1. Bad Mother
I busted my first Bad Mother in the spring of 1994, on a Muni train in San Francisco. She was sitting on the edge of her seat, her young daughter standing between her knees. She had two barrettes clamped between her lips and a hair elastic stretched around the fingers of one hand. With her other hand she was brushing the little girl's long dark hair, trying to gather the slippery strands into a neat ponytail. It was not going well. She would smooth one side and then lose her grip on the other, or gather up the hair in the front only to watch the hairs at the nape of the girl's neck slide free. The ride was rough, the Muni car bucking and jerking along, causing the little girl periodically to lose her footing. When the driver took a turn too sharply, the little girl stumbled forward, her sudden motion causing her mother once again to lose hold of the ponytail. With a frustrated click of her tongue, the mother yanked a handful of the girl's hair, hard, and hissed, "Stand still!"
That's when, indignant, confident that someday, when it was my turn to brush my own daughter's hair, I would never be so abusive, I leaned forward in my seat, caught the woman's eye, and said, in a voice loud enough for everyone in the train car to hear, "Lady, we're all watching you."
We are always watching: the Bad Mother police force, in a perpetual state of alert-level orange. Sometimes the avatars of maternal evil that come to obsess us are grave and terrible, like Andrea Yates, who was found not guilty by reason of insanity for drowning her five children in the bathtub. Sometimes our fixation on a particular Bad Mother has to do with our own racism, as in the national obsession in the 1980s with the mythical welfare queen, described by Ronald Reagan as a woman with "80 names, 30 addresses, [and] 12 Social Security cards," or the current hysteria about undocumented women giving birth to "anchor" babies in order to immunize themselves from deportation. Sometimes the crime is so lunatic that it approaches a kind of horrible grandeur, like that of Wendy Cook, a prostitute in Saratoga Springs who snorted cocaine off her baby's stomach while she was breast-feeding. (And here I've always been proud of being able to nurse and read at the same time!)
As soon as one Bad Mother fades from view, another quickly takes her place in the dock of the court of public opinion. Not long ago, the dingbat pop starlet Britney Spears was hoisted up as the latest agent of villainy. Her Bad Mother rap sheet is long and varied. It includes being committed to a psychiatric facility, losing visitation rights after failing to submit to court-mandated drug testing, driving with her infant son on her lap, and running in her car over the feet of photographers and sheriff's deputies. And apart from her legal troubles, there are her miscellaneous crimes of lifestyle. Her constant partying, her spendthrift ways ($737,000 every month!), and, most notoriously perhaps, her inexplicable refusal to wear undergarments. We can all agree, can't we, that Britney Spears is at best an incompetent mother and at worst a neglectful one. She's far worse than my first collar, the Medea of Muni, who pulled her daughter's hair on the J Church line. So why, then, do I find myself feeling like she's gotten a bit of a rough deal?
Perhaps because in a smaller way, at the periphery of the public eye, I was myself made to do the Bad Mother perp walk. For a Warholian fifteen I became fodder for the morning talk shows and gossip blogs, held up to scorn and ridicule as an example of maternal perfidy. My crime? Confessing in the pages of the New York Times style section to loving my husband more than my children.
In that essay I wondered about why so many of the women I knew were not having sex with their husbands, while I still was, and I concluded that it might be because they, unlike me, had refocused their passion from their husbands or partners onto their children. I wrote, "Libido, as she once knew it, is gone, and in its place is all-consuming maternal desire." And then I spent some time worrying about what was wrong with me: Why hadn't I successfully "made the erotic transition a good mother is supposed to make"? I said that if a Good Mother was one who loved her children more than anyone in the world, more even than her husband, then I was a Bad Mother, because I loved my husband more than my children.
