I am writing to announce my retirement as a bad parent.
I hereby vow that I will no longer participate in self-deprecating or otherwise falsely humble assaults on my parenting. I won’t use sarcasm or humor to refer to perceived mistakes or bad judgment.
I hope you will join me.
A year ago, I published a piece on Babble about how I don’t enjoy taking my son to the park. It followed a tradition established by Ayelet Waldman’s essay collection, Bad Mother, in which we address our basic needs – to have friends who aren’t mothers, to choose our work over full-time mothering – and beat our consciences to the punch by calling ourselves bad parents.
At the time, the essay was published under what Babble called the “Bad Parent” section. In the meantime, they’ve renamed it “Real-Mom Confessions” because, as my editor explained, “Bad Parent wasn’t literal, but it could be taken to mean that we were calling someone that. We wanted to make sure there was no confusion.”
It’s a good direction and a necessary one. For my part, I will no longer be adding to the hundreds of essays written by parents who seek to absolve themselves from the guilt that no matter what we do, we never feel we’ve done enough.
I’m not a bad parent. I spend a lot of time with my two kids. I feed them well. I take them for check-ups regularly. I contribute to the expansion of their minds by taking them to the museum on occasion, discussing their days with them, and signing them up for music classes. I read to my older son, and I sing to the younger one.
But here’s what I also do: I sometimes let my 3-year old have a bottle to fall asleep at night when he’s having a particularly tough time, despite the rules about tooth decay and infantalism. I forget to change my younger son’s diapers for a few hours on occasion. When my baby was his most colicky, I let him sleep on his stomach, aware as I am of the SIDs risks. I have, at times, allowed my older son to watch more than 1 hour of TV per day at least once a week. There are noodles at most of the meals I serve. I scream sometimes. I have hired a nanny to look after my younger son while I work. I have used food as a reward. I use my smartphone while I’m spending time with my kids (though not as much as I used to). I stopped pumping when, for the second time, my milk supply dwindled to nothing at two months. I didn’t even seek out lactation help this time.
These are my confessions to being human. They don’t make me a bad parent, and they don’t make me any less dedicated to parenting than anyone else. I will no longer be a player in the drama we all participate in, the one in which we slap ourselves on the wrist before the person we’re talking to can do it themselves.
Do we do this because we feel guilty? Why should we feel guilty? Are our children neglected? Aren’t they clothed and fed and clean? Aren’t they stimulated? To me, there are two possibilities here: We perceive others as doing everything whole-heartedly. Or we don’t like this whole parenting thing as much as we hoped we would. Both emotions are okay. We’re not the first to feel them. I’m not sure what they make us, but they don’t make us bad parents.
Maybe what we want when we say we’re bad parents is to be told we’re doing a good job. But nobody can tell us that, not really, so we’re fishing for compliments, never overtly saying what we need. Maybe the work we need to do here is to not need others’ approval, to be confident in our decisions and in who we are, in the kind of mothers and fathers we ended up being. That starts with never calling ourselves bad, not even lightly, not even facetiously.
I’m not a bad mother. Ayelet Waldman isn’t either, and she knows it, too. You can find it all over her book. In one of her essays, she begins by discussing how a woman saw her bottle-feeding her baby and advised her that breastfeeding is best. Instead of slapping that woman, as she should have, she goes into an entire explanation (and accompanying essay) about how hard she tried to breastfeed her baby, the clinics and consultations and books and apparatus she’s used. I did the same thing recently. A woman, a stranger, recently asked me if I breastfeed when she saw my baby. I said no. She asked me why, so I told her. That’s part of the problem. I’ve got a lot of work to do.
But not that much work. Let’s you and I take a breath and gather up our self-esteem. Come on, we’re on a parenting website – how bad can we be doing?