(I originally wrote this years ago. YEARS AGO. But I’m revisiting it now, because I’ve been thinking a lot about how I might update it, as a mother of school-aged kids. As the mother of a pre-adolescent girl, and a manic tree-sprite of a boy. But I need to sit with it for a bit, so sitting with it I am. And while sitting, sharing.)
My name is Catherine, and I am a bad mother. I (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 used disposable diapers. I let my children have more screen time 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 hate playdates. I stopped breastfeeding because I was tired of it. I co-slept with my son. I still sometimes co-sleep with my son. I didn’t co-sleep with my daughter. I have been treated for depression. I stopped my treatment for depression. I was, for a time, entirely too attached to Ativan.
I have left my children alone in the bathtub. I have spanked my daughter (only once, but still). I have turned my back on my crying son. I have had intrusive thoughts. I curse. I have put my own needs first. 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, more than once, 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 specter, the specter that has haunted mothers since God first smacked our hands for being too independent and too curious 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 the struggle. They do not talk about these things, out loud.
They keep their silence, and look to the ideal of 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 cries her kids out. 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 a Tiger Mom; she’s a Free Range Mom; she’s a Slacker Mom; she’s a Hipster Mom; she’s a Christian Mom; she’s a Hipster-Christian-Tiger-Free Range 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.