I busted my first Bad Mother in the spring of 1994, on a Muni train in San Francisco. She had two barrettes clamped between her lips and was sitting on the edge of her seat, her young daughter standing between her knees. She was brushing the little girl’s long dark hair, trying to gather the slippery strands into a neat ponytail. She would smooth one side and then lose her grip on the other, or gather up the hair in the front only to watch the hairs at the nape of the girl’s neck slide free. The ride was rough, and when the driver took a turn too sharply, the little girl stumbled forward, her sudden motion causing the mother once again to lose hold of the ponytail. With a frustrated click of her tongue, the mother yanked a handful of the girl’s hair, hard, and hissed, “Stand still!”
I leaned forward in my seat and said, in a voice loud enough for everyone in the car to hear, “Lady, we’re all watching you.”
We are always watching: the Bad Mother police force, in a perpetual state of alert level orange. Sometimes the avatars of maternal evil that obsess us are grave and terrible, like, for example, Andrea Yates, not guilty by reason of insanity of drowning her five children in the bathtub. Sometimes the mother is so lunatic that she approaches a kind of horrible joke, like Wendy Cook, the prostitute in Saratoga Springs who snorted cocaine off her baby’s stomach while she was breast-feeding. Lately, Britney Spears has stepped up as our reigning bogeymama—her rap sheet long and varied and featuring, most recently, a standoff with the police and a stay in the psych ward. She’s a Bad Mother; no worse, perhaps, than her own mother, whose publisher wisely shelved plans for her parenting memoir after 16-year-old Jamie Lynn announced that she’d just been jumped into the Bad Mother gang.
The Bad Mother thug life. I know it well. Ten years after I busted the Medea of Muni for pulling her daughter’s hair on the J Church line, I was made to do my own perp walk. For a Warholian fifteen, I became fodder for talk shows and gossip blogs, held up as an example of maternal perfidy. My crime? Confessing in the pages of the New York Times to—short version—loving my husband more than my children.
The Bad Mother police were swiftly on the scene. They speculated on Oprah and down in the toxic mud of the comment sections on blogs that I was crazy, a menace, that my children should be taken away from me. New York City’s elite Bad Mother swat team, the warrior shrews of UrbanBaby, sank their pointy little incisors into my ankles.
I feel enough of Spears’s pain to find myself wondering where this obsession with archetypal manifestations of maternal evil comes from. From Jocasta to Joan Crawford, we’ve always been both terrified and titillated by the Bad Mother. But I can’t help but feel that there is something especially sharpened and hysterical about contemporary Bad Mother vitriol.
One reasonable explanation for our obsession might be that the political, media, and profit-making machines encourage us to scapegoat and vilify one egregious freak-show mom after another in order to keep our attention off the truth—that it is not our mothers but our government that has failed to take care of our children. True enough, but the blare of condemnation that drowns out so much of civil discourse on the subject of motherhood originates not from some patriarchal grand inquisitor’s office but, in large part, from individual women. An hour surfing the mommy blogs provides compelling support for the notion that, in this area at least, we women are the primary authors of our own subjugation.
When I polled an unscientific sampling of my friends and family on the topic, they had no trouble defining what it meant to be a Good Father. A Good Father 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 BabyBjörn. 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.
But my polling sample had a difficult time describing a Good Mother without resorting to hyperbole, beneath which it’s possible to discern more than a little self-flagellation.
“Mary Poppins, but she doesn’t leave at the end of the movie.”
“She has infinite patience.”
“She remembers to serve fruit at breakfast, is always cheerful and never yells, manages not to project her own neuroses onto her children, volunteers in the community, remembers to make playdates, her children’s clothes fit, and she does art projects with them and enjoys their games. And she is never too tired for sex.”