Tag Archives: Ayelet Waldman

in defense of the good mother myth

The ‘Good Mother’ myth is alive and kicking. So says an important new collection of essays, edited by Avital Norman Nathman and designed to paint a rather messier picture of motherhood indeed. Nathman and Co are not alone in this endeavor. There is now an entire industry dedicated to debunking the fantasy of the Good Mother by chronicling the missteps and misjudgements of her naughty stepsister, the Bad Mother. It is a mass movement particularly prevalent in the blogosphere and its worthy cause of telling it like it is can be traced back to Ayelet Waldman’s genre-defining book of that name.

As both Nathman and Waldman have pointed out, the Good Mother is largely a chimera. Like the boggart from Harry Potter, she is a shape-shifter who takes the form of her intended victim’s worst fear. If you can’t cook, the Good Mother is the one who fills her children to the brim with homemade, organically-sourced super food. If you plop your kids in front of the TV, the Good Mother is the one who lets them play only with wooden toys, whittled by elves in the recesses of the Swiss Alps. If you work full time, the Good Mother is the one showing up for every single school event. If you bottle feed, the Good Mother is a lactating goddess, dripping with liquid gold.

The Good Mother is often our inner voice talking back to us. She is a kind of Jiminy Cricket, who sits on our shoulders, shining a light on the things we might like to have done differently or on the things we might like to be doing better. The opposite of the Good Mother in this regard is not the Bad Mother: it is the Real Mother. Parenting is damn hard work. Most of us fail to live up to our own expectations. The interesting question is not about what those expectations are; it is about why we berate ourselves for not meeting them in the face of reality. A potential answer – and this is the one The Good Mother Myth focuses on – is because we feel confronted, at every turn, by women who seem to be getting it ‘right.’

With the proliferation of venues in which she can haunt us, from the media to Facebook to Pinterest, the Good Mother is everywhere these days. And yet, the backlash against her has been equally fierce. One only has to peruse wildly popular websites like Scary Mommy to see the extent of this effort. But how many essays about the shit hitting the fan, literally and metaphorically, need to be published before we can extricate ourselves from the Good Mother’s impeccably manicured grip? My guess is that there is no number high enough, that the Good Mother will never vanish from the collective consciousness, because the various parts of her will continue to manifest themselves in actual women, who are telling their stories. And what’s more: I’m not sure she should disappear wholly. Her dogged persistence leads me to believe she serves some kind of philosophical purpose.

When it comes to mothering, there are aspects most of us would consider highly subjective and irrelevant to the welfare of the child: what kind of stroller you buy, for instance. So too there are aspects that most of us would consider either objectively wrong (abuse, neglect) or objectively undesirable (the baby rolling off the bed, screaming at the toddler all day long). Then there is the murky middle ground, the moral carcass around which the vultures of the Mommy Wars circle. This is where the subjective and the objective become disconcertingly blurred and this is where the Good Mother’s voice blares the loudest, though she does not utter the same words to each of us (my Good Mother, for instance, does not craft or co-sleep).

Navigating the emotional minefield of this middle ground is of notable difficulty for today’s crop of mothers. We are a generation that invests more in our children than ever before and we have reams of information at our fingertips about how ‘best’ to do it. Each decision we make – from whether we stay home with them to when we wean them to how much we praise them – takes on a disproportionate, almost mystical, quality. As a result, we have become overwhelmed by what is subjective about parenting and extra sensitive to perceived criticism about what is more objective. As Fionola Meredith has articulated recently vis-à-vis breastfeeding, ‘[modern] mothers…will simply not tolerate anybody making them feel bad.’

If the Good Mother makes us feel bad, however, it is because we let her. She is not the problem by herself. The problem is that we have allowed her to become a vehicle for envy and guilt and self-flagellation, instead of a means of identifying what matters most to us and a force for mindful improvement therein. The fear of getting it ‘wrong’ has led us down a slippery slope, where we take comfort in being told everything we do is ‘right’. But everything we do as parents will not yield the perfect outcome, even by our own standards. That’s okay. We shouldn’t be holding the Good Mother up as a mirror in this respect, reflecting our failures back to us. We should be holding her in our heads as an ideal, an incentive to become the best version of the Real Mothers we actually are.

This post is part of the Brilliant Book Club. Check out these interesting takes on The Good Mother Myth at the links below: 

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bad mother

No, silly, not me. It’s the name of a book by Ayelet Waldman, which my sister forced me to buy. Get it now, she barked, over and over again until it finally found its way into my virtual shopping basket some months later. She was right, though. It was a must-read for me and I have already gifted it not for the last time. The premise is one we are painstakingly familiar with these days: the pressure to be perfect, internal or otherwise, is an inescapable feature of modern motherhood. It is why we invest every decision about our children’s upbringing with mystical properties. And it is why we drive ourselves crazy at the prospect of making a wrong one somewhere along the way.

