Friday, June 12, 2009

Mother Mythology

My mother was a feminist activist. She was a liberated, liberal professor with a master's degree who taught Women's Studies courses at a local university. She was a card-carrying member of NOW. She dressed me in jean overalls and sensible shoes and allowed me to choose Little Boy Blue as the color of my bedroom and encouraged me to play with toy trucks in the mud and banned Barbies from our home. She took me to an Equal Rights Amendment march on Washington when I was eight years old.

My mother was an impoverished, impulsive teenage mom. A troubled high-school dropout from a dysfunctional and abusive home who found escape from her alcoholic father and her Valium-and-electroshock-therapy-dazed mother in a marriage on her seventeenth birthday, and gave birth to me eleven months later, just before she turned eighteen. Who had another baby before she fully figured out that her charming knight in knight in dented armor was a pathological narcissist with an addiction to lies who was only really capable of the sort of love that is not love of another at all but instead a reflection of love for oneself. The sort of person who would give a homeless man the coat off his back in a show of virtue, but would also disappear for a weekend leaving his family with no money and nothing in the pantry but crackers and peanut butter.

My mother was an uneducated, unemployed, homeless divorcee living with two dirty, hungry kids and a new lover in a car.

My mother was neglectful. She was an ambitious working college student who dreamed of becoming a professor and was willing to put her education ahead of time with her kids. She was an essentially single parent who supported two kids on work-study wages, student loans and sometimes welfare (but never child support from their father, because at that time, she got none). She had no time to make real dinners. She forgot to do laundry. She did not throw elaborate birthday parties, or take her children to playgroups, or ballet lessons. She did not teach her children to swim, or even show them how to ride a bike. She did not help with homework; she had her own homework to do. She sometimes left her two young daughters to wander the university library unsupervised during her classes. At times she left her children for extended periods with unhappy, unbalanced relatives, or with their father despite the fact that she knew their father was selfish, inept at parenting, and incapable of keeping a clean, safe home. Sometimes she did this because she had to. Other times she did it because she was tired of us and wanted a break.

My mother was amazing. She once spent an entire weekend hand painting paper fish to decorate my little sister's room. Each fish was different. When she finished, walking into the room was like walking into an exotic aquarium. It took a moment to remember you could breathe. My mother once convinced my sister and me that chunks of asphalt she had painted gold were really dragons' eggs, and that if we cared for them enough and waited long enough, one day they would hatch. When she was home and we were home with her, my mother read to my sister and me for at least twenty minutes every night, without fail, no matter how tired she was, or how much work she had to do. She read us Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the Narnia series, and Lord of the Rings, and all of the books about the Boxcar Children, and everything she could get her hands on by Roald Dahl. She taught us how to make bread from scratch, and explained how trees made oxygen, and took us to poetry readings. When she was in school and her kids were in school, every once in a while, she would wake up and say, "Let's play hooky." And she would call in sick for everyone and we would spend an entire day at the zoo.

My mother was an advocate. When she moved to a new school district and the school her daughters wound up in turned out to be a crumbling building with screaming, overworked teachers, disintegrating textbooks, roaches in the lunchroom and classrooms so overcrowded the students had to climb over desks to cross a room, and an administration that refused to listen to her demands for reform, she went to every private school in town and demanded an audience with each school's admissions staff. Eventually she decided that the most expensive school in the city should give her children scholarships. So she made the school do it. (I am still not sure how.)

My mother was a Bad Mother.

She was not just a bad mother-- she was a stereotype of a bad mother. The kind of too-young, too-poor, too-selfish, dependent-on-the-state bad mother you hear politicians railing about on the evening news.

My mother was a Good Mother.

And I mean the saintly, archetypal Good Mother. A Holy Mary Mother of God sort of mother. A sacrifice-your-life-for-your-kids-and-don't-think-twice-or-expect-any-glory-or-thanks sort of mother.

My mother was a Bad-Ass Mutha.

A take-no-prisoners, fuck convention, down with the patriarchy, up with my kids, let's conquer the world while wearing sparkly purple face paint and then go out for ice cream sort of mother.

My mother was old-fashioned and before her time and a product of the times and a trendsetter and a trendbucker and trendy and all-out-of-style.

My mother was all of these things and more and which part of her you might encounter depended on what day it was and how much caffeine she'd had and which way the wind was blowing in Argentina.

Because above all else, my mother was a human being. Imperfect and devastatingly, unbelievably perfect, all at once, just like the rest of us.

