Maybe the Bad Mother doesn't even exist

Monday~June 15, 2009

Good Mother. Bad Mother.

It's a discussion that's sweeping television and the internet. A Good Mother is one who is always positive about her mothering role and does a really great and patient job at all times. A Bad Mother is one that actually has many faults and makes innumerable mistakes, even in just one day. (According to these new labels anyway.)

For example, not too long ago, some young suburban mothers sat on Oprah and said that they were tired of pretending to be perfect moms, and started telling the "real truth," talking about how hard and ugly motherhood can be, and how unhappy they are much of the time. Yes, they were "Bad Mothers." It was treated as if these women were telling some very shocking secrets. (I'm pretty sure the show itself was titled The Secret Lives of Mothers, or something like that.)

In reading articles and blog posts on this subject, it seems as if people really do believe that there are all of these Good Mothers out there to compare themselves to, mothers who are happily humming while wiping poo off their hands and dreaming of pot roasts. Then recently and suddenly, mothers started admitting that they are "Bad Mothers," mothers who actually have negative feelings and screw up. This brought about a movement, even if a small one. One in which millions of hands shot up in the air with a booming, "ME TOO! I'm a Bad Mother too!"

But wait. I'm confused. Weren't mothers always both?

Today we met with a realtor to talk about putting our house on the market. Before she came, my parents and Ryan and I worked hard to make the house as presentable as possible. And next, if we do actually put the house on the market and have showings and open houses, we'll stage the place in it's best possible light. It will appear as if no one actually even lives here. Everything will be in order, perfectly coiffed and always clean.

Kind of like a Good Mother.

Of course, a perfectly-clean-at-all-times house and a Good Mother are both totally unrealistic things, but somehow, in our insecurity, we believe they're real and we try to live up to the mirage that our minds have created.

But neither actually exists in a day-to-day reality.

Guess what? I think the Bad Mother thing is just another mirage, much like the elusive Good Mother thing. (Of course this excludes mothers who are actually bad, neglecting or abusing their children.)

Mothers have always had flaws, very very BIG flaws, and now, when more and more people have started admitting how flawed they truly are, we're treating it as a hip trend.

But maybe it's just simple truth-telling.

Maybe Good Mothers have had the stage too long only because their lips were sealed. Maybe it's just time. We mothers really are doing the hardest job on Earth, and we're doing it mostly alone. Will we not have a very long dirty laundry list? Maybe the bad had to finally come out in order to reveal the good.

I honestly didn't know that my personal laundry list of terrible mothering mistakes made me a Bad Mother. You know why? I don't embrace my failings and negative feelings to be hip. I'm embracing them so I can spin them around and let them stand in the reflection of the enormous love I have for my boys, maybe even until those failings cower a bit in the presence of such goodness.

If I have to choose to evaluate myself this way, I'd have to fire myself at my next six month review. If I sit and write down each and every way I'm not living up to my own expectations, I would surely fail.

I'm a pretty tough boss. I'm my very own worst critic.

It's not the so-called perfect moms out there that are sizing us up, it's ourselves. Those other Good Mothers? They're actually just as imperfect and insecure behind closed doors as we are, and they know it. If they appear to be sizing us up, it's only a result of the second-guessing they're doing in their own lives as mothers.

So check this out... what if Ryan and the boys were to give me that evaluation, the one in which I would terminate myself?

You know what? I highly doubt they'd fire my bad self.

Sure, I'd be criticized and possibly even corrected during this (fictional) mothering review, but would they get rid of me? No. Hopefully one day, they'll know that I did the very best I could with what I had and what I know. And even if I do a whole lot of things wrong, my tombstone will surely not read, "She was a Bad Mother."

Here's the deal. I'm a Good Mother, no matter how bad I am. Not because I fit any kind of stereotype, but because I'm Their Mother, good and bad, and we love each other like mad.

I'm guessing that's true for every Bad Mother out there.

56 clicked right here to comment:

--It's Your Movie-- said...

