Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Good mothers

Journalist Bronwen Clune moans that from the day she produced the first of her four children everyone expected her to be a "good mother" and assessed her every action against this impossible ideal. Any careless lapse was instantly jumped on.

But can this really be true? Surely in this day and age everyone - including non-parents like myself - knows that parents are not perfect, children are not perfect, and obviously you have to make allowances for normal, fumbling human behaviour.

Not so, says Bronwen. She's expected to make gourmet school lunches, supply everyone's favourite breakfast cereals, be a maths wizard and always have matching socks on hand. She's meant to be forever smiling and free of foibles and oddities.

I don't believe people are so censorious. Doesn't every other parent know full well how hard it is to bring up children? How demanding and awkward they are, how exhausting and infuriating, how unpredictable and startling. Do parents who know all too well the non-stop craziness of parenting and their own constant inability to measure up really expect other parents to reach some exalted standard they couldn't possibly reach themselves? Are they truly such mean hypocrites?

Even those of us who've never had children and may know little of the day-to-day turmoil and weariness of looking after them can surely imagine what it's like and sympathise with those mums and dads who're temporarily losing it or collapsing in a defeated heap while their offspring happily misbehave?

Who are all these people who expect Bronwen to be so saintly? If they're friends and relatives, then shouldn't she either keep well away from them or tell them to go screw themselves? If they're complete strangers, why take any notice of them at all? Or are these elevated standards ones she's actually setting herself, some kind of internal perfectionist streak?

This "good mother" hang-up seems especially odd for someone who's had four children. Hasn't she realised by now that there's no perfect way to bring up a child and you just have to take things as they come and do the best you can? Isn't the best response to other people's sniffy disdain a gale of raucous laughter and another glass of pinot noir?

26 comments:

Wisewebwoman said...

You can't rule out the competitive nature of people, Nick. Maybe you've never been to a children's swim meet or ballet or piano competition.

It is brutal. Something went drastically wrong along the way of child raising when parents fight to get kids into 'best' schools. I feel so sorry for the children being pawns in this game. I've seen far too much of it.

XO
WWW

Z said...

I agree with you, Nick. It's quite possible she's in with a set of people who are competitive and censorious, but I'm sure she's exaggerating for effect. When my children were little, my friends and I tended to compete with bad or incompetent mother stories, though there was competition to be the least relaxed. Which is something I might be able to expand into a blog post, I'll go and see.

Nick said...

www: No, I haven't been to any of those things! But I must say my parents were never the slightest bit competitive with other parents. They wanted me to succeed at things but weren't too bothered if I didn't.

I don't blame parents for trying to get their kids into good schools though, when so many schools are dreadful.

Nick said...

Z: I'm very sure she's exaggerating. And there's a suspicious lack of particular snooty episodes in her article. It's all very vague and generalised. Yes, I would have thought competitive bad mother stories are much more common.

John Gray said...

Have a look on mumsnet.com

An eye opener for sure

Jenny Woolf said...

Yep, sounds as if this is all in her own mind.

Nick said...

John: I'll leave mumsnet to the mums. But I'll take your word for it that careless parenting is well covered!

Jenny: It looks pretty fishy to me. Another case of journalistic licence, I think.

Rummuser said...

I agree with WWW. I find this competitive spirit everywhere and my siblings and I have given up on trying to change our children from being more like how we were as parents. Apart from that, I really do not see why it should matter to impress others about being a good parent.

Nick said...

Ramana: I think the only people who should care whether parents are "good" enough are their children. Everyone else should mind their own business.

Liz said...

My first child I set myself high ideals for what they would or wouldn't be allowed to do/expected to do; by the third I'd discovered that life with children just isn't like that.

When I see a child having a tantrum in the supermarket I smile sympathetically - and hope it's viewed that way.

Nick said...

Liz: I guess it's routine for parents to start off with impossible ideals for their first child, and then by the time of their second or third child they just go with the flow.

Cheerful Monk said...

My husband used to say, "Children grow up in spite of their parents." It doesn't matter if I was a good mother or not. My child (now in her 40's) is doing just fine.

kylie said...

i hear an awful lot about this and i can tell you there are some dreadfully censorious people out there but i also think that mothers who get too upset about it all are probably their own worst critic.

i once read an article about how "parenting" never used to be a verb and it's new existence as a verb was used to demonstrate just how overly serious we all get but i think its actually an indicator that we have moved on from "mothering" as the only form of nurture.

i think the reason parenting is so well analysed, critiqued and worried over is because we all know that it is so incredibly important to get it right. We also all know our own failings (or the ones we were subject to) and attempt to make ourselves feel better by noticing that nobody is perfect.

