At some point, almost every mom says it, “I’m a bad mom.” We’ve done something we feel guilty about or we are struggling in some area that we are sure a good mom wouldn’t. Finally, the shame eats away at us long enough that we give in and confide our inadequacies to someone.
Inevitably, their response is to reassure us that our guilt, in and of itself, is proof that we are good enough. Apparently, a really bad mom wouldn’t worry about her parenting. So as long as we are feeling guilty or ashamed or are suffering, we know we are succeeding.
I’m about to kick over some sacred cows here, but that logic is wrong and those reassurances are anything but helpful.
Let’s start with the truth: Maybe I really am a bad mom.
I don’t mean I am the kind of parent who abuses her kids — I don’t. And I don’t mean I fail to live up to some unattainable standard of the perfect mom who has it all together, does everything by the book, and always remembers to wear matching socks. I don’t even know where that book is or which parenting style is the “right” one today, so I am not worried about that.
When I say I am a bad mom, I mean I am failing in some area of motherhood that I value, and I worry about how that will impact my little people. Maybe I yell too much or am struggling to connect with my child. Maybe I feel overwhelmed by my child’s needs and worry if I am meeting them. Maybe I am battling depression or addiction or repeating patterns I learned growing up and swore my kids would never see. That may not meet the common definition of bad parenting, but when I give myself that label, I am saying I see a real problem in my home. And, what if I am right?
When you tell me I’m a good mom because I love my kids enough to worry about them, you are wrong. I love my kids with every piece of my being, but that doesn’t magically make my struggles disappear. The truth is that love isn’t enough.
My kids’ birth mother loved them. I know because I was in the courtroom watching her heart shatter on the day the judge terminated her parental rights. She absolutely loved her babies. Her love wasn’t enough though. It didn’t make up for what she had done to them. It couldn’t protect them from the additional abuse they would have suffered had they ever been allowed to return home with her. Her love was not enough, and neither is mine.
Parenting is a combination of love and action, but sometimes we struggle with that equation and need help making it right. If you stop and listen to the mom who has chosen to share her struggle with you, you might find there is something more effective you can do for her then pacify her with a tired, overused affirmation.
It could be she has embraced some idea that if she isn’t Mary Poppins then she is Mother Gothel, and she just needs someone to talk things through with. It could also be she is struggling and needs your support finding a counselor or a local parenting class. Maybe she sees a strength in you and wants advice, but she will be too afraid to ask if your initial response indicates that she really should just have it all together.
This script that moms are good as long as they are miserable shuts down the real conversations we would all benefit from — especially those who are facing challenges at the moment.
Parenting in this culture is hard. There is always someone around the corner or on the other side of the screen ready to tell the world all of the ways we are ruining our children’s lives by failing to parent exactly like they imagine people did 47 years ago.
Moms especially are held to unmanageable standards that contradict each other and change daily. Thankfully, there’s finally a backlash, and a rejection of the “perfect mommy” ideal is taking hold, but I wonder if the pendulum has swung too far. Maybe we have realized being a perfect mom is impossible, so instead we have embraced the everyone-gets-a-trophy madness we are inflicting on our children. If no one is a “bad mom,” then everyone is a perfect mom and we should all feel wonderful about parenting.
Just like there is a healthy space between Martha Stewart and Hoarders, I think there is a happy medium in parenting. In that place, we can adopt realistic goals for ourselves while having the freedom to talk about our mistakes and reach out for help when we need it.
Worrying about your parenting does not make you a good mother. Loving your kids does not make you a good mother. Being less than 100% perfect does not make you a bad mother or a failure. Each person decides for themselves what successful parenting is and judges themselves accordingly. That means you can do something completely different than me without either of us ruining our children. It also means because I am human, there will be times when I fall short of the mommy rules I have set for myself or unforeseen challenges may arise that knock me on my butt. When that happens, I may worry or feel ashamed or start down the spiral of self-defeating thoughts and labels.
The next time you find yourself faced with a self-proclaimed “bad parent,” before reaching for your favorite cliché, do us all a favor and stop to empathize with the hurting mom in front of you. You might be tempted to dismiss her immediately, but stop for just a minute and try this instead: “Most moms think that sometimes. What’s going on?” Then listen.
Maybe she needs reassurance she’s doing okay or maybe she needs a friend to talk things over with. Maybe she needs resources or some professional help. Maybe she just needs someone to watch the kids while she takes a nap.
You will never know until you listen long enough to really hear her heart.