Typology of the Bad Mother
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
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).
Annie blogs about the art and science of parenting at PhD in Parenting and doesn't even pretend to be bad.