I just read this post and then promptly subscribed to your feed. I totally agree. I am a self deprecating mom (and person) at times, but I am a good mom (and person) and I am doing the best I can and trying, all the time.

Amy said...

I am absolutely with you on this one! It blows me away that women are calling themselves "bad mommy" or "mean mommy" for having a bad day or choosing the wrong sippy cup. There is enough societal judgement of what we do to last us forever without us flogging ourselves! My son knows that I am what I am and that we are both doing our best and growing together. When people read my book they are taken aback by my honesty. We need to be honest and we need to restore some respect and reverence to all that mothers do every day. Thank you for your post!

Amy Robbins-Wilson, author of Transformational Mothering-A Prayerful Companion for New Mothers

Annette Lyon said...

Perfect post--true down to the word. If you're trying, then you're a good enough mother, because Good Mother and Bad Mother both have their days.

Kristina P. said...

Sadly, when you work in social work for 10 years, you do actually see bad mothers. One of our standards for returning kids to their parents was "good enough." Not perfect, not great, good.

Carrie said...

I'm with Kristina - not in social work, but enough experience in visits to the Wic office & similar places, watching parents scream at their kids for hours on end and call them horrible names to know there ARE truly BAD mothers out there.

I do think the perpetually 'good' mother is a myth, though - we all have good days...and we all have bad days where our kids drive us crazy. And sometimes it's moment by moment. Good post - thanks for sharing! :)

Lee of MWOB said...

Great post as usual Heather.

This good mother/bad mother thing is actually getting kind of confusing but what I'm curious about exploring is where all of this "bad mother" feelings stuff really originates from. We as moms ALL know how hard this job is and feels impossible on more days than it should. Then why do so many of us feel "bad" or "inadequate" or "lame" or whatever? I started MWOB based on these VERY feelings!! Feelings that I saw many moms around me have but seemed afraid to express and share with one another! I, for one, am sooooo friggin tired of moms not supporting one another. I feel like if I meet another mom with three young kids like me, we should just meet and hug and instantly give one another an understanding and supportive hug. Cause we know the deal. But instead the conversation usually involves what kinds of things we do with our kids, what we feed them, where they go to school, what classes we have them enrolled in and why....etc etc etc. I think the conversation between mothers needs to change is what I think.....and them maybe we wouldn't feel so "bad" about the way some of us mother.

But yes of course, we are all good mothers and bad mothers. That is the truth....

Heather of the EO said...


I hear you. I did work in social work for 8 years BK (before kids).

What I'm talking about here is not the mom who leaves her two year old at home all night while partying, or abuses her children in other ways. I'm just talking about moms who consider themselves bad moms when they're really just normal moms.

So I hear what you're saying, I totally do, and almost included it in this post. But I'm just making another point :)

Hel said...

Amy's comment "restore some respect and reverence to all that mothers do every day" got me thinking. Maybe the illusion of the "Good Mother" is not only there to give us something to work towards (I'm sure none of us will ever achieve perfection), but the "Good Mother" may also be there so we DO get that respect and reverence.

Let's be honest, if we all went about letting our "bad mother" all hang out in public, would there be as much respect for the role of mother? There SHOULD be, but WOULD there be?

I think what we really need to revolutionise is how we try to attain Good Motherhood. Instead of beating ourselves up each day (I am VERY guilty of this), let's find a way to uplift ourselves and each other in order to continue on to that Good Mother ideal.

I like to think that some of my "Bad Mother" habits CAN be overcome. Isn't is a part of life to try to better ourselves?

Sorry I wrote a tome!

Hel said...


I'll come and give you a hug. I only have one child, though... so my hug will only have the understanding of one child, but the respect of three children.

Muthering Heights and Other Senseless Sensibility said...

I really try to stay away from giving myself labels...I know I'm not perfect, but I try to stay positive. (Just as I don't even refer to my children as "bad girls" when they misbehave...because they're not inherently bad, they just have tough days an/or make poor choices.) :)

Erin said...

Standing ovation.

I love you.

mrs boo radley said...

