The Bad Mother Manifesto

June 8, 2009

My name is Catherine, and I am a bad mother. I (mostly, sort of, kind of) do not have my tongue in my cheek when I say that. I am a Bad Mother (TM).

I am a bad mother according to many of the measurements established by the popular Western understanding of what constitutes a good mother. I use disposable diapers. I let my children watch more television than I’d ever publicly admit. I let them have cookies for breakfast. I let them stay up too late. I don’t follow a schedule. I don’t go to playgroups. I stopped breastfeeding because I was tired of it. I co-slept with my son. I didn’t co-sleep with my daughter. I have been treated for depression. I stopped my treatment for depression. I am entirely too attached to Ativan.

I have left my children alone in the bathtub. I have spanked my daughter. I have turned my back on my crying son. I have had intrusive thoughts. I drink. I curse. I have put my own needs first. I have thought that I love my husband more than my children. I have had moments of resenting my children. I have thought that motherhood is boring. I document all of these things and lay them bare for the world to see. I have been called an exploitative mother. I have wondered whether that might be true.

I have thought that perhaps I am not at all cut out for this motherhood thing.

I have thought that I am a bad mother. I know that I am bad mother, in so many of the ways that matter to the people who worry about how and why women should be good mothers, and in most of the ways that don’t matter to anyone at all other than me at three o’ clock in the morning after a particularly long, ego-smashing day.

But:

I reject entirely the idea that I should be a good mother in any manner other than those that matter to me: that I take care of the basic needs of my children, that I love my children well, that I make certain that my children know that they are loved well, that I ensure that a day never passes in which I do not not hug or kiss my children or tell them that I love them, and that I ensure that a day never passes in which they – and I – laugh out loud at least once.

I reject entirely the idea that there can be any community consensus about what – beyond the provision of love and care – constitutes a good mother. I reject entirely the idea that we can or should judge each other as mothers, beyond the obvious and most basic standards of care, and even then, I reject entirely the idea that any one of us is so perfect that she could throw the first stone without hesitation.

I reject entirely the idea that mothers should worry about what it means to be a good mother in any respect beyond loving and protecting and providing for their children.

I reject entirely the idea I should worry, and yet worry I do. I worry because everywhere I look, at every turn, at every corner, in every magazine and on every television show and in every discussion, everywhere, about the what-why-how of motherhood, is the Good Mother.

The Good Mother – the idea of the Good Mother, the theoretical and aesthetic model of what it means to mother well – is the true spectre, the spectre that has haunted mothers since God first smacked our hands for being too graspy and ejected us from the Garden and hollered at us to go forward and to give birth in pain and alone and to mother in anxiety and alone and to basically just angst out for every second of our lives. The idea of the Good Mother has kept us in our place, has kept us cowering, alone, behind the veil; our important work – our critically important work – kept hidden behind the walls of the household; our lives and our stories and our history kept secret, kept quiet, because Good Mothers are private, are modest, are pudicae, because Good Mothers tell no tales. Devoted Good Mothers listen only to community edicts about what the Good Mother looks like and then devote themselves, silently, to the work of emulating the Good Mother. They do not share their failures. They do not share their struggles. They do not tell stories about the dark and the difficulty and the anxiety and the impossibility of keeping one’s cool in the dead of night when the baby is shrieking and the toddler is crying and one hasn’t slept in weeks. They do not talk about shutting the door and ignoring the cries. They do not talk about intrusive thoughts. They do not talk about repeating the words fuck I hate this fuck I hate this like so many Hail Marys, like a meditation upon frustration, like a mantra of failure. They do not talk about these things, out loud.

They keep their silence, and look to the Good Mother, hoping that she will provide guidance, hoping that in her lays the way of all maternal truth and happiness. They look in vain.

