with him in it than without – I can’t imagine it otherwise, even if I try. There have been changes in our relationship as he’s grown, of course, and he doesn’t really “need” me for much any more – which seems completely appropriate and is just fine with me (most of the time). If objective “outcome measurements” could be applied to parenthood, I think most of them would say he’s turned out pretty well – and in the most important outcome measurement of all, I think he (mostly) appreciates me. So, by extension, does that make me a “good mother”?

The thing is, if the hallmark of a “good mother” is that she puts nothing ahead of her children, than I am not qualified. One reason that I didn’t want more than one child is that I was not prepared to lose myself in raising kids. (Then again, I had my one child so young I’d barely found myself yet in the first place; and secondly, I think I lost more of myself in my first marriage than I ever did in motherhood. Both of those matters are stories for another time.) I’m sure that many women would contend that they’ve found themselves in motherhood and lives centered on their children, though – and that’s fine. We see it from a different angle, that’s all.

I’ve reviewed two books on modern motherhood here this week, and I think that they have more in common than one might suspect at first glance. The root of Ayelet Waldman’s being judged – by herself and others – as a “bad mother” is that she has, at times, made her own needs and concerns at least as important as her children’s, if not more so. How selfish is that? If it’s helped her maintain her “mojo,” as Amy Tiemann would call it, it’s a necessary sort of selfishness – a self-nurturing. How “bad” is that? We often hear, during times of stress, that we need to remember to take care of ourselves if we’re going to be any good to anyone else – does that not apply to mothers too?

Granted, entering motherhood is something that changes who we are – forever. We may never again be the women we were before we had children – and if we’re happy with that, great. But we may want to incorporate elements of who we were then into who we are now, and keep some of ourselves just for ourselves. I just don’t believe that makes us bad mothers – or bad people, for that matter.

I’m kind of an odd case myself. I was pregnant at 19, and married and a mother at 20. As I said, I barely had time to know myself as an adult before becoming a mother and wife, and it’s impossible to guess how different I might be today if my life hadn’t followed that path. But I did absorb a lot of the concepts of second-wave feminism while growing up, along with the encouragement of my mother, and I fully expected to blend education and career with motherhood. I worked full-time outside the home for most of my son’s life – and still do. While I did read to and with my child, I didn’t breastfeed him. I made time for myself as often as I could – I refuse to grasp the concept of “no time to read” – and still do. Our family schedules were driven by the parents’ responsibilities more than the child’s interests; with two full-time-employed parents, my son didn’t get too many extra-curricular opportunities until he was in high school and old enough to arrange them for himself, and my stepchildren are in that position now too (with three full-time-employed parents). I rarely got involved with school activities unless they were done at home, and I helped with homework only when asked; I seldom volunteered for school functions, but I attended parent-teacher conferences regularly, although my son was a good student and we rarely had issues to discuss.

Looking at that history now, I see so many ways that I could be judged a “bad mother.” I recollect the many times I’ve felt like a bad mother. During the difficult last few years of marriage to my son’s father, I often felt like the worst mother ever for subjecting my child to all of that upheaval. However, we’ve all weathered that storm, and I believe we’ve come out OK and that my child had a reasonably healthy upbringing. I may not have set my own needs and wants aside for his, but I believe that I didn’t ignore or neglect his at the same time – he’s always had my attention, and always will.

On balance, I’d say I’m a not-so-bad mother, maybe even a pretty good mother – and I suspect many of us could say the same about ourselves. Maybe we’re not “Good Mothers” according to the well-recognized and popularly accepted definition (stereotype?), but it’s never been clear to me where that standard comes from, and I’ve yet to meet anyone who conforms to it completely. Even so, it’s rare to find a mother who hasn’t felt judged against it – and found lacking in one way or another. I’m not sure how much of that judgment really is coming from others and how much of it is self-inflicted, because this mysterious standard has been so internalized, but we still apply it – to ourselves, and to each other.

I do believe there truly are bad mothers out there, though – mothers who use and manipulate their children, who commit or enable abuse or neglect – but I suspect they’re not spending all that much time contemplating what kind of mothers they are. If you worry about being a bad mother, I’d say chances are pretty good that you’re not.

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  1. You anticipated my needs as a reader. I read both your reviews on the mommy books and was wondering abut the commonalities and what you got out of both of them.