Good post, Heather-dear!

Heather of the EO said...

It's so funny to me that the things people are saying in the comments are things that I originally had in this post and cut out because it was getting too long.

YES. I understand exactly what you're saying and I actually said something similar to this before I cut it out.

Maybe I should just always ramble on and on....

Mammatalk said...

So true. Why are we always so hard on ourselves? I think we need to mother ourselves more.

Lisa @ Crazy Adventures in Parenting said...

You know, it's okay to mess up, because we're only human. No one is a bad person for messing up, for being human. It's the people out there that take pleasure in being bad mothers, much like the ones some have suggested here in the comments. Ones who really don't care what they're children are doing or not doing, the ones who will leave them with whomever whenever just to get away all the time, the ones who don't care what they eat (by way of, never cooking - the kids fend for themselves) or clean (again, kids do it themselves). They never get check ups, they dont go to the doctor when they're sick, they're often left alone, again, to fend for themselves. Or worse. Ones who allow abuse to happen or abuse themselves, or don't care that abuse is happening just to ensure they aren't without their partner. Ones who use their children for financial gain, or to get somewhere in the world, or use their children in custody battles as toys. Many more instances right there (like the woman who fed her daughter feces to keep her sick? Yeah, that kind of a bad mother).

I've seen way too many of these bad mothers. Simply goofing up doesn't make you a bad mother, and I really wish people would STOP calling themselves bad already!!!

Kelly @ Love Well said...

I think you nailed it when you said, "I'm just talking about moms who consider themselves bad moms when they're really just normal moms."

Like you, I'm mystified (and truthfully, a little exasperated) with all these self-proclaimed, self-flagellating Bad Mommies. No one's perfect. Get a good night's sleep and try to do better tomorrow. Why all the hand-wringing?

Em said...

I'm actually getting judged in my circle right now for not putting the kids in enough activities this Summer.


I have a very large bootie - pucker up buttercup. This Mama is bad to the bone, and proud of it. What works for me, works for me, and so far my kids don't seem to need that much therapy.

(I need to print this out for reinforcement after my next 3-hour hair appointment :-) The horror!

Midwest Mommy said...

Very true. Great post.

a Tonggu Momma said...

What drives me crazy... more than anything... is that the magazine industry (as well as a whole host of other industries) prey upon mothers. Their articles create an image of the ideal mother and guilt-trip women into believing that their instincts are often wrong. Or not good enough.

Step away from the parenting magazines, ladies. Just put them all down.

JustRandi said...

This is a perfect post! There are SO many days I classify myself as a Good Mother or Bad Mother and let it pretty much rule my life.

I think Good Enough Mother might be just the right balance.

Heather of the EO said...


OH! I get it! I get it! I get it!!!

I think what it comes down to is this: we have these surface conversations because we're ALL so full of insecurity (even the Good Mothers) We want to appear the same as the assumption we have of the other person. But really, all of us are struggling to maintain.

Many moms add all these extra things for their kids for this very reason. If their kids are involved and athletic and musical, etc...then the mother can appear to be much better than how she actually feels.

I absolutely LOVE this discussion, that's why I linked to you, knowing the discussion will continue there this week.

Steph @Red Clay Diaries said...

Great thoughts here, Heather. It's funny that I was just thinking about this today. Not exactly calling myself a Bad Mother, but lamenting the unnecessary guilt trips I put myself thru.

I even asked for input on my blog, and then I came here and got some reinforcement. So THANKS!

Kate Coveny Hood said...

So true! I always joke about my poor parenting skills, but I know that I'm a good mother. There is no perfection in parenthood.

Kazzy said...

Good mom/ bad mom.

Good house/ bad house.

I think we instinctively put on a show less out of insecurity about ourselves and more out of a subconscious God-given instinct to give hope to others.

Willow Tree said...

Amen and well said!

What happened to good days and bad days? Why does it have to be all of motherhood?

Here's the thing. Mothers are not perfect. Because we are human. If we give the very best parts of ourselves to our children and never show them the bad, what kind of complex would they be left with? Or, they'd just see the lie put out to the world and then would they respect us?

