On Being A Good Mother, In Spite Of It All

November 9, 2010

Emilia 039Before Emilia was born, I had a very clear plan about what kind of mother I was going to be. I was going to carry her with me everywhere in designer slings, I was going to hand-blend my own organic baby food, I was going to shun pacifiers, I was going to teach her sign language before she was six months old, I was going to lose the baby weight before she was four months old, I was going to forbid any and all toys that were not hand-crafted by Swedish artisans from entering my house, I was going to swaddled her bottom only in cloth diapers hand-laundered in eco-friendly detergents, I was going breastfeed her until she was two, I was going to not let her watch television until she was three, I was going to clothe her only in garments woven from pure cotton by Tibetan monks or, at least, certified Disney-character free. I was going to be master of my maternal domain! I was going to be the very best mother ever, and nobody would be able to deny it!

Then Emilia was born. You know where this is going. There was a pacifier in her mouth before we wrapped her bottom in some Huggies Little Snugglers, bundled her in a Winnie-the-Pooh sleeper and took her home from the hospital.

She refused to be carried in slings or Bjorns or Ergos or anything, really, other than arms or strollers, and even arms were usually disdained in favor of moving-moving-always-moving. She self-weaned just shy of nine months. She wouldn’t nap or sleep unless she was left to fuss it out for a while, or unless she was put in a stroller and walked around the block eleventeen times. She was bouncing around in a hideous red-and-blue plastic Exersaucer by the time she was six months old, and she never learned sign language. I never did get around to making my own organic baby food, and almost five years later, I still have the baby weight.

I agonized over all of this – all of these failings, as I saw them – for a very long time. I wanted to do motherhood right. I had very clear ideas, most of them conflicting entirely with the others, about what was involved in doing motherhood right. I had read all the books, was reading all the magazines, had found all the blogs. Angelina carried her baby everywhere. So did Jennifer Garner. And Dr. Sears was adamant that I breastfeed as long as possible, and that if it hurt, I was doing it wrong. Harvey Karp told me that there was no reason why my child shouldn’t sleep on a reasonable schedule, if I handled her properly (what was it again? Swaddle-Soothe-Swing-Swagger-Swill-Something?), and Christy Turlington was on the cover of Cookie Magazine showing off what yoga had done for her mom-bod. And don’t even get me started on Gwyneth Paltrow. Gwyneth Paltrow, it seemed to me, had her shit down. Everyone else could be a good mother, dammit. Why couldn’t I?

I eventually found a way to let all of that go and accept – finally, and with difficulty – that not only did I not need to conform to somebody else’s idea of a good mother, there was no such thing as a perfectly, universalizably good mother. But that was – and, if I’m honest, sometimes still is – a hard road to travel. We’re so invested – as we must be – in doing this motherhood thing right that we forget – we overlook, we are misled about the fact – that there is no one universal ‘right,’ that there is only ‘right for us.’ In forgetting/overlooking/being misled about the absence of a universal ‘right,’ we are left open to anxiety, panic, fear about falling into the vast pit of universally wrong. If we do this wrong we will harm our babies! If we do this wrong we will destroy lives! THERE ARE WHOLE UNIVERSES BALANCED UPON THE TIP OF OUR DECISION WHETHER OR NOT TO BREASTFEED/CO-SLEEP/HOME-SCHOOL/SHUN-DORA!

It’s this, I think – this anxiety about being a good mother – that traps us and imprisons us, and not, as Erica Jong argued the other day in the Wall Street Journal, the dictates of specific styles of parenting (her specific strawman: attachment parenting.) Whether you attachment parent or Ferber-parent or Von Trapp-parent (you know, where you dress them in starched pinafores and make them sing at your parties), if you’re driven by anxiety to follow a style or adhere to a quote-unquote philosophy, and/or if you persist in following that style or philosophy regardless of whether it works for you and your child, you will be imprisoned. It will be hard. It will suck. Maybe not desperately so, but enough, and when it comes to parenting, even moderate suckage is too much suckage. Why must we be so hard on ourselves? Why is it so hard – why does it seem so hard – to just follow our instincts and experiment and allow ourselves to fail from time to time without beating ourselves up and to just, you know, simply do what works? Which, no, is never going to look exactly like what works for your neighbor or your sister-in-law or that mom who you’ve heard about who works full-time and has ten children and yet always has her hair perfectly blown out and her nails manicured, but whatever. You are not that mom. Repeat: YOU ARE NOT THAT MOM.

