Parenting journal: Reframing the “good mother”

Back before I became a parent, during times of intense transition or upheaval, I always wrote in my journal — often a dozen or more pages at a sitting. Writing has been a constant emotional outlet as well as a way to process and move forward with greater perspective and clarity. Unsurprisingly, while having a baby has been one of the hugest transitions of my life (if not the biggest), the nature of the job is such that I’ve had neither time nor energy for extensive journaling. But I do what I can, which is sometimes as minimal as this note I put into Evernote on October 5: 

list assumptions i have about mothering (e.g., i need to put my kid before myself at all times; if i ask my husband for help i’m a failed partner)

Early October was a time when I was so stressed and overwhelmed that I found myself thinking longingly of serious illness or injury, because then I could at least rest in the hospital. I recognized this as problematic, and I could tell that I needed to fundamentally reevaluate something about my life or my expectations, but I didn’t have time to do more at the moment than make that quick note-to-self.

A week ago, thanks to Erik,* I finally sat down and made my list. It began like this:

Assumptions I have about mothering.

  • A good mother puts her child first at all times.
  • A good mother is able to tend her child by herself at all times; she does not need (or want) help.
  • A good mother is always eager and happy to be with her child. She never finds her child exhausting, frustrating, or oppressive.
  • A good mother is able to cook healthy food for her family, keep the house clean, do the laundry, and still have time and energy to play creatively with her child in ways that foster the child’s development.

At this point I had to add a side note: THESE ARE CRAZY UNREALISTIC. And yet… I’m still convinced this was how my mother did it?!

I kept going for a little bit, but soon realized these assumptions came with a flip side:

  • A good mother does not prioritize her own need for sleep.
  • A good mother takes care of her child even if that means skipping her own meals and hydration.
  • A good mother doesn’t need to exercise.
  • A good mother doesn’t need to spend time with friends. In fact, a good mother doesn’t need friends.
  • A good mother doesn’t advertise her desires.
  • A good mother doesn’t need her own interests. Taking care of her child should be fulfilling enough to meet all her needs.

Upon reading my list, especially the second half, I recognized that it derives from long-held, unarticulated, probably screwed-up assumptions about how my mother raised us — about the sort of mother she was (and is). I didn’t have other mother figures in my childhood: no grandmothers, no aunts with children, no babysitters, no family friends who watched us, no older sisters or cousins. Instead, my mother played secondary mother to my friends and lots of other kids, which makes her not only my actual mother but a kind of super-mother among the people with whom I grew up. And so my childish mind took its limited understanding of her way of mothering and internalized it as the best and only way to be a good mother.**

However, as I am just — but finally! — beginning to realize, it is my privilege to decide what kind of mother I would like to be. So I decided to make a new list. In truth, I’m not sure I really believe in the concept of a “good” mother — I suspect I believe that the only thing that matters is “fit” between parent and child — but since I started with that, I’m just going to continue. My hope is that these new assertions will take the place of the old assumptions which have caused me so much anguish.

I will call it, because this concept has been very useful to me:

How to put on your own oxygen mask first.

  • A good mother takes care of herself in order to take better care of her child. There is no need to think about who comes first, because if a mother is depleted, her child loses as well.
  • A good mother recognizes her limitations and asks for help when she needs it, no matter what kind of help that is, whether it’s logistical, emotional, spiritual, or otherwise. A good mother knows that one person cannot take sole care of another while also taking care of herself and having something left over for the other people in her life. A good mother recognizes that help is not only welcome, but required, when it comes to raising a child.
  • A good mother recognizes that she and her child do not need to be together at every moment. She and her child will both benefit from having separate lives.
  • A good mother does what she can, realistically, to tend to her child’s, her family’s, and her own needs, but this is a lot for anyone to take on.*** A good mother knows that the baseline for all of this is that she and her family members are: alive and in reasonable health, reasonably happy and content, reasonably active and engaged with the world, and supplied with a reasonable amount of both stimulus and rest. A good mother does not need to provide all of this herself, but can check in regularly to make sure these things are being supplied in some way, to all members of the family, INCLUDING HERSELF.
  • A good mother partners with her partner, if she has one. There is no need for “roles” unless both partners want that. Good partners help each other in whatever way works best for the partnership and the family.
  • A good mother recognizes that caring for a child (or a partner) is at times stressful, exhausting, frustrating, and oppressive. She recognizes that care must be taken so that these feelings do not become overwhelming or all-consuming, but are always held in proper perspective. If she’s unable to generate this perspective on her own, she needs help from others. Full stop.
  • A good mother recognizes her own needs for rest, physical nourishment, hydration, movement, engagement, stimulation, fulfillment, care, and self-advocacy. She recognizes that her child cannot meet all of these needs, nor can her partner. She recognizes interdependence with the community at large.