The Bad Mother police were swiftly on the scene. They speculated publicly, down in the toxic mud of the comment sections on blog pages, that I was crazy, evil, a menace, that my children should be taken away from me. They cross-examined me on the set of Oprah. And New York City's elite Bad Mother SWAT team, the warrior shrews of UrbanBaby.com, sank their pointy little incisors into my metaphorical ankles.
I feel enough of Spears's pain to find myself wondering at the genesis of our current obsession with these varied archetypical manifestations of maternal evil. To a certain extent, of course, we've always been both terrified and titillated by the Bad Mother. Think Euripides' Medea and Agave, think Jocasta, think Joan Crawford. But I can't help but feel—and perhaps only because I've been tried and convicted of the crime—that there is something especially sharpened and hysterical about contemporary Bad Mother vitriol. The frequency with which a new Bad Mother is unmasked, and the extent of our interest in each one, are, I believe, more than merely symptoms of the contemporary general degeneration of civility. While, granted, the human dum-dum bullets of message boards like UrbanBaby hardly exemplify the attitudes of the civil and decent core of American society, they do seem to distill to a vile essence what is a widespread societal preoccupation with Bad Mothers.
There is an appealing sociopolitical rationale for our preoccupation with Bad Mothers, one articulated to me by the feminist scholar and advocate Lynn Paltrow, founder and executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women. Getting us to focus on Bad Mothers, she says, is part of a larger political agenda to keep our attention off the truth—that it is not our mothers but our government that has failed us. The patriarchy and its political, media, and profit-making machines encourage us to scapegoat and vilify one bogeymama after another, because worrying about egregious freak-show moms like Wendy Cook and Britney Spears distracts us from the fact that, for example, President George W. Bush cheerfully vetoed a law that would have provided health insurance to four million uninsured children.
As persuasive as I find Paltrow's argument, something in me rebels at the notion that we can attribute our communal obsession primarily to the patriarchy. I agree with her that we are just at the very beginning of accepting the notion of gender equality (it's only been, as she says, "a microsecond in the course of history"). Still, the blare of condemnation that drowns out so much of civil discourse on the subject of mothering and child rearing originates not from some patriarchal grand inquisitor's office but, in large part, from individual women. And while women have always, historically, been the enforcers of acceptable social conduct, even when it was to their detriment (remember Abigail Williams, the lead accuser in the Salem witch trials?), an hour or two surfing the myriad of mommy blogs provides compelling support for the notion that, in this area at least, we women are the primary authors of our own subjugation. The Bad Mother cops with the most aggressive arrest records are women.
And why? Because the Andrea Yateses and Susan Smiths, the "crack hos" and the welfare moms, provide us with a profound personal service. By defining for us the kinds of mothers we're not, they make it easier for us to stomach what we are.
When I polled an unscientific sampling of my friends and family, they had no trouble defining what it meant to be a Good Father. A Good Father is characterized quite simply by his presence. He shows up. In the delivery room, at dinnertime (when he can), to school recitals and ball games (whenever it's reasonably possible). He's a good provider who is not above changing a diaper or wearing a Baby Bjorn. He's a strong shoulder to cry on and, at the same time, a constant example of how to roll with the punches. This definition seems to accommodate, without contradiction, both an older, sentimentalized Father Knows Best version of a dad and our post-Free to Be You and Me assumptions.
However, my polling sample had a difficult time describing a Good Mother without resorting to hyperbole, beneath which it's possible to discern a hint of angry self-flagellation.
"Mary Poppins, but biologically related to you and she doesn't leave at the end of the movie."
"She lives only in the present and entirely for her kids."
"She has infinite patience."
"She remembers to serve fruit at breakfast, is always cheerful and never yells, manages not to project her own neuroses and inadequacies onto her children, is an active and beloved community volunteer; she remembers to make playdates, her children's clothes fit, and she does art projects with them and enjoys all their games. And she is never too tired for sex."
"She's everything that I'm not."