You are you. You will only and can only have your own style. What makes you a good mother is whatever it is that you bring to mothering your own children, whose needs and preferences are always and necessarily going to be different from the needs and preferences of other children. Emilia was independent from the get-go: attachment parenting didn’t work with her. Jasper was and is the opposite: he wants and needs to be fully attached. The strategies that I worked out for Emilia – for comforting her, for getting her to sleep, for boosting her confidence, for distracting her – simply did not and do not work for Jasper. I’ve adapted my style, and I’ve adapted my style to him. There is, I think, an underlying consistency (for lack of a better word) to my style, which was informed by my experience with Emilia and by my beliefs about parenting (yes, I do have some), but it is, let’s say, a flexible consistency, one that’s more akin to thread running through fabric than steel girding a building. And at the core of all this, there resides this one idea: that only determining factors in whether or not I am a ‘good’ mother are whether I meet their needs – their basic, general needs, and their unique, idiosyncratic ones – and love them well.

Erica Jong is right that we trap ourselves and imprison ourselves with unnecessarily rigid ideas about parenting. But it’s not, as I said, the style of the parenting that necessarily forces that rigidity: it’s our attitudes toward those styles, and the spirit in which we adopt them. Attachment parenting is only restrictive if it doesn’t work for the parent or child being attached; for some it works, for some it doesn’t, and there’s no right or wrong about it, except inasmuch as we try to impose the beliefs gleaned from our own experiences onto others, which is what gets us into trouble in the first place. Erica Jong and that too-French-to-be-believed French woman who wrote that book on le conflit! de la femme et le mere! (merde!) recoil at the idea of carrying around babies and giving up coffee and what have you; that’s their prerogative. As Jong herself states, there’s no one right way to do parenting that’s been handed down through the ages and shared across cultures. Which means that – apart from obvious cases involving abuse and neglect and the withholding of love – there’s also no wrong way. Attachment parenting is only wrong (or restrictive or oppressive or whatever negative term one wants to apply) for those for whom it is wrong. That might be you. That might be me. It is not for anyone other than you or me to say. It is certainly not for Erica Jong to say.

As I’ve said before, that we even debate and dither over these things is a marker of our privilege, and something that we shouldn’t take for granted. We do, many of us, have the luxury of choosing, of surveying the parenting landscape spread before us and debating and deliberating over which roads to take, of wandering down one path and then veering off to another if the first is too rocky or too steep, or of forging our own paths in between the established roads. Parenting, for most people in most of the world, throughout most of human history, has only ever just been parenting, with no qualifying adverb – just whatever works, whatever is necessary, whatever is possible for best ensuring the survival (and, in the best case, thriving) of child and family. We are fortunate to have choices – those of us who actually do have such choices (it is important to remember that not all of us, even in the so-called developed world, do) – and those of us who would condemn any of these choices – regardless of whether we are condemning on the basis of what we think is good for mother or what we think is good for child or what we think is best for feminism or whatever – are doing all of us a grave disservice. We are the lucky ones, we who get to define the terms of our own motherhood. Why on earth would we – do we – get in each others’ way, try to prevent each other from doing so?