    Motherhood and marriage seem to be two of the things in life that we have many strong opinions about, and almost a cultural ideals, that like you say are almost untraceable in finding out who these good mothers and good wives are, and they are almost impossible to live up to. I say this having an idea in the back of my head of what that standard is (as someone who has never been married and never had a child), and that it is almost impossible to live up to.

    It’s interesting to trace the changes that have taken place in the ideal standard, and I think the one that we have might be unique to American culture in a lot of ways. I think that we have come to a point in society where we not only worship but we coddle youth. Children went from being “seen and not heard” to being fragile and catered to, and if they don’t have enough play dates or extra-curriculars and moms running around after them 24/7 then there is a perception especially with the mother that she is being a bad mother. I think that there is a happy medium that needs to be found, and maybe when we let go of the ideal then we can find it. I know that I have been ambivalent about having children because I know that right now there are too many other things that I am struggling to find the time to do, and I’m not willing to give them up yet to be a “good” mother.

    Motherless though I may be, I do have the book Bad Mother to read and I am looking forward to getting to it. It would probably be a god book club read with my friends because quite a few of us are trying to either come to terms with the children question, or trying to come to terms with what it means to not want to have them.

  2. My ability to talk about mothering is limited by my not actually being a mother. It’s definitely something I’m thinking about, though, as kids are planned to be in the picture in the next year or two.

    My mother talked about not having any time to read when we were young (although I think part of that was her enjoying cross-words and art more than novels)

    I like Nicole’s comments about trying to find a balance between children being “seen and not heard” and being the center of the family. For one thing, children who run the family seem to turn into adults to expect things to revolve around them, rather than people who want to work as part of a family / job / organization.

  3. I think if you ask 100 people what a good mom is, you will get 100 different answers :)We define “motherhood” as we go along. We make mistakes but hopefully we learn from them and I think now more than ever, women are beginning to realize that we need our “me” time too in order to become better as we go along.

    You mentioned the upheaval factor that your first marriage caused and how it affected your son. Painting a realistic picture of life is (in my opinion) necessary for a child to learn how to deal with upheaval on his own. How can they learn anything if everything is always perfect?

    Good post. Made the wheels turn a bit. LOL.

  4. Nicole – You make some really good points here. I agree with you about the “good mother ideal” being a particularly American cultural standard, actually, and I think it may be more of a consideration in certain socio-economic sublevels of the American culture, at that. Regarding your remark about not being ready to give up some things in your life right now in order to be a “good mother” – I get what you’re saying, and I so wish that was something none of us had to contemplate.

    I’ll be very interested in your take on Bad Mother, as someone who isn’t a mom yet.

    April – Thanks :-). I’d love to see your take on this topic!

    TexasRed – I agree with you and Nicole that we – both families and society – need to work on finding a place for children between “out of the way” and “center of the universe.” That might actually shift the perception of “good mother” in a more balanced direction as well.

    My mom always made time to read when my sister and I were kids, and I’m sure that seeing that example influenced me :-).

    Kathy (Bermudaonion) – I’d be right behind you. I’ve met them in fiction, though; maybe that’s where they belong.

    Ti – Good points. I think that a lot of the debate comes up because what we define for ourselves as we go along – which we absolutely have the right to do – may not align with common perceptions of what we “should” be doing. Oh well :-).

    You’re quite right about kids not learning to cope with upheaval if they never get exposed to it. While I still would have liked to protect my son from all of the emotional ugliness of that time – since he was ALREADY smack-dab in the middle of his teen years and all of THAT emotional ugliness while it was going on – he seems to have come out of it as a pretty capable adult.

  5. I was having a conversation with another mother the other day, one who I don’t know very well and she says to me at one point in an absolutely horrified voice ‘you’ve never taken EITHER of your children to a swimming class?!’ like it was the worst offense she’d ever heard of. I had similar reactions when people I didn’t know very well found out I hadn’t breastfed either of my children for more than a week.

    But it didn’t bother me too much. I know that I’m trying to be the best mother to my two as I can be and for me that means trying to let go of that good mother ideal that we all seem to have in our heads. Be nicer to myself, take some of that pressure off and just be present in my children’s lives.

    I was 23 when my first was born. 25 for my second.

  6. Michelle – Well, apparently the Bad Mother Police (as Ayelet Waldman calls them) are in England too, but it sounds like you’re handling them quite well.