It's the most obvious thing in the world that mothers are human, that each of our own mothers are human, and were human, were people, with their own lives and emotions and dreams and flaws and strengths before they were mothers. And yet somehow this incontrovertible, in-your-face fact that mothers are ordinary people is not always acknowledged when people in our society talk or think about mothers.

We place impossible expectations on mothers. And when I say we I do not just mean "21st century Western culture" or "North Americans" or "the media." In we I include myself, and I include you, and I include your hairdresser and the President of the United States (whose mother, incidentally, seems to have been a hell of a lot like mine) and street children in Africa and Angelina Jolie and the Pope. When I say we I mean all those who have had a mother, which is to say everyone.

I know that some thoughtful, intelligent people, some who are mothers themselves in fact, disagree with me. I know that some say they do not feel intense pressure put upon them by the people around them, or our culture itself, to be superhuman and meet impossible goals. When I first encountered this opinion I must admit I was partly convinced that people who hold this opinion must live in an alternate universe and must in fact be communicating with me through some warp in the time-space continuum (which really was a rather exciting scenario to contemplate). But I think that what people who say they feel no pressure to be perfect mothers actually mean is just that -- that they feel no pressure, not that it does not exist. I believe that on some level, they are aware that it exists but, consciously or unconsciously, they mostly ignore it.

Our own culture's particular history of holding mothers to impossible standards is well-documented. It has been downright fashionable in academic and medical circles for centuries to blame mothers when children develop social issues or mental problems or mysterious medical ailments that cannot otherwise be easily explained.

Autism was thought until just a few decades ago to be caused by "refrigerator mothers" who were too distant and cold; anorexia, to be the result of a mother who hovered too much.

Freud contended that if a mother nursed a child too often on demand, the child would become gullible and needy, but if a child was nursed too infrequently, he or she would turn into a bitter, sarcastic pessimist. And forget about bottle feeding. (As far as I know, the man never did provide a clear guideline for just precisely how many times a day a mother ought to nurse her baby to prevent it from growing into a totally neurotic wreck. But then again, he never nursed a baby himself, so how the hell would he know?)

Now we've relegated the term "refrigerator mother" to the linguistic dustbin and admitted that Freud's theories were perhaps somewhat negatively affected by his unhealthy obsession with his own mother and his habit of snorting coke.

But, if you read this century's news, you'll soon find that mothers who co-sleep are KILLING THEIR BABIES WITH SIDS, and mothers who don't co-sleep are CAUSING ATTACHMENT DISORDERS. Mothers who feed their child peanuts too early are causing peanut allergies and mothers who feed their children peanuts too late are also causing peanut allergies. And mothers who keep their houses too clean are causing seasonal allergies but mothers whose houses are dirty are subjecting their children to MRSA.

Mothers who work all day are causing their children to be more aggressive in school. Mothers who stay home are putting their kids at a disadvantage in math class and betraying their daughters and/or ruining sons that someone else's daughter will marry, by setting back the women's movement.

Mothers who breastfeed in public are either doing a beautiful, natural, environmentally friendly thing and bolstering their infant's IQ and immune system, or they are perverted exhibitionists who exploit their children and should be banned from restaurants and run out of grocery stores and kicked off of airplanes.

I myself was blamed by no fewer than five doctors for my own son's failure to thrive before he finally got a medical diagnosis. Of course, these doctors couldn't agree on precisely how I had caused it. I had caused it by nursing him too often (Ah, paging Dr. Freud!) or by feeding him solid foods too early (when he was six months old) or by helping him too much when he ate or by not helping him enough when he ate or by being too nervous around him when he ate or by letting him manipulate me. I was an overprotective mother or an underprotective mother or a clingy mother or a "refrigerator mother," by another name. (Until of course they discovered the actual medical problem. Then I was just unfortunate.)

The lyrics may have changed, but it's the same old tune.

Why do so many of us continue to sing along?

Any mother, every mother, is sometimes bad at mothering and sometimes good at mothering and most of the time something in between, and every mother makes mistakes and every mother feels uncertainty and every mother has moments of selfishness. And yet, somehow, by the grace of God or fate or the universe, humanity has survived. And in fact, not only has humanity survived, but most people raised by human, imperfect mothers are perfectly sane.

But a strong taboo lingers against mothers in our society actually, publicly admitting that not only do they fail, daily, at achieving the impossible, conflicted ideal of perfect motherhood, but they have no wish to meet that ideal. That in fact, they would prefer very much for that ideal to fuck off.

I see that taboo right now rearing its ugly head in a sudden moral panic about good mothers who are calling themselves Bad.

