Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Good Mom/ Bad Mom

Dear Jules,

After reading my last blog posting, some of my very sweet friends picked up on my guilt about feeling like a "bad mom" during your IEP meetings.  While it is true that statements like "we are trying to do what's best for Julia" definitely don't help one feel like a great mother, the bigger problem is this "good mom vs. bad mom" rhetoric that our society has built up.

I could relate this to special needs-- the "good" special needs mom gives up her job, her hobbies, everything, in order to raise her child--but it's a more pervasive issue than that.  It's one of those #morealikethandifferent things because I think every single mother has dealt with the stigma of other women seeing her as a "bad mom."

Lots of women's and gender studies scholars have written about this, so I know I'm not the first, but I do want to think here about what it means to be a "good" mom, and why this rhetoric is so hurtful to you, my daughter.  Here's a quote from Ayelet Waldman's book, Bad Mother:

There is an appealing sociopolitical rationale for our preoccupation with bad mothers, one articulated to me by the feminist scholar and advocate Lynn Paltrow, founder and executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women. Getting us to focus on bad mothers, she says, is part of a larger political agenda to keep our attention off the truth — that it is not our mothers but our government that has failed us. The patriarchy and its political, media, and profit-making machines encourage us to scapegoat and vilify one bogeymama after another...

Now I agree with Paltrow and with Betty Friedan, who talked about this at Smith College back in the 1990's, that by villifying each other (working mom vs. stay-at-home mom, lesbian vs. straight, etc.), women are taking the focus off of the "truth", which is that we're still far from anything called "gender equality."  I'm not sure that I would put it in the same way, like it's a government consipiracy, but it is the truth.

I also really like what Waldman has to say about the "good mom" vs. the "good dad."  Your Daddy always says that he finds it funny that, when he's shopping with you, hasn't combed your hair, and might have forgotten a shoe, people still turn to him and say he's a "good dad."  Your father, tongue-in-cheek, says that basically, a "good dad" is someone who doesn't "beat" their child.  Sort-of like what Waldman says:

 A good father is characterized quite simply by his presence. He shows up. In the delivery room, at dinnertime (when he can), to school recitals and ball games (whenever it's reasonably possible). He's a good provider who is not above changing a diaper or wearing a Baby Bjorn. He's a strong shoulder to cry on and, at the same time, a constant example of how to roll with the punches. This definition seems to accommodate, without contradiction, both an older, sentimentalized Father Knows Best version of a dad and our post-Free to Be You and Me assumptions.
However, my polling sample had a difficult time describing a good mother without resorting to hyperbole, beneath which it's possible to discern a hint of angry self-flagellation.

Here is just one of the "good mom" examples:
"She lives only in the present and entirely for her kids."
"She remembers to serve fruit at breakfast, is always cheerful and never yells, manages not to project her own neuroses and inadequacies onto her children, is an active and beloved community volunteer; she remembers to make playdates, her children's clothes fit, and she does art projects with them and enjoys all their games. And she is never too tired for sex."

I want to think about what this would mean to us and, more specifically, to you.  Other than the fruit at breakfast, which just seems so small in the scheme of things (do people go to therapy complaining about no fruit??), would it be helpful for me to be "always cheerful?"  If I never got angry, never yelled, never cried, how would you learn to deal with your own conflicting emotions later in life?  It's not the yelling that's a problem, it's the lack or anger resolution, which, I think, is another matter altogether.

None of us want to "project" our "neuroses and inadequacies" onto our children, but again, we are human.  And people are much more resilient than one would think.  Ann Patchett, an author I really like, has a podcast called Magic Lessons in which she talks about being a "good enough" mother (she's talking about writers who feel guilty for taking time to, um, write).  And I think there is a lot to that.  Most of our mothers were, and are, "good enough," meaning that we know they love us and are there for us.  I know my own mom felt guilty about my having an anxiety disorder, but that disorder was caused by a combination of social and biological factors, and it doesn't mean she wasn't a "good mother."  She was and is, and I know that she is always there for me.

The rest of this list is okay, I guess, if one a) doesn't work outside the home, AND b) doesn't have any hobbies or interests.  Because even if I did not work 60+ hours a week, I would still play my violin and run 25-30 miles a week, and I might not have the time or the energy to volunteer or make playdates all of the time.  Grammy, according to Daddy, always took him on spontaneous adventures when he was a kid, but that, too, means that one can't be so scheduled with the volunteerism and the playdates.

And I dare any of you who are parents to tell me that you enjoy ALL of your childrens' games.  Honestly, you (Jules) are four right now, and many of your games involve running around and around and around...non-stop, until I'm so dizzy I want to puke.  I do it because I love you, but enjoy would be an overstatement.

Finally, even if I did not work outside the home and had no hobbies or interests, parenting would make me too tired to have sex.  When you were home during the recent flooding, I worked harder trying to entertain you than I ever do at work, or running a marathon.  So again, I dare you to tell me that, after getting snot and (sometimes) vomit all over you, running around all day, cleaning up after your child, and finally getting that child to sleep (damnit), you would want to have sex?

The thing is that I don't want you to grow up to be this person, this Stepford wife.  Especially for mothers of girls, I think it's crucial to teach you that we have conflicted emotions, that we are people, and that we have our own lives...and it is okay.  Because I want you to feel entitled to these things.  Even if you don't have biological children, our culture pushes the nurturing thing onto women so much that, as teachers or nurses or bosses or whatever, we still don't feel entitled to our own lives.

This is getting long, so I'll just close by saying that, as someone with special needs, you'll feel social pressure to be especially nurturing.  "They [people with DS]," the cliché goes, "are all so loving."  I've been doing some reading about women with intellectual disabilities, and they are pictured even more this way, with some people describing you as "dolls."  You need to be loving, sure, but it's okay to be a "bad mom" sometimes and be human.  Every single person is entitled to that privilege.

Me, you, and my Awesome Mom!


  1. Amen, Kathy. I just published a blog post along the same lines:

    Meli (From Summer 1997)

  2. Kathy, this is wonderful!!! Thank you.