The answer is obvious, of course, and obvious even in Jong’s own argument: because this motherhood thing is so loaded, and we are so anxious about it, we get sensitive about it. We are afraid of doing it wrong, and so we look to each other, constantly, asking ourselves – sometimes asking each other – is she doing it wrong? Is SHE doing it wrong? Is SHE? Or is SHE doing it right? If she’s doing it right, and it’s different from how I am doing it, does that make me wrong? I MUST ASSERT MY WAY AS RIGHT. Jong herself admits, quietly, to worrying over her choices. “I hired nannies,” she says, “left my daughter home and felt guilty for my own imperfect attachment.” But, she adds,  “I can’t imagine having done it any other way.” So why could she not leave it at that, admit that she did it the only way that she could, that she did the best she could, and sure, maybe she made some mistakes along the way – one cannot mother without making some mistakes along the way – and maybe she wished that there had been other alternatives for her, but end of the day: she did her best, full stop. Isn’t that what we should all aim for? Isn’t that what ‘good’ motherhood should be about? Not about how or why or what are the socio-cultural-politico-economic implications of how everyone else is doing it – just about how you are doing it, and whether it is serving you, and your children. FULL STOP.

That’s what I’m aiming for. As best I can, anyway.

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    Tarrant November 12, 2010 at 7:54 pm

    My 16-year-old didn’t do the carry/sling/cuddle thing either. He hated not sitting on his own-pumpkin seat, floor, bed, stroller, high chair, etc. The only thing he stood for in holding was bottle-feeding. (GASP! I bottle fed him too because he was failure to thrive and nearly died before we gave in after months of lactation consultants, Supplemental Nursing Systems, etc)

    Know what? At 16, he is as well-adjusted and good to his mother and independent as any teen ever behaves.

    I also learned along the way that each of my children needs a different mother. I thought I knew perfect parenting before I had children. I was a great babysitter and nanny before I had children. I knew how to do it all perfectly. I even dispensed “never say never” advice to friends about pacifiers, diapers, and thumb sucking. It took my children to teach me that the only perfect mother is being the mother that particular child needs as often as possible and owning those moments when you truly are imperfect.

    Ceri Marsh November 14, 2010 at 7:36 pm

    Great post! A great read and much food for thought, which Jong’s piece was, too. And fascinating to make my way through the posts.

    I’m like a pendulum on this. On the one, hand, it is the most important task we have – being parents – so why shouldn’t you make some sacrifices if you’re lucky enough to be able to? On the other hand – everybody lighten up! And stop picking on each other.

    I land on one or the other position depending on how I think I’m doing as a parent. Self serving enough for you?!

    But what really makes me crazy is the absence of men in these discussions. Not that men don’t have anything to say but that we don’t say this would be a hell of a lot easier if we were all really sharing the job with our partners.

    I know, I know, lots of guys are right in there. My husband is right in there. But once we start talking about parenting in the media, in blogs and forums and so on it’s like, we’re right back to mothers being the ones holding the bag.

    And I love the bag! But why do we have to hold it alone in these discussions? Know what I mean?

    Thanks for starting (and maintaining) the conversation!


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    Elaine November 19, 2010 at 4:29 pm

    I don’t read here very often, although I love your writing and your style.

    But, I did today and I’m SO glad I did. Thank you for putting this out there and opening it up for discussion. I haven’t read the article you reference but I do know this without doing so: Parenting is the HARDEST thing I’ve ever done. And no matter what choices I’ve made and how many times I’ve yelled at them when I shouldn’t have or which one I carried in a Baby Bjorn and which in a sling, they are MY choices, best for me and my child at the time. And no, I’m not the “perfect” mother and I take comfort in the fact that I’m pretty sure no one else is either.
    .-= Elaine´s last blog ..And So I Ran =-.

    April November 22, 2010 at 5:57 pm

    Something very important we have to remember about Angelina and Jennifer and Gwyneth:

    They have professional cooks, cleaning staff, and personal trainers!

    We (unfortunately) don’t.
    .-= April´s last blog ..No- I Have No =-.

    Michal Levison November 23, 2010 at 9:40 pm

    YES! Its amazing how ridiculous our concept of parenthood is before we actually have children, no? I am starting a revolution to give kids their childhoods back and parents their lives back. Who’s on-board?

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