The Good Mother is everywhere, all at once, and she looks like everything, and nothing. She stays at home; she goes to work. She attachment-parents; she’s Babywise. She home-schools; she Montessoris. She vaccinates; she doesn’t vaccinate. She follows a schedule; she lets her kids run free-range. She co-sleeps; she wouldn’t dare co-sleep. She would never spank; she’s a strict disciplinarian. She’s an Alpha Mom; she’s a Slacker Mom; she’s a Hipster Mom; she’s a Christian Mom; she’s a Hipster-Christian-Alpha Mom who slacks off in the summers. She’s Everymom; She’s NoMom. She brooks no disagreement: if you argue with her, you start a Mommy War. But the wars are futile and pointless because the combatants are all fighting on the same side, her side, which is no side, and in the end we just batter each other until we are dumb and we give up and retire to our camps, bloody and bruised and determined to just keep it to ourselves next time and so it ends as it always does, in silence, with none of us saying what we really want to say, what we really need to say, which is this: who the fuck cares?

Who is anybody to tell us whether we are good mothers? Who the fuck knows what a good mother is anyway? And why can’t we say this out loud, why can’t we just live our motherhood out loud and proclaim our diversity to ourselves and to each other and to the world and declare the idea of the Good Mother – the all-encompassing, do-no-wrong, one-size-fits-all perfect model of the Good Mother, the Uber-Mom who has been witnessed by none of us – dead? We do not need her, we don’t, we really don’t.

The only persons who can measure our mother-worthiness are our children, and even they are unreliable.

All that we have, then, is this: the measure of our hearts and the measure of our eyes and our ears and our good sense. Do we love our children as best we can? Do we keep them, as best we can, healthy in mind and body? Do we make sure that they laugh? Do they smile in our presence?

That is enough. That must be enough. And if that is not good enough – if there remain those who would insist that there is more to mothering well, that I must do more, that we must do more, that the community must do more to police, to enforce, to uphold the rule of the Good Mother – then, well, I shall remain – loudly, proudly, publicly – Bad.

Are you a Bad Mother? Which is to ask - regardless of whether or not you identify with, or struggle with, the idea of being ‘Bad’ – are you a regular old ordinary flawed-but-awesome REAL mom? Are you just tired of the pressure to be ‘Good’? Then join me. We’ll unite and take over.

*(with apologies to Karl Marx, and, parenthetically, to Friedrich Nietzsche and Niccolo Machiavelli, all of whom would doubtless regard my appropriation of their modes of argument for the purposes of defending the liberation of mothers from old modes and orders of virtue as terribly, terribly amusing and, I would hope, somewhat charming, in a contrary sort of way.)

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    { 204 comments }

    Catharine June 8, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    Oy, Catherine, you've got my name and you've got my number. I've been a bad mother of two for sixteen years next month. I only wish I had read this fifteen years ago. (And Karl, I think, would be proud.) At least you are still articulate. All I can do is blah blah blah and blubber. I respectfully bow down to your badness.

    Her Bad Mother June 8, 2009 at 6:30 pm

    Michelle – by 'bad mother' I don't mean 'hipster mama' or 'rebel mama'. Which is part of the reason I said above – I'm not being tongue in cheek (mostly). I'm talking about resisting any label that purports to name what it is to be a 'good' parent.

    So in part this means rejecting the current media interest in the quote-unquote Bad Mother as some sort of ironic archetype, because it ignores what is real and honest and serious about bad mother discourse.

    There's no t-shirt for that. Although if there was, I might wear it ;)

    GingerB June 8, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    Oh I get you Baddie, and all your readers, else why would these words be on my blog: "The twin demons of guilt and self doubt have plagued me." And I was writing about grief for my baby not being 100% OK. Hoo-boy, we mommies love some self flagellation. I'd be lost without you bloggers to read and to listen to me, really, this helps me so much when self doubt comes calling. Thank you all

    Brandie Weikle June 8, 2009 at 7:45 pm

    Fabulous, gritty, honest. Thank you, Catherine. And for the record, I use my share of the F word under (and not-so-under) my breath with the kids. Perfectly patient is a joke.