These responses might be colored by the fact that my polling sample, despite containing a moderate amount of racial, religious, and socioeconomic diversity, was composed of women of approximately the same age (mid-thirties to early forties) and the same level of education (which can be described, succinctly, as "more than they use"). Nonetheless, the common elements in the responses make a compelling statement both about the pervasive power of the antiquated June Cleaver vision of motherhood and about how badly we fall short.
The single defining characteristic of iconic Good Motherhood is self-abnegation. Her children's needs come first; their health and happiness are her primary concern. They occupy all her thoughts, her day is constructed around them, and anything and everything she does is for their sakes. Her own needs, ambitions, and desires are relevant only in relation to theirs. If a Good Mother takes care of herself, it is only to the extent that she doesn't hurt her children. As one of my polling samples put it, "She is able to figure out how to carve out time for herself without detriment to her children's feelings of self-worth." If a Good Mother works, she does so only if it doesn't harm her children, or if her failing to earn an income would make them worse off. More important, even the act of considering her own needs and desires is engaged in primarily to make her children into better people. As one woman told me, "A Good Mother is in shape and works outside of the home so she can be a good role model."
Being a Good Father is a reasonable, attainable goal; you need only be present and supportive. Being a Good Mother, as defined by mothers themselves, is impossible. When asked for an example of a Good Mother, the women I polled came up with June Cleaver and Marmee, from Little Women. Both of whom are by necessity, not coincidence, fictional characters. The Good Mother does not exist, and she has never existed, not even in those halcyon bygone days to which the arbiters of maternal conduct never tire of harking back. If the producers of Leave It to Beaver had really wanted to give us an accurate depiction of late-1950s and early-1960s motherhood, June would have had a lipstick-stained cigarette clamped between her teeth, a gin and tonic in her hand, and a copy of Peyton Place on her nightstand. But still, this creature of fantasy is whom the mothers in my sample measured themselves against, and their failure to live up to her made them feel like Bad Mothers.
It's as if the swimmer Tracy Caulkins, winner of three Olympic gold medals, setter of five world records, were to beat herself up for being slower than the Little Mermaid.
Without exception, the mothers I know feel like they have failed to measure up. As Judith Warner so eloquently wrote in her book Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, "This widespread, choking cocktail of guilt and anxiety and resentment and regret . . . is poisoning motherhood."
I have been pondering the reasons for this maternal anxiety ever since I first found myself suffering from it, sitting in a playground, my briefcase traded in for a diaper bag, my focus narrowed to my baby and myself, my ambition curdling into something I thought was anger but I now realize was closer to despair. I had always been hard-driving and ambitious, myopically fixated on my career. But I was working long hours, and after a day taking care of desperately needy people who looked to me to keep them from spending years, decades, or even the rest of their lives in jail, I had nothing left for my baby. I was jealous of Michael, a work-at-home writer who got to spend long, languid hours with our daughter, dressing her up in her new outfits and shuttling her from Mommy & Me to the library. One day I simply packed up my desk, tossed my framed diplomas into the attic, and became a stay-at-home mom.
It was everything that I thought it would be. Mommy & Me, story time at the library, Gymboree, long stroller walks with my stay-at-home-mommy friends. And then the next day it was Mommy & Me, story time at the library, Gymboree, and long stroller walks with my stay-at-home-mommy friends. And the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after that.
Within a week I had gone mad.
I took a certain satisfaction in the fact that I was now the most important person in the day-to-day life of my child, but I was also bored and miserable. And the fact that I was bored and miserable terrified me. A Good Mother is never bored, is she? She is never miserable. A Good Mother doesn't resent looking up from her novel to examine a child's drawing. She doesn't stare at the clock in music class, willing it along with all the power of a fourth grader waiting for recess. She doesn't hide the finger paints because she can't stand the mess. A Good Mother not only puts her children's needs and interests above her own but enjoys doing it. If I wasn't enjoying myself, then I wasn't a Good Mother. On the contrary, I was a bad one.
From the Hardcover edition.