06 March 2003

Good Vs. Bad Mothering

I have been thinking a lot lately about this whole mothering thing. This somehow sacred ideal that there is a perfect way to mother, and that women who deviate from this method are somehow inferior.

No matter what your taste, you can read a study or a book by a self-proclaimed expert who will back you up. Want to Attachment Parent? Read this book! Want to CIO? Read this book! Want to use cloth diapers? Read this study! Want to use a bottle? Here’s what this doctor says!

The Latest Studies show. Talk about a phrase that should be removed from all languages. 30 years ago The Latest Studies showed that bottle-feeding and starting solids at 3 weeks and using disposable diapers was the best way to raise your child. Today, The Latest Studies show that breastfeeding and starting solids after 9 months and using cloth diapers are the best way to raise your child. The Latest Studies don’t ever agree with each other, because if they did, there would be no more money given out to actually do studies, and there would be no money made in writing books.

Most of us survive childhood intact. Sure, we bitch. Sure we trot out our parents’ mistakes and brandish them with a vengeance as proof of our suffering. Sure we rant and rave, promising ourselves and anyone else that listens that we will be different, that we will never be the same kind of mother as our own second-rate one.

And yes, there is such a thing as bad mothering.


Bad mothering is not using disposable diapers. Bad mothering is not using bottles and formula. Bad mothering is not putting a baby into a crib and letting the baby cry until she learns to sleep on her own. Bad mothering is not giving the baby a cookie to just shut up her whining, already.

Nor is bad mothering using cloth diapers. Or breastfeeding until the baby is 4. Or letting the baby sleep in bed with her parents, even while they make love. Or feeding the baby a vegetarian diet.

There are women out there who are bad mothers. There are mothers shooting up while their children die of starvation and neglect in the next room. There are mothers out there who stuff a pillow over their heads so they don’t have to listen to the whimpers from their 8 year olds while their fathers sodomize them. There are mothers out there who abandon their children on the street because they no longer wish to care for them. There are women who slowly twist their children’s limbs until they snap while their children cry and beg, promising to be good.

Bad mothers.


But most of us are not.

At some point along the line, women in the Western world stopped trusting their instincts. We began to listen to doctors. We eagerly read studies and books that would confirm to us that yes, we were good mothers!

And worse, we began to betray each other. We began to gather in camps, and we set up rules for what constituted good mothering. And any mother who strayed outside those rules was a bad mother. We’d sit together over tea and discuss in outraged tones the ignorant woman down the street who bottle-fed her child from birth, smugly asserting our superiority in breastfeeding our own children for years. We’d converse over a power lunch about the poor deluded woman who quit her high-profile job so she could stay home and finger-paint, rolling our eyes and congratulating ourselves on our excellent luck in nannies. We’d snipe over email and on message boards, on blogs and over the phone.

Look at me! I am a better mother! And I can prove it to you by surrounding myself with other mothers who think just like me! I can prove it by shoving these books in your face! I can prove it by demeaning other mothers who have made different choices than mine!

Why are we doing this?

Why can't we feel confident in our own mothering choices? Why do we feel such a need to prove ourselves through book after book and scorn directed towards other mothers?

Ask yourself, and be honest. When was the last time you criticized another mother in your mind? Was it today? Was it yesterday?

The next time you hear yourself making a nasty comment about another mother…stop. Just stop. And ask yourself – is she really a bad mother? Does she abuse her child? Does she neglect her child? Co-sleeping is not abuse. Bottle-feeding is not neglect. Think about what is coming out of your mouth.

Do not diminish the pain of a child who sleeps chained in a closet, ribs cracked from her latest beating by equating her to a child who has learned to sleep by crying it out for a few nights in her crib. Do not diminish the pain of a child who has been sexually abused by equating her to a child that sleeps peacefully between her loving parents. Do not diminish the pain of a child who has not eaten for days by equating her to a child who is not fed meat or who drinks formula.

We are the none of us perfect. None of us are. And we will all make mistakes. We will learn, we will revise our thinking; we will throw up our hands and let go of a long cherished ideal because we have just got to do it or collapse.

So how about instead of attacking other mothers, we start feeling confident about ourselves? How about we look to our own children instead of spending time self-righteously judging everyone else’s? Throw away your parenting books. Think about what your doctor tells you and evaluate what it means. When other mothers criticize you, shake it off and ignore the temptation to turn around and attack back.

Let’s try supporting each other for a change. I think it would make all of us better mothers to do so.