Our job is to train them up in the way they should go. To love and teach relational values, not to win a contest that doesn't exist.


Lara said...

I think that the very fact that many of us are willing to admit our flaws as mothers and want to be better makes us GOOD moms. Not the other way around. Perfection is impossible, and any mother who says she doesn't have anything she can improve upon is just deluding herself...and maybe that makes HER the bad mother because she is blinded to how she might be hurting her children.

BoufMom9 said...

absolutely fantastic post!

MoziEsmé said...

Absolutely 100% agree! I often harp about the "bad" side of me, but no other person on earth could love my kid as much as I do. And that makes me a good mom, no matter what mistakes I make.

The Three 22nds said...

Good post, Heather! I have some things I could say about it, but I don't have time...off to VBS!

sara said...

LOVE this post!! As a mom of almost grown kids, I am thrilled that you not only realize this so young, but are posting about it!!! This is something we ALL identify with and struggle with. So very well said, Heather!!!

Christy said...

I am totally a good mother, even though I have my faults. I feel so bad for kids who really do have bad mothers...loved this post and all the comments too.

Manic Mother said...

Let me just tell you after having our house on the market a full year, it sucks! They tell you they will give you 30 min warning before they show your house, trust me they will just show up at your door, and you will be in a mad panic because your house is trashed from 2 little boys! I hated it. Maybe you will have better luck and sell quickly. What town are you thinking of moving to?

Tawnya said...

Great blog Heather!!! We are ALL GREAT mothers!!!

Jen said...

I think that it should be Real Mothers (to which we are) and Fake Mothers ( to which any who says they are a 'Good' mother is).

I say that kids want a Real Mother someone who loves them and makes a mistake every now and again.

Cynthia said...

Amen! I often feel like a 'bad Mom' and somedays, those rare days, a 'good Mom' who gets it all right. In the end, I'm the best Mom I can be given my own limitations, abilities and knowledge. It will just have to be enough. Fortunately, the kids still love me and there's no greater measure than that.

Jenn @ A Country Girl's Ramblings said...

Great post, Heather! I hope a lot of young mothers read this. It took me quite a while to figure this out when my 3 boys were young. I know this post will help so many see that there is no such thing as perfect.

Keyona said...

I am the best mother I can be!

Anonymous said...

I remember once in a ladies' gathering at church we were talking about this very thing, and all the women were falling all over themselves about how WONDERFUL and FULFILLING motherhood is.
I just had to snort and laugh and tell them that I wished I had their experiences because 80% of the time my mothering job SUCKS and I don't like it! The other 20% is great, and it keeps me moving forward, but that other 80% is me messing up, and burning dinner, and behind on the laundry, and yelling at my kids, and locking myself in my bedroom with a diet coke and a chick flick because I NEED A MINUTE ALONE!!

I got gasps and nasty looks initially, but later I got phone calls and notes in the mail from gals saying they felt the same way. Embracing and admitting how crappy it can sometimes be is just as therapeutic as celebrating the joys.
My son just yelled at me that he hates me because I said no to popcorn until after lunch.

Yay for motherhood.

Sue said...

I think labels are dangerous for a lot of reasons. In some ways, calling yourself a "bad mommy" almost means you are embracing it - giving yourself permission to not really try. It's like when I say "I'm not a thoughtful person" - as though it was a birth defect I cannot even attempt to overcome. By applying that label I'm giving myself permission to just continue to forget everyone's birthday and act like a five year old with no manners, instead of working to become better. Same thing with mothering.

And thanks so much for mentioning me in that post the other day. I haven't been online much this week, but when I finally got online I was absolutely tickled to see my blog up there. {{hugs}}

MidnightCafe said...

This couldn't be more timely. Mr. Mango just had a long talk with me last night about stopping the self-deprecating talk. See, I don't live up to the "Good Mother" standards, but it's really hard to shake the feeling that I ought to. So, I'm always enumerating my faults. Not attractive. And not helpful...to anyone.