Brave women who have previously challenged the ideal of the Good Mother have been smacked down before. When scientist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy contended that the "maternal instinct" in primates could occasionally be overridden by a mother's desire to tend to her own needs, negative reaction to her affront to the ideal of motherhood was so strong that one of her male colleagues apparently thought he was actually being clever when he quipped, "My own view is that Sarah ought to devote more time and study and thought to raising a healthy daughter. That way misery won't keep traveling down the generations."

When bored, lonely, exhausted mothers began taking to the internet in droves and writing publicly about how motherhood made them exhausted and lonely and bored, the backlash was swift and intense. These women were exploiting their children for money and fame! They were putting photos of their kids on the internet, where any evil person might see those innocent cherubic faces and THINK BAD THINGS. (Never mind that, given the ubiquity of cameras in this day and age, that sort of logic can only lead to keeping children permanently locked in the house.)

And, perhaps worst of all, all these women who were writing about the dull side, about the drudgery of motherhood-- all these women openly discussing low-class, scataloglical, Women's Work, were presumptuously assuming that someone might actually want to read about such things. Which, obviously, no one would.

Except it turned out that a large number of people -- even in fact some of those people who are not themselves mothers -- did want to read about those things.

And suddenly visions of dollar signs spread like a tranquilizer and quelled the indignant roar.

But now Ayelet Waldman (yes, that woman, the one who issued that disturbing declaration that she loved her husband more than her children in The New York Times) has gone and published a book with the words "Bad Mother" right there on the cover. With the word "Good" crossed out, in fact. A book, not a blog? Written by a "real" author?

Now Certain People suddenly seem to be afraid that if mothers who are really rather decent parents despite the fact that they allow their children to eat Cheetos and watch More Than the Recommended Amount of TV go around calling themselves "Bad Mothers" in brazen defiance of the Good Mother ideal, then mothers who allow their children to play in meth labs will suddenly, somehow, be entitled to a free pass.

Though plenty of reasonable people have recently signed on to this argument, I fail to find the argument to be anything resembling reasonable.

If a writer published a book called "Bad Wife," in which she detailed her refusal to cook dinner, ever, for her husband, outlined her tendency to micromanage home improvement projects, and admitted that she forsakes sex in favor of blogging at least twice a week, would a rash of articles and op-eds appear warning that such a dangerous book might legitimize Bad Wivery, thereby causing a trend of Increasingly Irreponsible Wives, and ruining scores of marriages?

Sure there would!

If this were the year 1933.

Others argue that the good mothers who embrace the Bad Mother label only legitimize the criticism of those who are overly judgmental of mothers.

But the good mothers who call themselves Bad Mothers in unabashed tones are not capitulating to the ideal. They are flouting it. They are defying it. They are looking it full in the face and telling it that they do not care to be judged by it.

They will change it.

My mother was a feminist activist. My mother started motherhood as an impoverished, impulsive teenage mom. My mother was neglectful. My mother is amazing. My mother is an advocate. My mother is a sinner and a saint.

And if there had been blogs when I was a child, my mother would have had one.

And I'm pretty sure, if I asked her why she was blogging instead of cooking dinner, that she would have told me that Bad Mothers with blogs were saving the world.


Bea said...

Jaelithe, you are my hero. THIS post is what blogging is all about.

Kathy G said...

What a fascinating life you've led! When you were a child, did you enjoy or resent your mother? What was your relationship like as you grew older?

Jaelithe said...

Kathy G, I enjoyed her AND I resented her, of course. If you have ever met a daughter who did not both enjoy AND resent the mother who raised her, sometimes in the very same moment, please let me know.

Anonymous said...

Wow. What a fantastic post about the times, and the fact that it's not about the times at all, is it?

Issa said...

This was an amazing post. That's all I can say.

MrsMessiness said...

Absolutely, fascinatingly beautiful.
*standing ovation in my living room for Jaelithe and her Bad Mother*

Mom101 said...

Am standing up applauding so loudly the people behind me are yelling "shhh... sit down!" Especially at that Bad Wife analogy which really makes it clear for me, eat least.

This is amazing, so is your mom and so are you.

Maria Melee said...

This absolutely is the best thing I've read on the whole Bad Mother thing. You're a beautiful writer.

Her Bad Mother said...

Oh, lady. This is so awesome. This brought tears to my eyes.

This post is better than my post and that nothing makes a writer happier to have played some part (if I might be so presumptive) in inspiring another writer to greater heights.


Susan Getgood said...

Wonderful post Jaelithe. Your mom sounds like a great woman, both fabulous and flawed. Like all of us. The way you weave her into the post as an example is just brilliant.

Lisa said...

I too am applauding. This is an awesome post.

fashiongrail said...

I absolutely love this post!