Nick said...

Jean: I think that certainly applies in my own case. I'm so different from my parents and sister I sometimes fleetingly wonder if I was a love child!

Kylie: I think that's true about mothers often being their own worst critics. As you say, they want to get it right and they fret if they think they're falling short. And yes, the word parenting emphasises that fathers have an equal responsibility for child-rearing.

Bijoux said...

I read the article and got something completely different out of it. I think I understand where she's coming from.....

Being told, "You're a good mom" can almost feel like an insult to modern women. It implies that you put your children ahead of yourself, your spouse, your career, your own dreams and that your highest accomplishments are wiping rear ends and making boxes of Kraft Mac and cheese.

Maybe not everyone feels that way, but in a sense, it does feel like a put down to me and that's the message the author is trying to get across.

Nick said...

Bijoux: Oh, I totally agree that being called a good mum can seem like an insult. I just wondered how often she was actually expected to be a good mum, and whether she was exaggerating the criticism for journalistic effect.

Jay at The Depp Effect said...

Unfortunately, there are circles of parents who are fiercely competitive and expect others to be the same, striving for perfection at every turn.

The truth, however, is probably more that she holds herself to this impossible standard, as most of us do - at least at first! And children, and husbands, will seldom disabuse you of this notion: children particularly are very good at the 'Mum, why don't we have .. ? 'Where is my clean ...?' 'You KNOW I'm supposed to have ...!' type stuff.

One of the best pieces of advice was given to me by my first Health Visitor (a lady appointed to come around and help new mothers to learn the ropes and check on the child's development). She said 'There is no such thing as a perfect mother, and if there were, it wouldn't actually be a good thing for the child!'

She was so right!

Secret Agent Woman said...

After reading the article, I don't see her take as harshly as you do. It IS a tough gig being a woman and a mother. I'm never felt any urge to be competitive about it and I ascribe to the notion of "good enough mothering (parenting)", but I have seen the effects of the insane competitions that can arise.

But you know, when a patient says something to me about how "they" are judging her (and it's virtually always women who worry about that), I always encourage them to talk about exactly who the "they" is. Somehow it's much easier to dismiss when you can narrow it down to your mother and father in law, and your nosy next door neighbor, and no the whole world.

Me? I love my kids insanely, but I'm also the mother who refused to get into PTA politics, who rolled out of bed with her boyfriend and showed up to pick up my son from band practice with my shirt on inside out, and who is blissfully out of the loop. In spite of that, I have two honors students who are doing just fine, thanks.

Nick said...

Jay: Indeed, children are so persistent and so demanding, aren't they? Easy for a parent to feel they're not quite making the grade. Good advice from the health visitor, I think! Of course a perfect mother (if there was such a thing) would simply make the child feel thoroughly imperfect by comparison!

Nick said...

Agent: Oh, I wasn't denying it's tough being a woman and mother. It's very tough. I just thought maybe there was a bit of self-created paranoia there. I think you're right that it helps to narrow down the critics to one or two specific people.

I laughed at the inside-out shirt episode! As you say, despite your parental "shortcomings" your kids are both doing fine, so no harm done.

bonsaimum said...

Other parents can be really cruel and competitive. I actually changed mothers groups because I could not stand turning up and watching the other mothers comparing their kids. Life is too short! I brought up my kids the best way I could and fortunately have never cared what others thought.

Nick said...

Bonsaimum: I think that's the only sensible approach in the end - bring up your kids the best way you can. Aiming for perfection is a mug's game.

Nick said...

So I gather from all these comments that there are plenty of competitive mothers out there, desperate not to be seen as crummy mummies....

Los Angelista said...

I regularly tell my kids that I'm doing my best to make sure they have plenty to discuss with their therapists when they grow up. I guess that makes me a terrible mum, but I just can't do everything and they just have to deal with it!

speccy said...

My children take pity on me, and are very generous with their praise when I get things right. I'm hoping that means I'm doing ok...

Nick said...

Liz: Indeed, without plenty of shoddy parenting, all those therapists would be out of a job. In fact, the bad parents are probably due a commission.

Speccy: Oh dear, I hope they aren't too scathing when you get things wrong....