Reframing the "Good Mother"
Back in October 2016, when my daughter was 7 months old, I found myself so stressed and overwhelmed that one day I thought if I were to get really sick or was hit by a car, I could rest in the hospital. I could tell this was not a healthy thought, and I knew it meant I needed to re-evaluate my life and my expectations -- but I didn’t have time to do anything more than make a quick note-to-self in my journal:
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)
Three months later, 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 came from long-held, childish assumptions about how my mother raised us — assumptions that were formed decades ago, long before I was able to fully comprehend just how complex it is to be a mother and care for another person. When I realized this, I also realized that it is my privilege as an adult to consciously 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 those so-tiring months, was not only my tiredness but the pervasive feeling that it was somehow wrong of me to even have any independent needs, let alone ask that they be met! Even now, half a year after I originally made this list, I still need to my 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 am lucky to be able to do it on my own terms.