The antidote to the madness is honesty. Waldman saw this clearly (she is, after all, best known for her admission that she loves her husband more than her children). Telling it like it is and drawing conclusions accordingly is the modus operandi of the entire collection of essays. Honesty makes for a great story too: the bad mother is the better to paint in excruciating detail, the colors of her lapses and misjudgments are vivid indeed. The good mother, on the other hand, is a chimera. She is a product of our imagination or what we mistakenly or incompletely perceive in other women and nobody wants to hear about her.

Honesty is so important because it makes bad mothers of us all, on occasion. You can’t tell the truth about what it is like to deal with kids hour in and hour out without saying something condemning about yourself. Parenthood is roses and rainbows some of the time, but the rest of the time it is anything but: thoughts can be dark, patience can be wafer-thin, poop can get everywhere. It is a mixed bag, like everything else, and it is a series of phases. You think you are a faultless mother to your pristine baby? Well, let’s see what happens when the terrible twos or the trying threes or the fuck-you fours come crashing down on your head.

There are a lot of moms out there today chipping away at the straw man (or straw woman, I should say) of the good mother. And many of them, like Waldman, have taken to their computers. The web is saturated right now with mommy blogs: women trying to make sense through prose of their experience raising children and to educate and be educated about the different ways it can be done. Because parenting is both highly specific and profoundly universal, it lends itself to a conversation of just this sort. We all do basically the same things – feed the kid, put him to sleep, discipline him, pack him off to school – but we do them in such wildly distinct ways that we can’t help but take interest in how the next mother over is doing it. Or at least I can’t.

The dichotomy between the universal and the particular is what led me to omnimom. The Latin word ‘omnis’ means ‘all’, but it also means ‘every’. The gist is that every mom out there has a unique take on what it is to be a ‘good’ one. The ways to be a good mother are as diverse, almost, as mothers themselves. Unless you are utterly neglecting your kid or abusing him or worse – there is obviously a threshold but, let’s be honest, nobody reading this blog falls beneath it – you should wear the title proudly. The problem with the current climate of middle-class parenting – and the anxiety it propagates as a result – is that it presupposes only one right answer or set of right answers to the question: how do I do it well? We are led to believe that if we argue long enough about it, marshal enough evidence, read enough books, we can put our finger on how to parent perfectly.

I have spent much of my academic life studying the idea of pluralism, which argues precisely the opposite. It is a moral philosophy, but it speaks beautifully to motherhood. Pluralism is the belief that there are many, many goods or values in this world and that they can be so different from one another that they might even become mutually exclusive. When this happens – when breastfeeding comes into conflict with bottle feeding, sleep-training with co-sleeping, staying at home with being a working mom – the most we can do is make an all-things-considered, best-case-scenario choice between them, based on individual preferences and goals. It’s not a wonder, then, that we all choose differently.

omnimom originated because I chose differently with each of my kids. I learned the lesson of parenting pluralism without having to leave the house. It is often the case that we walk the same roads from one child to the next because the footprints are already there: breastfeed one, breastfeed them all; C-section with one, C-section with them all; attachment parent one, attachment parent them all. But circumstances, particularly the fact of having twins, has sent me down roads I would never have expected to travel. One’s perspective can’t help but broaden.

Having four kids is an eye-opener, in this way. The number doesn’t make you a good mother. If anything, you become a conventionally worse one as the repetitiveness greys your hair and dulls your resolve. But it can make you a more circumspect one: the years, and the variety of your offspring, often prove that the ‘wrong’ decisions you thought you made with one of them or two of them vis-a-vis the others don’t matter a jot and that, sometimes, they worked out better than you could have guessed.

Waldman has a chapter towards the end of the book, it’s my favorite, called ‘To Each His Own Mother’ where she makes roughly the same point: you don’t parent your fourth kid the same way you parent your first. How can you when the experience of what went in-between has literally made you a different person? But that doesn’t make your first child’s mother the good one because she was able to cater to his every whim or serve him only hand-crafted organic food or mark his every milestone in a journal bought specially for the purpose. And it doesn’t make your last child’s mother a bad one because she did none of those things. Rather, as Waldman concludes herself, it is impossible to say in hindsight which kid got the better deal. And it probably doesn’t matter anyway.

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