At some point almost every mom says it, “I’m a bad mom.” We’ve done something that we feel guilty about or we are struggling in some area that we are sure a good mom wouldn’t. Finally the shame eats away at us long enough that we give in and confide our inadequacies to someone. Inevitably, their response is to reassure us that our guilt, in and of itself, is proof that we are good enough. Apparently a really bad mom wouldn’t worry about her parenting so as long as we are guilty / ashamed / suffering we know that we are succeeding. I’m about to kick over some sacred cows here but that logic is wrong and those reassurances are anything but helpful.
Let’s start with the truth. Maybe I really am a bad mom. I don’t mean that I am the kind of parent that abuses her kids. (I don’t.) I’m not complaining that I fail to live up to some unattainable standard of the perfect mom who has it all together, does everything by the book and always remembers to wear matching socks. To be honest, I don’t even know where that book is or which parenting style is “right” today so I am not worried about that. When I say that I am a bad mom, I mean that I am failing in some area of motherhood that I value and I worry about how that will impact my little people. Maybe I yell too much or I am struggling to connect with a child. I might be trying to tell you that I feel overwhelmed by my child’s needs and I worry if I am meeting them. Maybe I am battling depression or addiction or repeating patterns I learned growing up and swore my kids would never see. That may not meet the legal definition of bad parenting but when I give myself that label I am saying that I see a real problem in my home. What if I am right?
The truth is that love is not enough.
When you tell me that I’m a good mom because I love my kids enough to worry about them, you are wrong. I love my kids with every piece of my being but that doesn’t magically make my struggles disappear. The truth is that love isn’t enough. My kids’ birthmother loved them. I know because I was in the courtroom watching her heart shatter on the day that the judge terminated her parental rights. She absolutely loved her babies. Her love wasn’t enough though. It didn’t make up for what she had done to them. It couldn’t protect them from the additional abuse they would have suffered had they ever been allowed to return home. Her love was not enough, and neither is mine.
Parenting is a combination of love and action but sometimes we struggle with that equation and need help making it right. If you stop and listen to the mom who has chosen to share her struggle with you, you might find that there is something more effective you can do for her then pacify her with a worn out line. It could be that she has embraced the idea that if she isn’t Mary Poppins then she is Mother Gothel and just needs someone to talk things through with. It could also be that she is struggling and needs your support finding a counselor or a local parenting class. Maybe she sees a strength in you and wants advice but she will be too afraid to ask if your initial response indicates that she really should just have it all together. This script that moms are good as long as they are miserable shuts down the real conversations that we would all benefit from, especially those who are facing challenges at the moment.
Parenting in this culture is hard. There is always someone around the corner or on the other side of the screen ready to tell the world all of the ways that we are ruining our children’s lives by failing to parent exactly like they imagine they did 47 years ago (or would parent if their furbabies were actual people.) Moms especially are held to unmanageable standards that contradict each other and change daily. Thankfully there has finally begun to be a backlash and a rejection of the perfect mommy ideal but I wonder if the pendulum has swung too far. Maybe we have realized that being a perfect mom is impossible so instead we have embraced the everyone-gets-a-trophy madness that we are inflicting on our children. If no one is a “bad mom” then everyone is a perfect mom and we should all feel wonderful about ourselves. Just like there is a healthy space between Martha Stewart and Hoarders, I think that there is a happy medium in parenting. In that place we can adopt realistic goals for ourselves while having the freedom to talk about our mistakes and reach out for help when we need it.
Worrying about your parenting does not make you a good mother. Loving your kids does not make you a good mother. Being less than 100% perfect does not make you a bad mother or a failure. Each person decides for herself what successful parenting is and judges herself accordingly. That means that you can do something completely different than me without either of us ruining our children. It also means that because I am human, there will be times that I fall short of the mommy rules that I have set for myself or unforeseen challenges may arise that knock me on my butt. When that happens, I may worry or feel ashamed or start down the spiral of self-defeating thoughts and labels.
The next time you find yourself faced with a self-proclaimed “bad mom”, before reaching for your favorite cliché, do us all a favor and stop to empathize with the hurting parent in front of you. You might be tempted to dismiss her immediately but stop for just a minute and try this instead: “Most moms think that sometimes. What’s going on?” Then listen. Maybe she needs reassurance that she’s doing OK or a friend to talk things over with. Maybe be she needs resources or some professional help. Maybe she just needs someone to watch the kids while she takes a nap. You will never know until you listen long enough to really hear her heart.
Continue this conversation with me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. This post was a part of a NaBlogPoMo16, a challenge for bloggers to post every day in November. Check back through out the month for more.