    Michelle June 8, 2009 at 7:45 pm

    I don't like using the words "bad" and "good" for mothers. And I think that worrying about this very subject, or worrying about what you are doing wrong or what you are doing right, in itself makes everyone a mother that is trying to do the right thing. Isn't that what's it's all about?

    We ALL make mistakes. We ALL can be called bad AND good. That's what makes us and our children diverse and real.

    On another note, nobody has the same definition of bad and good when it comes to motherhood. We only can hold ourselves accountable for the sake of our children. And isn't that really what it's all about?

    Anonymous June 8, 2009 at 8:27 pm

    Amen – if I read that 5 months ago, I probably wouldn't have had "post partum anxiety".

    wherewiller June 8, 2009 at 8:39 pm

    Yep, united. Bad and good and mostly mediocre and everything in between…

    Great, fantastic, wonderful post.

    Jacquie June 8, 2009 at 8:46 pm

    I am a Bad Mother.

    red pen mama June 8, 2009 at 8:49 pm

    Thank you for writing this. I am so tired of the mommy labels. The only thing I will admit is: I put my children on a schedule for my own sanity. See? Even there, I did it for me, people. If it helps them out in life to have had routine or a schedule, that's great.

    ciao,
    rpm

    Jen at Semantically driven June 8, 2009 at 8:50 pm

    Maybe instead of calling yourself a Bad Mother you could call yourself a Normal Mother. All of us mums have awful moments and that doesn't make us bad or good, just normal.

    Sharing all this 'bad' stuff helps make other 'bad' mothers feel a bit more normal too. Thank goodness there's someone else out there who lets their kids watch a bit more telly than they'd like to admit.

    Steph June 8, 2009 at 8:52 pm

    YES! YES! YES!

    jadedperspective June 8, 2009 at 8:59 pm

    It's so weird you tweeted this in my moment of need. I am feeling like a complete failure today as a parent. Thank you for reminding me that I am not alone when I feel like I am not a "good mom." When I really take stock of this situation now, I see I was so wrong.

    Massachusetts Mom June 8, 2009 at 8:59 pm

    Can I tell you that I love you?! THIS IS PERFECT!

    Rachel June 8, 2009 at 9:04 pm

    Thank You! Thank You! Thank you so much.

    Josie June 8, 2009 at 9:06 pm

    Excellent!!!

    I am a bad mother and have been for over 19 years now.
    I use to try to hide it and only in the last four years have I said screw it and stopped trying to be something I can't be.
    I have the added label of being a never married single mom of a certain young age. You know "You could not possibly be old enough to have a son in University."
    I applaud everything you so eloquently wrote and suggest more people embrace their inner badness.

    Zoeyjane June 8, 2009 at 9:11 pm

    There's no classier way to phrase it…

    Fuck, yeah. You took (far better) words right from my heart.

    Mrs. Chicken June 8, 2009 at 9:12 pm

    Excellent.

    I am a "good enough" mother. Good enough for me, good enough for my children. That is the best I can hope for.

    That said, I long for the day when "mother" is no longer prefaced by any qualifying adjective.

    kittenpie June 8, 2009 at 9:16 pm

    Frankly, no, I'm not a bad mother. I honestly think I'm a good mother, though not a Good Mother, if you see what I mean.

    I tried and failed to make baby food so I gave up. I tried and failed to make breastfeeding work for me, so I'm pumping again and I feed my son bottles in public. Etc, etc. Fine.

    But I choose my compromises well (ie. a brand of baby food with good and few ingredients, expressed breast milk, in these cases), and stick to the things I think are important, and I consider what I'm doing as a parent.

    I think as long as we think about ourselves and our children and what is working and not, and we decide where we need to make changes and not, and we take the stands we consider important for forming the children we want to have, then we are doing a great job.

    I do not think that I get to decide whether someone else's choices and priorities are Good ones or not, but as long as they are paying attention, they are doing well.

