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.”
“She’s everything that I’m not.”
These responses might be colored by the fact that my polling sample, despite containing a moderate amount of racial, religious, and socioeconomic diversity, was composed of women of approximately the same age (mid-thirties to early forties) and the same level of education (which can be described, succinctly, as “more than they use”). Nonetheless, the common elements in the responses make a compelling statement both about the pervasive power of the antiquated vision of motherhood and about how badly we fall short.
The single defining characteristic of iconic Good Motherhood is self-abnegation. Her day is constructed around her children’s health and happiness, and her own needs and ambitions are relevant only in relation to theirs. If a Good Mother works, she does so only if it doesn’t harm her children, or if her failing to earn an income would make them worse off. She takes care of herself for their sake, to make them better people: “She is in shape and works outside of the home so she can be a good role model.”
Being a Good Father is a reasonable, attainable goal; you need only be present and supportive. Being a Good Mother, as defined by mothers themselves, is impossible. When asked for an example, the women I polled came up with June Cleaver and Marmie, from Little Women. Both fictional characters. It’s as if the three-time Olympic gold-medal swimmer Tracy Caulkins were to beat herself up for being slower than the Little Mermaid.
Is there really no other way to be a mother in contemporary American society than to be locked in the cultural zero-sum game of I’m Okay, You Suck?
Without exception, the mothers I know feel like they have failed to measure up. As Judith Warner so eloquently wrote in her book Perfect Madness, “a widespread, choking cocktail of guilt and anxiety and resentment and regret … is poisoning motherhood.”
I have been pondering the reasons for this maternal anxiety ever since I first found myself suffering from it, sitting in a playground, my briefcase traded for a diaper bag, my ambition curdling into something I thought was anger but I now realize was closer to despair. Before I had kids, I was hard-driving and ambitious, myopically fixated on my career as a federal public defender. But after my first baby was born, I found myself overcome with jealousy of my husband, a work-at-home writer who got to spend long, languid hours with my daughter. When I became pregnant with my second child, I packed up my desk, tossed my framed diplomas into the attic, and became a stay-at-home mom.
It was everything that I thought it would be. Mommy & Me, Gymboree, story time at the library, long stroller walks with my stay-at-home-mommy friends. And then the next day it was Mommy & Me, Gymboree, story time at the library, and long stroller walks with my stay-at-home-mommy friends. And the day after that, and the day after that.
Within a week I was bored and miserable. But a Good Mother wasn’t supposed to be bored and miserable. She didn’t stare at the clock in Gymboree, willing it along with all the power of a fourth-grader waiting for recess, or hide the finger paints because she couldn’t stand the mess. If I wasn’t enjoying myself, then I was a bad mother.
This anxiety has everything to do with what journalist Peggy Orenstein, author of Flux, calls “making pre–Betty Friedan choices in a post–Betty Friedan universe.” When we were little girls, we all had ambitions that went beyond the confines of our own houses. We wanted to work, to have careers. But we found that the realities of the workplace and of family life often defeated our expectations. When professional advancement demands a 60-hour workweek, when the child-care bill approaches or exceeds your paycheck, juggling home and family can feel impossible. Someone usually ends up compromising, and in a world where a woman still earns 70 cents to a man’s dollar and where a man’s identity is still almost exclusively defined by his job, it’s almost always the mother.
So here we are, either staying home, or making serious professional compromises in order to be more available to our children, or feeling like terrible mothers for having failed to make those sacrifices. I imagine there are some mothers who have without regret channeled all of their ambition and energy into making homemade Play-Doh and organizing the nursery school’s capital campaign. I have never met one. The women I know feel an underlying and corrosive sense of disappointment and anxiety. The women I know are, on some level, unfulfilled.
It’s the fact of being unfulfilled that triggers our most intense guilt and shame. Because a Good Mother not only sacrifices herself for her children but also enjoys doing it. A mother who isn’t satisfied, who wants to do more, who can imagine more, is selfish. And just as the Good Mother is defined by her self-abnegation, the Bad Mother is defined by her selfishness.
One way to find consolation in the face of all this failure and guilt is to judge ourselves not against the impossible standard of the Good Mother but against the fun-house-mirror-image Bad Mother. By defining for us the kind of mother we’re not, the Bad Mother makes it easier for us to live with what we are. We may be discontented and irritable, we may snap after the 67th knock-knock joke, our kids may watch three hours of television a day, we may have just celebrated the second anniversary of the last time we had sex, we may have forgotten to pack a snack, or, God forbid, bought one replete with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, we may yank on our daughters’ ponytails while we’re combing their hair, but at least we’re not Britney Spears.
Another strategy some of us have come up with to deal with our sense of failure and guilt is to rebel, to embrace the very identity we are afraid of. We bad moms vociferously resist and resent the glorification of the self-abnegating mother. We snarl at the mention of Dora the Explorer and loathe the wannabe Good Mothers with their aggressive school volunteering, their Bugaboo strollers, and their Petunia Pickle Bottom diaper bags. This is the impulse that animated Anne LaMott’s wry 1993 memoir, Operating Instructions, which launched an entire literary form encompassing books like The Bitch in the House and blogs like crabmommy.blogspot.com.
Beating our critics to the punch is certainly effective as a way of short-circuiting attacks. How much do they think it hurts me to be accused of being a bad mother when that was the name of my blog? But in our rebellion, we bitches and slacker moms are as focused on the Bad Mother archetype as any of the vigilantes of the Bad Mother goon squad. We don’t insist that we’re good mothers despite our failings. On the contrary, we seem only to be saying, “Okay, yeah, we’re bad. So what?”
Is there really no other way to be a mother in contemporary American society than to be locked into the cultural zero-sum game of I’m Okay, You Suck? We possess, after all, a perfectly adequate model, one that operates smoothly, almost imperceptibly, without engendering vitriol or causing much pain: the Good Father. There are no “daddy wars,” and while Alec Baldwin and Michael Jackson have both served their time in the Bad Father stocks, it is rare for a father to feel that his own identity is implicated in or validated by their offenses. Self-flagellation is not the crux of the paternal experience.
I’m not calling for a national lowering of maternal standards to the rather minimal level considered acceptable by society for fathers. In fact, if more were expected of fathers, mothers might not end up shouldering such an undue burden of perfection. But it’s hard enough to minister to the needs of children without trying to live up to an impossible standard at the same time. It’s hard enough to achieve a decent balance between work and home without feeling like our inevitable mistakes are causing our children permanent damage. It’s hard enough to braid a kid’s hair on a moving train without worrying about an audience of censorious commuters.
Here’s an idea: Let’s give ourselves a break. And as a first step, we could try giving one to Britney Spears.
Did you hear the latest? She just ran off to Mexico with a paparazzo. Is she a bad mom, or what?
Ayelet Waldman is the author of Love and Other Impossible Pursuits.