by Vicki Larson
Poor moms. Oh, sure, we recently had our “big day,” filled with handmade cards, flowers, home-baked muffins served in bed and a mani/pedi. OK, I didn’t, but some moms did. Still, my two teenagers graciously allowed me to take them to brunch (the older one kicked in a few bucks). I don’t make a big fuss over the day, but I felt honored that they wanted to be seen in public with me.
Kids are tough on moms, but, as it turns out, we moms are even worse on ourselves.
This is a confusing time for moms. First we had the Supermom, then the Mommy Wars (and I can’t tell if we’re still in them, experiencing a truce or whether the relative quiet is just the calm before the storm); the simultaneous adulation and condemnation of single motherhood; and, now, the rise of the Bad Mother.
We’ve all called ourselves “bad mother” one time or another, says Ayelet Waldman in her just-released book, "Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace. ” In our mothers’ days, moms were basically either good or neglectful— a few managed to be better than good. Nowadays, moms who grew up believing that we can do it and be it all are, instead, beating ourselves up for feeling like a failure in everything:
“If you work, you’re neglectful; if you stay home, you’re smothering. If you discipline, you’re buying them a spot on the shrink’s couch; if you let them run wild, they will be into drugs by seventh grade. If you buy organic, you’re spending their college fund; if you don’t, you’re risking all sorts of allergies and illnesses,” she says.
Moms are so crippled by their guilt and unreasonable expectations, she says, that we don’t even celebrate the truly joyous moments of motherhood. And, it’s stressing us out — not to mention what it’s doing to our marriages.
If we’re still married, that is.
I was not immune. I remember the conflicted feelings I had when I gave up my career to become a stay-at-home mom. I often felt trapped, bored, restless and then felt bad about feeling that way. I desperately wanted time alone, but when I had it, I felt guilty; how dare I want something for myself? My children need me!
Then I got divorced.
Divorce has its own complications; many of them, in fact. I still had guilt except it morphed into divorced mother guilt, which is different than normal mother guilt. I felt guilty that I could no longer man the snack bar, drive on field trips, volunteer in the art room — guilt that all working mothers have, true, but I no longer had the choice of whether I should work or not. If I didn’t work, my kids and I will be homeless, naked and starving. When choice is taken away from you, the answers seem so much easier.
For a long time, I felt guilty for depriving my two children of a stable, happy family even though I know that they are learning other, just as valuable, lessons from navigating the world of two stable, happy households.
But, oddly, divorce made my “bad mother” moments disappear.
Now, I’m not suggesting that Waldman’s Bad Mothers get divorced to ease up on their anxieties. But if nothing else, being a full-time working divorced mom makes you face the reality that you just are not going to be able to do it all. There’s just no way — you’re on your own and no one’s coming to help you. As terrifying as that can feel at times, there’s also something quite freeing about it — I can’t do solo what most people struggle with as a couple.
The house will be dirtier, the laundry will pile up, you will run out of milk and bread, homework will go unchecked, library books and video rentals will be returned late, and pasta will be eaten several times a week.
Amazingly, the world doesn’t end. Somehow we still manage to get up every morning, eat healthy (organic! locally sourced!) meals, get ourselves to school or work, get a reasonable amount of sleep, watch TV, play Xbox, read and have fun.
True, divorced moms still have to deal with judgment — we “failed” in marriage, right? — not to mention the demonization of single moms as raising “criminals, strippers, rapists, murderers” by Ann Coulter and others awhile back. Bad Mothers face judgment, too. Yet, people tend to cut divorced moms some slack; we don’t have a man around the house so it’s expected that things won’t necessarily be up to par with the partnered among us else.
But the most happiest single moms — and dads — I know have stopped being so hard on themselves and, instead, pride themselves on what they are doing well and have let go of ridiculous expectations, which is exactly Waldman’s point in her book.
Recently, my 18-year-old and I were dissecting my relationship with my parents. “Don’t worry,” I told him. “One day, you’ll probably be on some shrink’s couch going over all the things I’ve done wrong.”
“I dunno,” he said. “You’ve been a pretty good mom.”
That’s one smart kid — who obviously has a pretty good mom.
Read what our own Jo Keroes has to say in The Bad Mother Police and What to do About Them