This last one is a reiteration, but I’m leaving it in because I feel the emphasis is justified. What almost did me in, in the past couple of months, has been not only the tiredness but the pervasive feeling that it is somehow wrong of me to even have any independent needs, let alone ask that they be met! I need to tell that worried inner voice, over and over, that what I’m feeling ISN’T WRONG and that if my current state doesn’t feel sustainable, it is okay to want change, and to ask for it. Motherhood is for a lifetime. I want to be able to do it on my own terms. 

Making these lists has been illuminating for me, though it remains to be seen how the new list will play out in my day-to-day experience. But it, and my previous post on troubleshooting my self-care, are a good starting point.

May we all feel seen, recognized, and cared-for in 2017!

Lisa and 9-month-old Ada in Santa Barbara, Christmas 2016

*But also thanks to yet another crisis emotional moment… and a lot of family help that enabled me to clear enough of the rest of my to-do list… and the forethought I had to keep this scribbled note still on my radar. This is what it takes for me to write, these days: help and more help from others as well as some organizational prowess on my part.

**I haven’t showed my mother this list, so I don’t know whether she would agree that it is unrealistic, or whether she would protest vehemently that she never believed these things and I shouldn’t either. To be quite honest, I’m afraid to show her, though perhaps she’ll see it here. She has been unrestrained in her commentary on what I do (or don’t do) for Owl, and though I know she tends to just say whatever’s on her mind, it is hard for me not to read every single remark as a criticism on my way of mothering and therefore on myself as a mother. She once chastised me for not wiping up Owl’s drool with a cloth, and when I replied that Owl drools so much that this would entail following her around every single second, she exclaimed, “Of course you follow her around every second!” It is hard for me not to interpret statements like these as a judgment on my deficiencies as a parent.

***I clarified “needs” as: nutrition, movement, health, cultural, social, emotional, intellectual, creative, and environmental. I’m probably missing some. But this helped me realize just how much I was feeling responsible for.

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4 responses to “Parenting journal: Reframing the “good mother”

  1. I think it’s amazing that you pulled together this really insightful and fabulous piece. These lists ARE illuminating, and I wish I had made similar ones when mine were littler. (I guess it’s never too late, is it? I’m still a mother, and I think I’m still ruled by assumptions!) You’ve got so much insight and so early on, and that’s so valuable. It’s funny – I never had another caregiver or babysitter either, AND I was an only child, but I felt weirdly smothered and disdainful of my mother not having a life other than taking care of me, so I kind of pendulumed to the other side. I went on a job interview WITH my baby! when she was like 8 weeks old, and got the job, and found a nanny, and pretty much wore myself ragged trying to be a nursing mother of two/teacher/writer ALL AT ONCE. That was also a recipe for exhaustion. I think I assumed that if I let myself fall into what felt like the pit of motherhood I would never ever be a writer or professional, and that felt unacceptable to me. But it was another kind of assumption-led inner tyranny. Anyway, I’m so incredibly impressed by your writings on motherhood and it makes me wish I’d taken more time to do that too. I think I wrote a total of about 12 pages my child’s first year….

    • Oh gosh, Susan! You make me feel much better for not writing as much as I want! I have also been afraid of falling into the “pit of motherhood” and I think that’s one reason I’m so tired, too; I feel like I have to prove to… myself? others? that I haven’t become “only a mom” or something like that. I am super impressed with you for acing an interview at a couple months postpartum, though! Whew!!

  2. I was getting worried reading the first half of this and was relieved when you recognized how unrealistic your list was. And yet we put those labels and expectations on our shoulders so easily, and struggle to remove them. Your oxygen mask list is beautiful in contrast.

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