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Bad Mothers, Good Fathers

March 2, 2010

For Christmas, I bought my husband a book of essays I had seen displayed in our local used book store: Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs.

It wasn’t until Christmas morning, when he opened it in front of me, his parents, his sister, and his children, that I realized how insulting that looked. But that’s not how I intended it. It turns out, this was a book whose title appealed way more to me than to him.

Needless to say, it’s still sitting on the mantel.

Michael Chabon is a novelist and Pulitzer-Prize winning author of the book, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, yet another novel I have not gotten to. His wife is Ayelet Waldman, also a writer, whose memoir Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace landed her a fascinating interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air. What gripped me about Chabon’s book of essays on manhood was this line, from the essay, “William and I”: “The handy thing about being a father is that the historic standard is so pitifully low.” He goes on to describe his trip to a supermarket in California (Allen Ginsberg reference, anyone?) with his toddler son, wherein a woman tells him from her spot behind him in line that he is “‘such a good dad.'” She follows it up with, “‘I can tell.'”

Chabon wonders why it was so easy for a stranger to compliment his fathering abilities, when women rarely, if ever, get a kind word about their mothering style. As he says, “All mothers are (in their own view) bad.”

Either Michael Chabon desperately wanted to get laid when he wrote this essay, or he has a point. How many women, as Ayelet Waldman describes, consider themselves bad mothers?

Too many.

I do it all the time. In general, I think I’m a pretty good mom. Teaching taught me patience; dealing with high school students often makes me grateful for the simplicity of toddlerhood. But too often throughout the day, when I forget to do something for my kids, I call myself a bad mom.

I forgot to change The Boy’s diaper before his nap. I’m a bad mom.

I let him watch an extra video and now it’s too late to brush his teeth and get him in bed by a decent hour. Skip brushing teeth. I’m a bad mom.

He ate chicken nuggets for dinner. Again. I’m a bad mom.

My daughter’s eczema flared up because I didn’t put enough hydrocortisone on it the last time. She has diaper rash. I’m a bad mom.

I went shopping to get essentials, and realized as I was putting the food away that I forgot apple juice and bread. I’m a bad mom.

Rarely, I’m sure, do dads who let their kids sit in front of the television while they read the paper reserve such harsh words for themselves. Nor should they. There are a lot of great dads out there. (Thanks, feminism!) I see them walking their kids in strollers. I see them picking up groceries on their lunch breaks, wiping their kids’ snotty noses, singing “The Wheels on the Bus” at story-time alongside their toddlers. I’m married to one.

But how often do we register all of the good mothers we see? How often do we remind ourselves that we are good mothers? Great mothers, in fact?

For some reason (Some? Who am I kidding? There are many.), we think that being a mother is somehow inherent to being a woman. We should know how to mother. It should come easy as pie. Haven’t we all learned from the mothers before us? Isn’t this what our bodies were designed to do–give birth and take care of our progeny? Aren’t we mammals? We shouldn’t have to doubt ourselves, play games of trial and error, make mistakes….

But mothers, we’re too hard on ourselves. The world is too damn hard on us.

Parenting is tough work. The day after I had my daughter, whose head is the size of a cantaloupe, my midwife asked me how I felt about the natural birth, since my first delivery was a C-section. I told her I’d have to get back to her. The back pain, the tearing…it was all too fresh in my mind. She nodded her head and said, “It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do.”

I can’t tell you how many times in the past three-and-a-half months I responded to her in my head: “No, dealing with two kids all day is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. The labor only lasted 10 hours.”

Look around you. See all those wonderful mothers? The ones yelling at their kids not to throw toys? The ones trying to find an answer for every “why” their child comes up with? The ones who remember the sippy cup, the snack, the wipes for the diaper bag? The ones drawing pictures with their kids, correcting them when they’re mean, giving them time-outs?

Yes, those ones. Now tell them how great they are.

They will remember.

Do you agree that mothers are too hard on themselves? Why, do you think?

Image: “Mother and Child” by Elvis John Ferrao via Flickr using a Creative Commons license.

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