    JJ Keith June 8, 2009 at 9:18 pm

    Here here!

    Fantastic post. I'm new to this mom thing (my babe is 4mo), but I'm already getting fed up with the pressure to always have my crap together. I can't wait to go back and read all the linked posts.

    melissa June 8, 2009 at 9:18 pm

    i found myself nodding to everything.
    i kept yelling…me too!!! me. too!!
    and you know what!? my kids…are perfectly secure in the fact that their lousy mother…really loves them.

    Her Bad Mother June 8, 2009 at 9:20 pm

    kittenpie – "a good mother, though not a Good Mother"

    EXACTLY, perfect. THAT kind of good mother I can get behind. That kind of mother I'll call myself. Sometimes ;)

    Miss Grace June 8, 2009 at 9:22 pm

    I applaud you.

    Christina June 8, 2009 at 9:23 pm

    I used to worry about many of the "bad mother" behaviors you described. Then I had a daughter who threw tantrums that made me look like the worst mother in the world and I got over caring about how others viewed me.

    I'm not a good or bad mother. I'm just a real mom, with everyday challenges that I try to do my best to face with patience, compassion, and love. And I often fail, but that's part of life, isn't it?

    Jamie June 8, 2009 at 9:34 pm

    I think I'm a good mother BUT I think there's probably a list of people who wouldn't think I am. I'm okay with that. My kids are healthy and happy and I don't think we're racking up too big of a therapy bill (except for that one f word incident).

    Margaret McInnes June 8, 2009 at 10:03 pm

    I love the concept of REAL mothers!!! I think I may even get it put on a t-shirt. I am the mom who tells it all as it is, the good, the bad and the ugly it's just easier. I don't have to hide my flaws and I can be happy with my successes as small as they may be some days. I wish you all laughter and sleep in your mothering journeys :)

    Boy Crazy June 8, 2009 at 10:22 pm

    Catherine, I've been thinking about this post all day. I think those of us who pre-kids were open and communicative and not the type to sweep things under the rug – I think we especially feel the need to be able to talk about the dark side and the struggles openly. But the guilt and the feeling of being a failure of a mother comes for me when I feel like those listening aren't open to hearing what I have to say.

    Some people do not want to hear about anything but the sunny side of mommyhood. They want to pretend that's all that there is. I can say this here, because I'm on your blog and not mine, my inlaws are these types of people. And so I struggle when I try to be real and I express frustration with a baby who won't sleep or a toddler who is working my last nerve or a big kid who is being so disrespectful that it hurts or my fragile state of mind that's about to collapse into insanity and THEY DON'T WANT TO HEAR IT.

    And that's when I (and I'm sure a million other mothers) wonder, am I not *supposed* to be talking about this stuff? It obviously makes some people uncomfortable. Its like even though they know its not all sunshine and roses, they want us to pretend it is because then they don't have to acknowledge their own feelings of guilt or inadequacy. Or maybe they just don't like to hear people bitch about stuff, but whatever. My point is that it's a lot easier to be honest about our mistakes and failures and worries if we have a supportive audience. Thanks for providing that here.

    Motherhood Uncensored June 8, 2009 at 10:29 pm

    Truth is, the good mother stuff doesn't make compelling reading. We humans are driven by controversy, angst, strife, and dissent.

    For all of us who write, share, and commiserate in our mothering challenges, we've got plenty of other goodness about us. That shit just isn't that interesting to read.

    I tend to think that "bad" is subjective to your children (for some kids, bad is actually good, and vice versa – if we can get hugely technical about it).

    And I usually insert "ass" after bad when it comes to you, at least. Her Bad-ass Mother seems to define who you are.

    At least to me, anyway.

