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?