May 1, 2015

What’s a bad mother?

Two of my friends – in the last week – have called themselves bad mothers in conversation with me. This is so far from okay that it makes me feel like exploding. Which kinda reminds me of how I felt when I asked my now 29-year-old daughter if I was good mother to her.

She said I’d been pretty good, except for when I 1) was ungracious about about driving her to riding lessons a hour and a half from home and 2) I read the newspaper during her four-hour gymnastics meets. Let me be perfectly clear: In situation #1 the riding stable as so far from home that I had to sit there (in an unheated tack room) for four hours while she rode the horse and then played with it, aka grooming. And in situation # 2 I always put down the paper when it was her turn.

Did I not do enough for her? Does she not remember my blood, sweat and tears? Apparently not. It seems I wasn’t quite good enough and she’s still holding a grudge almost 20 years later.

And we wonder why mothers beat ourselves up. In the case of my two girlfriends who are doing such a good job of that, it’s abundantly clear to me that they’re both doing the absolute best job of mothering that they can do. They are both giving their utmost, and doing their best thinking about what that giving should entail. They’re both really smart women, and very loving too.

So why do they feel so awful about themselves?

This not-good-enough self-harming notion afflicts mothers much more than fathers, for two reasons: One, we define ourselves more by our parenting than men do. Two, from the Virgin Mary on down, the world has punished women with myths of the perfect mother.

Why do women buy the snake oil and feel so awful? Because we can’t get it right every time. And because even if you do get it right (whatever right is), the child in question may still have significant struggles. That is probably not anybody’s fault.

Or they may not appreciate what you did. And if you’ve done a really good job, and raised a child who’s not afraid to speak their mind, and not afraid of you, they’ll tell what (they believe) you did wrong.

Parenting is by far the hardest job we do. As a camp director, I figure I have an incredibly hard job, with enormous and terrifying responsibility. But my job doesn’t hold a candle to parenting for toughness. And I bet yours doesn’t either, even if you run the world (of feel like you do).

No hard job can be done perfectly. Perfection is an unattainable goal. And a terribly self-defeating one. Nothing really hard can be done perfectly, and as parents we know how hard this parenting job is. On so many complex levels, both functional and emotional.

So when you start to beat yourself up for being an imperfect parent, please remember this: Perfection is both unattainable and undesirable. As role models for our kids (especially our daughters) our job includes modeling imperfection and being okay with it – otherwise we teach them neurotic perfectionism. And that’s not such hot parenting.

When we appreciate ourselves for being good enough, when we refuse to buy in to the neurotic myth of perfection, we both heal ourselves and role model self-acceptance for our kids. And that’s really good parenting.




Perfectionism punishes everyone it touches

One response to “What’s a bad mother?”

  1. Val Duffey says:

    Thank you for this, Joanne. I couldn’t agree more that ‘perfect parenting’ is a misnomer at best, and a very dangerous trap at worst. The parent-child relationship is as complex and challenging as any I have navigated, and requires us to be actively authentic, compassionate and forgiving–both with our children and ourselves. I hug my child a lot; I tell him I love him frequently; I apologize to him when I do something I regret, and then I promise to do better. I want him to know that loving someone is an everyday pursuit that requires thought and action. My own parenting standard is to ask myself each night, “Did I do my best today?”, and “Does my kid know I love him?” If I can answer ‘yes’ to those two questions, I can sleep soundly and wake up to another day of loving my little boy the best I can.

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