    Anonymous June 8, 2009 at 10:38 pm

    Thank you. I needed this today. Today, a day where I cried over 6 times because I don't know how I am going to buy my daughter bday presents or keep our electricity from being turned off on that day. A day where I didn't sleep and my kids needed so much. But yet a day where I helped them and hugged them and cuddled and watched a movie with them. They know I love them and will give up anything for them so while my almost 8 year old made her own breakfast and my 13 year old put her to bed, they think I am a "good" mother and that's all that counts. I believe seeing struggles and learning some self sufficience will benefit them as adults as opposed to the kids who were breastfed til 3 and who do nothing for themselves.

    Stitch Sista June 8, 2009 at 10:41 pm

    Hear hear! I must be a bad mummy too because I've done all those things you mention!

    I really think we do each other a disservice when we don't talk about the reality, the sheer shittiness and despair that motherhood can be at times (often it seems!) Otherwise we just have guilt on top of shittiness for worrying we must be doing it all wrong…

    I'm doing the best I can, and really, I can't do more than that.

    Amo June 8, 2009 at 10:55 pm

    I might not fit into the stereotype of a 'good mother' but to my sons, I'm the best mother.

    And that's all I car about.

    Thank you, Catherine, for shedding your light.

    Al_Pal June 8, 2009 at 11:12 pm

    I got a little misty eyed reading parts of this.
    & yeah, Mr. Lady's comment is Made of Win.

    I feel for y'all!

    Karen June 8, 2009 at 11:23 pm

    So, would you say that your husband is a good father?

    Who would answer "YES!" in a heart-beat?

    Weird question, eh? But it seems to me that we do not apply the same amount of judgement to fathers and fatherhood that you so firmly and rightfully reject when it is applied to mothers and motherhood. Which only emphasises to me how badly we need to reject the whole good/bad business.

    I haven't read the (many!) comments yet so I don't know if there has been discussion of good and bad fathers. Does a good father Montessori or homeschool? The concepts within the question are nearly incongruous, no?

    ramble… I've read a lot of quick declarations that a husband is a "good father," often as a preface to a complaint about the marriage. It seems that, barring abusive situations, just about any present father is quickly judged to be "good."

    Karen June 8, 2009 at 11:47 pm

    Hm. I wish I had read all the comments (esp. kittenpie's) before I wrote that last one. It would have made it shorter.

    Would you say that your husband is a good father? how about a Good Father? Well, there's hardly any such thing as a Good Father, now is there?

    I'm also contemplating DMD's point. I can't decide whether "Bad Mother" proclamations fight or fuel the fire, do both, or which is more important.

    Amber June 8, 2009 at 11:52 pm

    I don't particularly like to think of myself as bad. But I also don't like to think of myself as good. It's all too loaded. I came to a place a number of years ago where I decided that people are neither 'good' nor 'bad'. We just are. We can do good or bad things, but mostly we're well-intentioned and trying our best and not always succeeding. And that's sufficient, and it gives me peace.

    So I totally hear what you have to say, even if I can't bring myself to say I'm a bad mother.

    (Although I will admit to being a touch smug about cloth diapering my second baby. Is smugness good or bad? I don't know or care anymore.)

    michelle June 8, 2009 at 11:55 pm

    HEY!!! YOU KNOW WHAT??? FUCK THAT!!!
    I'm a GOOD mother, and I've done all those things that you do…except maybe for loving my husband more than my kids. And you know what? You're a good mother too.
    Hate to break it to ya

    Kate @ UpsideBackwards June 9, 2009 at 12:28 am

    Sometimes I'm a bad mother, sometimes I'm The Worst Mother in Her Whole Entire Life, and sometimes I'm the Best Mummy in the World. All I do is my best, sometimes that's not so very good but it's all I've got to give and all anyone can ask. And it's good enough, and it will get us through. And I think we all have a lot of this in common.

    mythoughtsonthat June 9, 2009 at 1:13 am

    Everyone is just the best mother they know how to be. The End.

    JChevais June 9, 2009 at 5:29 am

    Now I feel so much better about doing the "jazz hands" in frustration to my kids and asking them how many hands they see! When they say two and I respond that because I only have two I can only do so much, they usually go away.