Heather of the EO said...


YES. Yet another comment that includes something I was going to add in the post, but thought it was already quite long. I love it that you guys are including these thoughts!

I too think it's dangerous to embrace this label. Almost like it's cool. Sure, we all do "bad" things, but to call ourselves Bad Mother a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts.

Kimberly said...

I think there are bad mothers out there. Mothers who don't love their children, and/or neglect and hurt them. Sadly, they do exist.

But if you love your child and are striving, then you are a Good Mother. Bad doesn't even come into it.

Beautiful post.

Tooj said...

Of course you are right. Both good and bad are relative to the day and in the end...we need to be judged on the whole and not the parts. Just like any other aspect of our lives, honestly. And there will always be people who pretend to be flawless in certain aspects of EVERYTHING. My goal is to try and be a better me...for what that's worth. Some days a Tuesday me is better than a Monday me, but the Wednesday me is worse than the Tuesday me....all we can do is try.

Octamom said...

...and I suppose too that 'good' and 'bad' have more to do with what we focus on. I sometimes tend toward thinking myself one or the other based on an isolated incident vesus looking at the whole of my mothering career. Just because I had a great moment this morning doesn't mean I can now retire. And just because I was not so stellar yesterday afternoon doesn't mean I should throw in the towel and go for the 'bad' label...


Women...we're so tough on ourselves, let alone a culture that is still figuring out the worth of a mom.....

Beautiful post, my friend-

Kim said...

Heather, this is all so true. We call ourselves bad Mothers to make ourselves feel better about the fact that we're not perfect.
Well guess what, no one is! I don't care what it looks like on the outside, we are all struggling, all worried that we're not doing enough and all feel like we're not doing a good enough job.
Thank you for putting this out there and hopefully starting a discussion about this that will end this silly trend :)

Melanie J said...

One of the most liberating days of my life was when I realized that I just can't keep up. So I don't try. I do what I can do. Some days I feel bad because I know I'm falling short of my best, but it's far less depressing than falling short of everyone else's best, too.

Heather of the EO said...

Melanie J, I'm going to have to write that down. I love what you said.

The Rambler said...

This was such an excellent post to read. Came over from Erins blog because she said we HAD to read it...and she was so right!

I've been feeling this way and your posts just hit every nail. THANK.YOU.

A new fan :)

charrette said...

I totally agree...Bad mother is almost like an oxymoron...I know there are some extremes out there, but I think everyone who is trying and loving and sacrificing and teaching and caring and, yes, failing...and then trying again, day after day could never be classified as "bad".

I loved this line: I don't embrace my failings and negative feelings to be hip. I'm embracing them so I can spin them around and let them stand in the reflection of the enormous love I have for my boys..."

I was blessed to be raised by a very wise, wonderful, loving, caring, talented, nurturing woman...who also had the courage to be imperfect. So I feel like I KNOW what a good mother is, without having to shoot for some impossible standard the media creates, much like they do for our bodies.

Great post.


LisAway said...

So apparently I didn't dream last night, I just thought. I kept waking up and realizing that I was discussing in my mind (with me or somebody) about this post. It was weird. Then I remembered I didn't even leave a comment.

I was going to mention what Sue said. Recently in our church a talk was given that made many people very upset. It was addressed to women about how mothers "who know" (meaning understand the purpose of life etc.) ran their homes. It was ALL the ideal, beautiful picture being painted. Of course most women were thinking, "Yes, I WANT that, but I KNOW I can't do it!" And people were mad, like the woman was saying that if you aren't a perfect mother with a spotless house you must not be a "mother who knows". But then I read something very interesting. Someone said that we've spent years telling everyone that it's so hard and you can't do everything etc. so don't stress about it, and now it's sort of spiraled out of control, much like with the bad mommy thing. It's cool to talk about your overstuffed laundry room and how you've eaten out every night for weeks. That talk (speech) was to remind of us of what we should strive for. We will never have it all at the same time, the spotless house, the days full of playing with and teaching your children and fancy home cooked meals on the table, but we should do our best, and have SOME of that all the time (i.e. not sit at the computer all day and then go out to dinner every night while the house is in shambles.)

