A slightly sozzled toast to bad mothers everywhere
New York journalist Lenore Skenzay let her 9-year-old son Izzy ride the subway by himself. The result was nothing short of hysterical. The syndicated columnist and her travelling tot suddenly found themselves at the centre of a media storm that saw Skenazy tarred as a Bad Mother for audiences from Chile to China and even Malta.
If there had been a handy pond nearby I’m sure there would have been at least one conservative commentator willing to find out whether she floated.
Skenazy is the author of “Free Range Kids”: her thesis being that we should untangle parenting from irrational fear and bring a certain rationality to the business of kid raising.
Her book can be traced in a line of work that could be dubbed the Bad Mommy genre of confessional writing that has emerged in the last few years that has sought to offer a counterpoint to the frenzied, goal-focused, perfectionist mantra of motherhood that has become the acceptable standard of being a Good Parent.
Skenazy’s controversial ideas are interesting given she has joined a growing number of writers whose view on the changing emphasis placed on parenthood, especially motherhood, has exposed the feverish flush of anxiety and control that now is popularly seen to be mandatory.
Novelist Ayelet Waldman was largely ahead of the curve, with her now infamous essay for the New York Times in 2005 in which she admitted that the passionate, intense love that consumed her was that which she felt for her husband, not her four children.
“If a good mother is one who loves her child more than anyone else in the world, I am not a good mother. I am in fact a bad mother. I love my husband more than I love my children,” Waldman wrote.
In her piece, Waldman frets over whether allowing her husband (novelist Michael Chabon) to occupy a central place in her emotional world makes her a failure.
“I am the only woman in Mommy and Me who seems to be, well, getting any. This could fill me with smug sense of well-being. I could sit in the room and gloat over my wonderful marriage. I could think about how our sex life - always vital, even torrid - is more exciting and imaginative now than it was when we first met. I could check my watch to see if I have time to stop at Good Vibrations to see if they have any exciting new toys. I could even gaze pityingly at the other mothers in the group, wishing that they too could experience a love as deep as my own.”
“But I don’t. I am far too busy worrying about what’s wrong with me. Why, of all the women in the room, am I the only one who has not made the erotic transition a good mother is supposed to make? Why am I the only one incapable of placing her children at the center of her passionate universe?”
Waldman went on to turn her musings into a book called (what else?) “Bad Mother” which hit bookshelves last year. Reflecting on the brouhaha that conflagrated in the wake of her original piece and the surge in the number of books in the “Bad Mom” genre, Waldman told the New York Times: “There has been a backlash against that ‘perfect mother,’ and now people are starting to ache for a more realistic way to define women and motherhood.”
Her book has been joined by a number of titles by well-known women who have shared their confusion, angst and downright need for a drink since becoming mothers.
Founder of phenomenally popular blog, Dooce.com (it attracts 7 million hits a month), Heather Armstrong recently published a book called, “It Sucked and Then I Cried: How I Had a Baby, a Breakdown, and a Much Needed Margarita”.
Actress Dani Klein wrote “Afterbirth: Stories You Won’t Read in a Parenting Magazine”.
All of these books in some way reinforce the idea of motherhood being a pursuit that leaves one perpetually open to a mass of potential criticism and judgement, while floundering in the midst of a deeper personal crisis.
“To be a mother—even simply to be a woman—in today’s world is to be made exhausted and resentful by a role or set of roles that we don’t recall deliberately choosing,” Sandra Tsing-Loh commented in an article for The Atlantic entitled On Being a Bad Mother.
Tsing-Loh says of her poor- by modern standards sort of parenting: “I am bad, not in that fluttery, anxious, 21st-century way educated middle-class mothers consider themselves ‘failures’ because they snap when they are tired, because they occasionally feed their kids McNuggets, because as they journal they soulfully question whether they’re mindfully attaining a proper daily work/life balance.”
What this genre of writing reflects is the cultural renegotiation we are currently experiencing about what being a decent parent means.
Whether some might think being a bad parent means feeding your kids fresh-from-the-box Mac’n’cheese or letting them catch the 380 to Bondi, take comfort from the fact there are a growing number of parents who think you’re doing a good job. Now pass the Bloody Mary mix.
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