    If hugs, holding hands and giggles happen during the course of a day, it's all good.

    Mr Lady's first comment? Instant Love.

    eden June 9, 2009 at 5:31 am

    A truly bad mother would never question whether she is a bad mother or not.

    There are some fucked up mothers out there … my mum included. If I just parent the exact opposite to her, I know I'm on the right track.

    I can see why you were nominated for Most Provocative. Please don't ever stop blogging.

    :)

    Nonnash June 9, 2009 at 6:45 am

    Mmmm … thank you so much for this post.

    Mommy Melee June 9, 2009 at 9:20 am

    Just READING this took a weight off my chest, Catherine.

    Heide June 9, 2009 at 9:22 am

    Bad to the bone, mama. Amen.

    kgirl June 9, 2009 at 9:26 am

    Well, because I like my gold stars and might have ended up a bit of a praise junkie, I give myself, and want others to give me, the Good Mother title.

    However, the things that I think make me such a good mother? Many of them were in your list of the things that you think make you a bad mother. There you go.

    I've seen your kids. You're a fantastic mama. Me too.

    Kelly June 9, 2009 at 9:28 am

    Thank you, Catherine, and every mother who admits to the truths. Until a friend told me that sometimes her kids have microwave popcorn for dinner, I harbored the deep-fear that someone would judge me on our occasional "Chips'n'Salsa" meals. Until someone confessed to all-day-marathon-tv I figured the tele-police would charge me with Failure to Stimulate Minds. The only thing I've never felt guilty about is my marital relationship taking priority over my parenting relationship. Now, maybe, I an stop feeling guilty about other "Bad Mommy" things I do and feel better about the "Great Mommy" stuff. Maybe I can start putting more value behind the great stuff.

    Thanks

    Avitable June 9, 2009 at 9:35 am

    I just want to know where all the dirty mothers are.

    Andrea June 9, 2009 at 9:37 am

    I'm in! I'm good for my kid, that much I know (deep down with my fingers in my ears blocking out all the voices telling me otherwise), but I am by no means a Good Mom. He eats peanut butter off a spoon for way too many meals for me to ever qualify as Good. :)

    Megan {Velveteen Mind} June 9, 2009 at 9:39 am

    I was busy voting for myself for "Most Inspiring Blog" at the BlogLuxe awards yesterday (bad, bad) and immediately looked for your name in "Most Provocative," planning to nominate you if you weren't already.

    Well done.

    I just wrote a difficult post about how I feel about this new pregnancy. I can't even whole-heartedly call it "this new baby" yet and I feel like crap for it. Then I felt like crap for not doing some kind of goddess fertility dance out of gratitude, given that so many of our friends struggle with fertility. Then I felt like crap because I couldn't talk about it out of fear of so many things.

    So I finally just wrote it. And wow. People are right there.

    Catherine, I am right there. I have this meandering post in draft that is more or less a list of all the things I have done as a bad mom. Things that I just want to admit and be done with it.

    I've had it for two years. And it keeps getting longer. Never shorter.

    You just about wrote it for me. Thoroughly love you. And our children? They are going to be amazing to the depths of humanity, entertaining, loving, compassionate, independent, strong, and good. In a very bad way.

    Miss Britt June 9, 2009 at 9:46 am

    Shit, Catherine.

    I'm halfway through writing a book that you just summarized in one post.

    No, seriously.

    Son of a bitch.

    Alli Worthington {@alliworthington} June 9, 2009 at 9:54 am

    {bows to the greatness of Her Bad Mother}

    angi June 9, 2009 at 10:02 am

    I am a bad mother…I've done all of those things…but I'm the only mother my kids know…and they love me unconditionally. That's the thing. We're all human, we all are flawed and make mistakes. If you love your kids despite their flaws, chances are they're going to love you right back. Good or bad.

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