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The Cult of the Bad Mother. When everyone's a 'bad parent,' is anyone?

Once upon a time, women were under tremendous cultural pressure to be something known as “Good Mothers.” During this long ago, faraway time, these beatific Good Mothers not only did a fantastic job at every aspect of raising children, they also loved every minute of it, from changing dirty diapers to dealing with sullen teens. (Oh, wait. A truly Good Mother’s teenage offspring wouldn’t ever be sullen.) Good Mothers never, ever complained, and in fact, they took every opportunity to publicly extol the joys of blissful, euphoric, totally fulfilling motherhood. They sang this parenting paean both directly to one another, as well as in the pages of the then-ubiquitous women’s magazines.

Fast forward to 2009. The public Cult of the Good Mother has been replaced by the Cult of the Bad Mother, and everything has been turned on its head. Today, instead of magazines full of stories about maternal faultlessness, we have an entire media cottage industry focused on the myriad possibilities of maternal fault. In magazines and on blogs and TV sitcoms, those of us currently raising children vie to tell the most outrageous story of our own mothering failings; we yell at our children! We drink during playgroups! We feed our kids junk food! We use the TV as a babysitter! We admit that we love our husbands more than our offspring! We are Bad Mothers, aren’t we? Aren’t we?

Actually, we really aren’t; we’re simply imperfect mothers, just as the Good Mothers before us were. The only real difference between yesterday’s Good Mothers and today’s Bad Mothers is that we are now able and willing to tell the truth about what it’s like raise children, without leaving out the unpleasant parts. As women and as mothers, we’ve found our voices, and with the accessibility of online media, we have a ready platform and audience for dialogue. And now that it is now culturally acceptable to actually talk out loud about the harsher realities of motherhood – about how it’s sometimes mind-numbingly dull, can lead to depression, and can ruin our sex lives – it seems that we sort of can’t shut up about it.

I know I can’t. Why? Because I’ve discovered – along with an entire generation of moms like me – that being able to talk and write openly about my own parental screw-ups and shortcomings somehow makes mothering easier on a day-to-day basis. As war veterans can tell you, there is tremendous mental health value in being able to discuss the worst parts of a specific kind of experience with others who have shared that experience. It’s the same thing women discovered when they gathered in the feminist consciousness-raising groups of the late ’60s and early ’70s, where they found that openly expressing the unvarnished truth about previously taboo subjects like date rape and domestic violence and abortion was both healing and empowering.

Today, mothers get to be fallible human beings instead of artificial and saintly martyrs, and this is obviously a positive development. However, I have lately begun to wonder whether the constant, often ironic media use of the “Bad Parent” label for women who, say, fail to attend PTA meetings regularly, or who feed their children Happy Meals instead of sit-down dinners doesn’t also cause unintentional harm.

I find myself asking whether we have we gone too far in de-stigmatizing parenting lapses. Because if everyone is a “Bad Parent,” then where is the line between reasonable and unreasonable maternal imperfection? Blog commenters forgive the mother who wittily posts about losing her temper and swatting her child in the grocery store. But does this mean we also forgive the mother who has no blog, but who loses it and swats her child really hard in the grocery store, leaving a nasty red mark? Because, after all, they are both simply being “bad parents.”

Last year, I blogged about how I forgot my baby after work one day, obliviously leaving her with the babysitter. Consumed with stress from my job that day, as well as the logistical headaches of remembering to pick up my three other children from their various afterschool activities, I completely failed to remember child #4 until my husband called to let me know that the sitter was trying to track me down to find out why I had never shown up. Luckily, the babysitter happens to be my mother-in-law, so my infant daughter was safe and sound. But the fact remains that I completely and totally forgot my own baby. Although I received a few comments on the blog post chastising me for my error, many who read my post sympathized with me, assuring me that it could happen to any busy mom. I confessed my “Bad Parent” sins and was absolved by my peers. The dialogue made me feel better about my mistake.

But should I feel better? Could a bigger helping of maternal guilt, spurred by negative judgment have served a higher purpose, preventing me from making the same mistake again? This is the question I found myself pondering after I read this story about how many parents each year forget their babies and toddlers in carseats, leaving their children to swelter or freeze to death in the parents’ cars – vehicles that are often parked right outside these busy parents’ offices. Most of these forgetful parents are criminally prosecuted, meaning they are clearly “bad parents” (surely being charged with murder takes you definitively into bad parent territory). After all, a terrible incident like this isn’t the stuff of which confessional mommyblog posts about parenting shortcomings are made.

But what about me? I forgot my baby, just like these other parents. I was no different in my actions; only the outcome was different – something for which I can assure you I frequently offer a private and heartfelt thank you to God. So where does my dangerous-mistake-with-lucky-outcome put me on the bad parent continuum? In hindsight, I am comfortable saying that I screwed up to such a degree that I deserved negative judgment, not affirmation or support. That day at least, I truly deserved the bad parent label – and not in any ironic way.

It is worth considering whether our ever-increasing media appetite for maternal imperfection might be leading us down a slippery slope of misplaced tolerance, where passing any sort of judgment against any sort of parenting – no matter how clearly unsatisfactory – ceases to exist. While excessive, unreasonable judgment of mothers might be wrong, so is the lack of cultural discernment that comes with approval of all parenting behavior as equally acceptable.

While excessive judgment of mothers is wrong, so is acceptance of all parenting behavior. Additionally, we should be asking ourselves whether the ability to air our dirty parenting laundry without fear of judgment is simply a classist privilege, rather than representing any sort of meaningful change in attitudes toward all women. The mostly-white, mostly-college-educated mothers (like me) who pen “momoirs” about things like letting their third grader navigate public transportation sans adult supervision get appearances on talk shows. However, a poor, minority or immigrant mother who made the same parenting choice would more likely get a visit from Child Protective Services.

I plan to keep blogging about my own maternal failings. And I will continue to engage in the valuable dialogue of support and sharing with other mothers, both on- and offline. It’s a good thing. However, I hope we can soon find some balance between the extreme expressions of Good Motherhood and Bad Motherhood, because for most of us, most days, it’s somewhere in the middle.

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