Great post.

L.T. Elliot said...

Oh how I've needed you lately.

Thank you, friend. For being such a beautiful balm to my soul.

Steph @ Diapers and Divinity said...

Oh boy, Heather, have you captured well a universal struggle of motherhood or what?

My own definition of a good mother is any mother who tries to mother with God's help. And remember that part of his help is called forgiveness. Good moms keep trying and recognize that what they are doing is so important... important enough that it trumps any of the bad stuff that comes with it. That kind of commitment and determination to do our best with a daunting charge is what makes a good mother.

And it's never been more obvious than today that you ARE one.

Anonymous said...

I grew up the second of nine kids in a pretty dysfunctional/chaotic household (that nevertheless did have a lot of good things going for it,) so I had no illusions about how hard mothering can be, and I'm always surprised to hear that other moms feel like the challenges of motherhood have been kept such a big secret in the past; for me they were always an open book. My mom did enough right, and loved her job enough, to inspire me to want my own big family, while still hoping I could escape some of the hardest and most discouraging things she experienced. (Some I've escaped; other hard things just seem to go with the territory.) Anyway, while I'm all for being open about just how hard mothering can be, and all for giving ourselves breaks and letting ourselves off the hook in whatever ways help us keep our sanity, I completely agree that to attach the label "bad mother" to that kind of realism is self-defeating and even absurd. It's also obviously disingenuous; people don't trumpet things on TV that they're genuinely ashamed of. It also kind of makes me crazy that people have to describe these challenges as though there were only two polar extreme opposites (you can only be a good mom or a bad mom.) Have you heard of the "Slacker Mom?" She has a book and promotes the idea of letting your kids lead a less-programmed life, more like childhoods of the past, instead of wearing yourself out carting your kids hither and yon, depriving them of interacting with nature or of creating their own fun. It's a great idea and one I agree with, but I don't see why a mom who simplifies like that has to call herself a "slacker" -- why not a "smart mom"? And yet again, she seems to take her philosophy to what I consider an unreasonable extreme. I think we all struggle to figure out how to let our kids play organized sports if they want to, but still allow them time to kick around a ball in the backyard, or how to raise kids who can entertain themselves but have also learned to play the piano or developed other skills that take discipline, and I don't think that ruling out ALL organized activities is the answer any more than it's a good idea to keep our kids in constant motion at all times. We just all have to figure out what works best for our families, and it's not easy for any of us (because we're so overwhelmed by options and opportunity,) but insincerely self-deprecating labels or sweeping generalizations about what works best don't really help any of us out, and just end up sounding false and facile.

Anonymous said...

P.S. I did used to feel like what I did all day at home with my kids *was* something of a secret or mystery to certain swaths of the outside world - for example, my husband's fellow graduate students who were all unmarried and/or childless -- like the well-meaning student who asked of my two-month-old "Is he right or left-handed?") But I've felt like mommy blogs and the internet have blown that mystery wide open -- at least to anyone who's willing to learn about how the other half lives.

Kristen@nosmallthing said...

This is a really great post. I like what you said about spinning the failings around and letting them stand in the reflection of the enormous love you have for your boys. Profound.

I think a lot of this good mom/bad mom stuff has to do with competition...everyone wants to be better, and if your kids are "better" than the other moms' kids, then YOU are better. That's the way we measure ourselves and everyone else. It's just plain stupid. Why can't we love and support and pick each other up when we're down, instead of looking at each other and saying "glad it's not me." You know what? Someday it will be me...and I sure hope there is someone to pick me up, and not just walk over me on their rise to "good mother" status.

Great post. It really got me thinking about how I want to be.

Debbie said...

You know that you and I are of one mind when it comes to this subject!
And keeping the house clean is exactly why we will be in this one forever. I could never get it clean, let alone keep it that way.

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