Isabel @AlphaMom said...

You nailed it!

The media loves to portray mothers as only either a Martyr or a Monster. The reality is the almost everyone is in the middle and tends to one or the other side of the spectrum once a day (heh).

That is what I repeatedly told 20/20 on camera once upon a time. But they don't want air that b/c it doesn't bring in ratings.

Media KNOWS that motherhood (much like politics and religion) bring out the emotional and raw feelings and they EXPLOIT it. Everyone can relate because, well, everyone has had a mother.

The enemy is the media that exploit this, not each other.

Isabel @AlphaMom said...

oh, I submitted this to Stumble Upon and recommend that you give it a resounding THUMBS UP!

RJ Flamingo said...

Wow! Awesome post! I admit that I am not a mother, but if I were, I'd want to be just like yours (without the homeless, bad marriage part, but you get the idea). You captured the dualism perfectly.

Got here via @MrsMessiness on Twitter. She likes my writing, so when she recommends a read, I read. She's always right.:-)

Tatiana said...

I think this is THE post to read this weekend :) Your mother sounds like a fascinating, conflicted, real woman.

And your writing is phenomenal. Thank you so much for sharing.

Mandy said...

Wow. All I can say is wow.

Phenomenal post. Glad to have found your blog.

Unknown said...

I love your post! You're an awesome writer.

Just Vegas said...

Excellent. I'm submitting it for Schmutzie's Five Star Friday.

toyfoto said...

This is a marvelous post, and even though i have a different perspective, I understand where you are coming from.

kittenpie said...

Your mom reminds me of my mom, also a poor young single student, who used to make mobiles by painting the bones of the chicken she boiled down for soup the night before, but also had to park me somewhere to entertain my infant self while she wrote her papers. I remember being lowered through the window of a basement apartment to open a door when she locked us out by accident and living in a commune student house one work terms, but also dancing on her feet and wearing clothes she sewed for me.

Mothers? As free to be you and me put it:

mommies are women, women with children
busy with children, and things that they do
there are a lot of things a lot of mommies can do

anymommy said...

Incredible. There's nothing I can add, you said what I think ought to be the final word. Thanks for your voice and for this perspective.

motherbumper said...

What a damn perfect post and I'm so glad someone pointed me over here. Just when I was getting sick of this entire discussion, it is refreshing to read a post that nails it all in one go. Why do so many have to see this black and white instead of all the shades in-between. Thank you for writing this.

Karianna said...

Absolutely brilliant.

This is so wonderful on so many levels.

Thank you for your articulate words.

Blue Morpho said...

First, let me start off by saying you are an amazing writer. Your words resonate, and the poetry of your repetition is beautiful.

Second, you hit home for me. I'm at a stage in my life where I'm forcing myself to realise that my mother is human and allowed to make mistakes.. and it's hard. It's hard because she was my superhero - maybe because of the media, or society, or just because she was taller than me and made my world go round - but now I look at her and she isn't so tall, and she forgets things she's said or done, and she makes mistakes, and I get angry because I never updated my view of her. And now I read this, and.. it couldn't have come at a better time. So thank you.

Anonymous said...

I had a stay at home single mom (my father died two weeks before I was born, leaving mum to raise me plus the other six). Mum chose a life for us based on freedom. No one was going to give her financial support just so they could turn around and tell her how to raise her child. She said that to her own father.

I both loved and resented that choice, but I ALWAYS understood it. I'm more independent than she ever was. I moved away from my whole family, I waiting till I was 35 to marry - and when I did, I eloped, and I have chosen with my husband not to have kids.

I loved that my mother would find or make her own moments of escape from us. I always hated shopping with her anyway, so I was happy to let her have time away from me. I didn't like being dragged around clothing stores. Clothes still bore me to this day. And also to this day, we don't go shopping together. It's just not us.

More times than not, my mother and I were more of roommates than mother-daughter. We fall into that same chitter-chatter pattern whenever we talk. My mother claims she doesn't worry too much about me. She always knew I was the strongest of the brood. I got that from her. :-)

Excellent post. I have to tell you, I have been blogging for ten years. I'm so bored of blog posts - esp. long ones = that I avoid them like the plague. But, yours... I couldn't stop reading. I read it all, quickly. Every word. And I didn't lose focus. I normally tune out two paragraphs in any blog post, and it doesn't matter the subject. I will read anything that's interesting and well written. Yours had my full and undivided attention.

