Usually, when I say that I’m a bad mother, I have my tongue jammed pretty firmly into the fleshy innards of my cheek. Even when I insist that I am not making a tongue-in-cheek statement – when I state that we’re all bad mothers, according to someone (because someone, somewhere, always thinks that we are, every single one of us, doing it wrong) – I’m still flirting with being coy. I don’t really believe that I’m a bad mother, on any terms other than those set out by whatever paradigm happens to be dominating the cultural discourse around what constitutes ‘good’ motherhood. And I think that my judgment is pretty sound here: I’ve looked at good motherhood and bad motherhood from all sides now, and I’m pretty sure that I’m right when I say that the whole idea of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ motherhood is mostly a crock.
All of which is simply to say this: I’m not a bad mother, not really. Except when I am.
This week I feel like I am. I’m struggling mightily against it, but I’m having a really hard time. I was away all last week. I’m sick this week. I’m fighting off waves of depression and anxiety. I am spending a lot of time on the couch. It’s hard to be a fully involved and engaged mother when you’re on your back on the couch, wheezing and moaning bitter nothings about lo, lo, the encroaching dark. And although I know – I know – that this is just another part of motherhood – what mother doesn’t get sick, or stumble through the dark wood of depression, or simply just need a day or two to lay down with a damp cloth over her eyes? – it still feels like bad motherhood when your little girl hovers over you, clutching her crayons and coloring books, saying please, please Mommy can we play art school? and you just lay there, whispering please, sweetie, Mommy can’t right now, unless it’s an art school where the teachers give their lessons laying down. (Look, there could be such a thing, right? How did Michelangelo learn how to paint ceilings?)
Or when you give your children frozen pizza for the third day in a row because you just can’t face making anything that involves doing more than opening a package, and even then the whole process gives you a headache and you curse whatever gods decided that frozen pizza should take 19 minutes to bake instead of, you know, 5.
Or when your daughter misses ballet class because you’re too sick to make it the three blocks down the road to the dance school and in any case her dance clothes aren’t out of the laundry, so it’s not like it was going to happen anyway.
Or when you make your husband take charge of the whole evening bath-to-bed routine for the week, even though he was on his own for nearly a week last week, doing that routine and every other routine while you were away.
Or when you realize that the toddler is on his third juice box of the day, and even though it’s a 100% pure apple juice juice box, it’s still a JUICE BOX, and really, shouldn’t he be drinking some milk?
Or when, after you’ve realized that the toddler is on his third juice box of the day – THIRD OF THE DAY – and remembered that apple juice gives him the runs, you still can’t will yourself to do much more than to text your husband – who is in the next room – pls dont give J more apple juice b/c teh runs, k?
Or when you do the calculations and decide that getting up to make sure that no more juice boxes find their way into the chubby grasping hands of your juice-freak toddler will require more effort than just insisting that your husband is on diaper duty for the night, and comport yourself accordingly, which is to say, you stay on the couch with your Nyquil and text ur on diaper duty dude k thx xoxo.
That’s when you feel like a bad mother. Not an ironic bad mother, not a nudge-nudge-wink bad mother, not a “let’s use the term ‘bad mother’ to subvert the cultural hegemony of the idea of the ‘good mother’” bad mother. Just a bad mother.
Even as I type those words, I berate myself. I know that none of this – a few days on the couch, the missed ballet class, a few too many frozen pizzas and juice boxes – adds up to BAD MOTHER, full caps, but still. Knowing that is one thing; believing it is another. And my beliefs – my in-the-moment, how-am-I-feeling-right-now, how-do-I-measure-up, is-there-maybe-something-to-that-Tiger-Mom-business gut feelings – are messing with my knowledge. I know that I’m best damn mother for my children, that no-one could love them better, that no-one could cherish them more. But in moments like these, moments when I’m having a hard time just standing up, never mind getting them balanced meals and making sure they get to dance class, I believe that I could be doing it better, and that because there’s a better that I could be doing, I feel compelled to define where I’m at as worse.
I know. I’m messing with my own head. I know that. I know that. And I know that it’s important that I remind myself that this kind of – what do they call it? – negative self talk is just so much bullshit, so much dominant cultural discourse echo chamber nonsense, and that when it reverberates through my brain and rattles around in my heart I need to just call it out for the crap that it is and tell it to shut the f*ck up. But – and here’s the thing – I also know that I don’t want that to become a reflexive behavior; I know that I don’t want to ever stop being self-reflective and critical – constructively critical – of my parenting. I don’t want to sit back and just wave off every prick of self-doubt as just noise from The Man, man. I want to be alert, always, to the possibility that I could be doing it better – whatever better means – that I could be loving better, caring better, being more mindful, being more present. I want to keep that front of mind, always, even as I remind myself that there is no such thing as the universalizable good mom and self-sacrifice is just another word for ‘let the woman do the laundry.’ Even as I remind myself that the greatest gift that I can give myself, as a mother – and so one of the greatest gifts that I can give my children, as their mother – is to not only forgive myself for my humanity, but to embrace that humanity in all of its messy, complicated glory.
But it’s hard. There are days when I don’t know how to balance those things. Today is one of those days.