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.