There has been a lot of talk lately about bad mothers. Is bad good or is bad bad? I linked to one of the discussions on this issue in my post yesterday and the newspapers seem peppered with them the past few days too.
I think part of the problem with the whole conversation is that there is no consistent definition of what a bad mother is. Each person defines it differently. As someone that likes to organize or classify things, I keep getting dizzy when reading these articles because I don't know what they are talking about half of the time and I'm not sure they know either.
So I started thinking about what a bad mother is. I thought about some of the things I had read. I asked people whether they would consider themselves bad mothers and how they would define a bad mother. All of that with the intent of coming up with this typology of the bad mother.
When you think about a bad mother, what do you envision?
Here are the types I have discovered so far:
- Neglectful or abusive and don't know better: Some moms have been dealt the wrong deck of cards in life. They may have grown up being abused or were neglected. That is the only type of parenting they know and they are just continuing the cycle. Others maybe really didn't want to be parents and just don't care enough to try to be a good parent. As an example, @mirandababy considers her mother a bad mother: "Neglectful even to this day, unresponsive, uninterested and completely disassociated". Some moms, like @AmberStrocel who blogs at Strocel would restrict the "bad mother" category to those that are truly neglecting or abusing their kids and don't care to change that.
- Kids don't come first: There are moms who admit that they love their husband more than their kids and will always put their husband's needs first. Obviously all moms need to balance the needs of all family members, but these moms have established a specific ranking order where the kids are decidedly not first. Those that put their husband first include Ayelet Waldman author of Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace and blogger Zaida Grunes (@manhattanspeaks).
- Not perfect and oblivious: There are mothers that are not perfect and don't realize that they are making poor decisions. According to @emilyjh75 "Everyone makes bad choices sometimes. Bad choices do not define her as a bad mother. Unless, IMO, she refuses to recognize them and continues in bad decisions." Or put another way, @nicolemarr from Grudge Mom says "bad parenting is making mistakes and not learning from them. Like repeatedly letting them fall off a couch".
- Not perfect and doing the best they can: A lot of moms recognize that they are not perfect, but they realize that there is only so much that they can do or should do. They realize, like @doudoubebe that everyone has bad days. Or they feel, like @jmegan, that they are the best parent they can be. Some might consider this synonymous with the Good Enough Mother concept and others would say that they while they accept what they did wrong today or yesterday, they are going to continue to try to be a better parent tomorrow.
- Not perfect and feel guilty about it: Then there are other mothers that know they are not perfect and feel guilty about it. For some, it may be debilitating guilt, enough to trigger depression or worse. For others, it is occasional questioning whether stumbling through is good enough or wondering if there is a way to repair past mistakes. These mothers may feel overwhelmed by too few hours in the day (@ewiller), or not enough energy (@fentonslee), or just a desire to be able to do more (@scunning).
- Overindulging: On the opposite end of the spectrum from wanting to do more are those moms that do too much. While they probably wouldn't consider themselves bad moms, there is research on overindulgence that suggests that doing too much for your kids can have negative consequences. These mothers are criticized for not giving their children an opportunity to learn how to do things for themselves or to make decisions for themselves.
- Going against the mainstream on purpose: Some moms get called bad moms because they have made choices that are different from the mainstream. However, these moms have made those choices on purpose because they think it is the best thing for their child. These are not neglectful parents. These are parents that have carefully considered the options and, for example, decided that extended breastfeeding, co-sleeping, or not vaccinating is the best choice. Other parents may let their children do things that are considered dangerous or shocking by others, ranging from unstructured play to riding the NYC subway alone, because they think it is an important developmental experience.
- Worried about or bothered by what others think: There are women who let other people define whether they are a good mother or not. Whether it is comments on a blog post, looks at the playground, or just seeing someone else do something they couldn't do, these moms feel like bad moms because they aren't being the type of mother that society expects them to be. @Kathryn_Easter says that "as Moms we compare ourselves to other Moms and feel like we don't like up to certain standard" and she also admits to having parented differently in some cases just because she was in a public place. Perhaps we all do this a little bit...most people want to fit in, be liked, be admired.
- Bad and proud of it: For some moms, it seems like being a bad mom is becoming a competition. It is the new black. The in thing. They always try to one-up each other: "You think that's bad, well how about this?". There are whole websites set up just for moms to confess how bad they have been and while the initial intent may have been good (e.g. let moms get something off their chest), they seem to quickly degenerate into a competition about who was most neglectful or abusive. Don Mills Diva, for one, is not interested in jumping onto this bandwagon as she said in her post Why the bad mother trend is not good : "I have my struggles, like everyone, and while I might occasionally write about them in a humorous fashion, I'm not interested in endlessly tapping the vein of faux self deprecation for shock value or cheap laughs or sympathy. Or to be trendy." She would rather just be a very good mom.
- Bad...and a mother: Then there are those women who consider themselves bad. Perhaps they are what James Dean would have called a rebel without a cause. Or they are just your garden variety trouble maker. They aren't necessarily bad mothers. They just happen to be bad...and be a mother. Perhaps they are raising the next generation of hoodlums or perhaps their kids will rebel against their badness.
Not all mothers necessarily fall into the same category every day or some mothers may fall into several of these categories all of the time. This list isn't intended to pigeon hole any one mother into a specific category because mothering is complex and our relationships with our children are complex. But I did want to take the whole "bad mother" conversation one step forward by trying to put some definitions around the different things that sometimes get defined as "bad" because I don't think we are all talking about the same thing when we talk about a bad mother.
I also want to say that like @AmberStrocel, I'm going to reserve the term "bad mother" for those that are truly abusive or neglectful. That isn't to say that I'm lining up to give "mother of the year" awards to every other type I've described, but I don't think that it is helpful for me or anyone else to label someone as a bad mother if they are doing their best. Instead I think we should stop glamourizing "bad", we should offer a helping hand to those that are struggling, we should be confident in our own parenting, and we should continue to think about how we could improve.
As for me, I have no interest in being a bad mother. I don't plan to do wrong by my kids in order to make friends. I don't feel like I need to beat myself up for the things I can't do. I don't feel like I need to accept that I am good enough, because I like being a work in progress. I do go against the mainstream sometimes (okay maybe more than sometimes), but I have good reasons for it and I won't let other people call me a bad mother for doing it (so there Ontario coroner).