Let’s consider retiring the distinction between good mothers and bad mothers.
A good-bad conceit is always hard to let go, and with mothers it’s kept in place by courts awarding custody and once well-intentioned psychotherapeutic set pieces. But the good-bad continuum is gibberish when used of mothers and to drop it is to gain a real measure of psychological freedom for mothers and their children alike.
There are many pursuits that are narrow enough to admit binaries of virtue. Writers, knitters, drivers — they can all be either good or bad. But mothering: there are as many different mothers as there are individuals in the world. To speak of a “good mother” or a “bad mother” is to resurrect the same life-ruining distinction that once separated good virginal women from bad whorish ones, and good pot-roast wives from bad slattern ones.
With extreme exceptions, nearly all mothers, like nearly all people, are neither good nor bad — and most mortals, even judges and doctors, no longer presume to pronounce on this. This is not relativism. This is common sense. Look at your own life: You are talented or virtuous in some ways; in others you’re reckless and spiteful. A prince, a slattern. Bearing and raising a child is as big and heterogeneous a project as living a life. You’re the same kind of mother as you are a human being. Sinner and saint. Some women with children are extremely conscientious about nutrition, but can’t make rent. Other hate to hug but love to drill SAT words.
I’m tempted to go on and on — I myself love homework but balk at class events; love to play but can’t cook etc. — but that mothers, like women, like people, comprise infinite variety should not need more proof. It’s not that the drunk mother or the chronically late one is “doing her best” to be a good mother, and needs our sympathy for her failures. It’s that she is being herself. A portrait of a mother is a portrait of a human being.
To call someone a good or bad mother is to speak of them as though they were your employee, which is why the good-bad judgment is often handed down — handed up — by that mother’s children.
The problem with that view is that the mother, try as she might, knows she cannot bring herself to share it. Because she like her daughters and sons is a full human, a mother cannot manage to maintain a stable image of herself for 24 hours a day as a employee who exists to perform offices for others. (An irony: To the extent that she aims to see herself this way, her children-employers will give her demerits for obsequiousness.) Even a feminist understanding of a “good mother” — one who inspires her daughters with her illustrious career, say, or maintains healthy boundaries, and takes no shit — lands us in the bad-faith employer seat. We’re Cotton Mather pronouncing on a sinner. Or Marissa Mayer pronouncing on an underling. If mothering were a job, anyway, it would be far too gigantic to do — let alone do well. Fortunately it is not a job. Instead it’s a self to be — like a man, a daughter or a son.
Entertain the thought, just for today, that you are neither a good mother nor a bad mother. You’re a mother. And your own mother: she was or is also a mother — neither good nor bad. See if it sets you a little bit free.