I want to tell you also, I grew up in poverty, in a housing project. I KNOW what a bad mother is. I have seen it for myself firsthand for many years. But, luckily I could go home and escape my friends' mothers. Oy! My mom was a saint and an innocent next to those broads. Seriously, if you're not being visited by two sets of cops nightly to turn down the music, to break up the party in the middle of the night or to fend off the Childrens Aide Society over various seedy accusations involving your new boyfriend you're not supposed to be living with anyway, you are definitely a GOOD mother. If your kids are making it to school, have clothes on their backs, have food in their bellies and can muster up a few smiles all day long, you're doing it correctly. It's not so much about doing it the same way as everyone else, it's about the end result keeping the kids happy and alive. My mother never cared how it was done, just that it was. And that can be applied to how you raise your kids right on down to how you scrub your toilet. She's not one to stand on a soapbox, and she raised seven kids, ALONE.

You're all doing great jobs. I wish more mothers would let themselves believe that instead of letting their insecurities take ahold of them till they find themselves listening to busybodies instead of enjoying their special journey known as child rearing.


@sweetbabboo said...

This is a truly beautiful tribute to your mother and all mothers.

It is a great reminder to me that I don't have to be the society defined "perfect" mother to have a perfectly normal kid.

Plus, you are so right about not ever meeting a daughter who didn't both enjoy and resent her mother. We all have our contentions with our mothers but we have so many more admirations.


Angela said...

Amazing. Absolutely amazing. And beautiful. And perfect. Thank you for sharing your mother and yourself with us.

Katie Vagnino said...

What beautiful insight into motherhood. All mothers at one point fail their children, and most also in many ways succeed and advocate for them. But there is this idea of a black-and-white world where all mothers are either perfect or horrible.

Sarah Jio said...

One word: amazing!

Jeanne said...

Oh thank God. You nailed it. And nailed well, I might add. Thank you, thank you, thank you from mothers everywhere and everytime.

Don Mills Diva said...

Incredible post - you are a gifted writer.

And I get it, I AGREE that writing about imperfect mothering is important and valuable.

Hell, I AM an imperfect mother but I'd rather redefine *that* as good than adopt a broad, provocative and divisize label that will be bandied about in the media and surely misunderstood by anyone operating outside this rareified community.

red pen mama said...

Oh. Boy.

I haven't even read this whole thing yet and it's making me feel so much better.


Going to finish now.


brookie said...

I found myself in many of your thoughts. Great job! Thanks.

a.eye said...

Great post. I think that I, too, saw my mother (and still do) in so many different lights. Hopefully I will be a good one when I get the chance.

Nice meeting you (again) on Saturday. Not to sound super cheesy, but from the stories you were telling about your son, you sound like a great mother.

Jaelithe said...

Thanks for stopping by, Kelly (Don Mills Diva above). I couldn't have written my post if you hadn't written yours and if Catherine hadn't written hers. I think multiple perspectives on this are good and needed.

For me, the act of challenging the ideal of perfect motherhood by writing honestly about ourselves as fallible people with wants and needs is much more important than what we call it when we do it. I'll call myself a bad mother or a good mother or whatever it takes until the right people start hearing me. And I'll stand up for your right to call yourself a good mother, and for Catherine's to call herself a bad mother and mean she is good.

Cant Hardly Wait said...

I feel better now. Thank you.

RookieMom Heather said...

I'm new here today. I'm so moved because you're totally right about me and my mom. And, I'm sure, all of us.

mkpfaith said...

Love it! Love it! Next time don't hold back- just say what you want to say. ;o)

Margaret said...

Very thoughtful and very well said. My children are 13 and 11 now, and I find that parenting just gets harder because the questions get harder. When they were toddlers the questions had such clear answers: feed the baby. Change the diaper. Now I never know if I'm saying the right thing. How do I deal with bullies? How do I deal with bad grades? Or sibling arguments. No answer seems clear-cut right.

Anonymous said...

THIS was an amazing post. Thanks.

Farrell said...

Wow, what a post!! Props to you!

tex said...


Anonymous said...

As I was reading I thought this was my sisters blog, but then I remembered that I clicked on a link on her blog to get here. Your Mom and my mom may be soul sister's and I may be related to you somehow in the universe. My regards to your wonderful post and perspective!

Elizabeth @claritychaos said...

found you through a link on the Mom Slant.

This is by far my favorite post on this whole Bad Mother thing. Kudos.

I'll be back. ;)

Laurie said...

OMG, I stumbled on this in an internet search for something completely different, but I'm so happy I did. It made my day! Thank you for sharing what so many of us feel: "mothers are (flawed and wonderful) human beings." Period. I promise, just for today, NOT to give in to the pressure to be "perfect."

Zeraldagal said...

Enjoyed this. Thanks,

Anutha Bad Mutha