Motherhood is nothing if not a confusing mix of emotions. Joy, love, anger, and fear all swirl up together until they look like a Jackson Pollock painting and we can’t make sense of what we’re feeling, let alone thinking.
Not only is motherhood a strange dichotomy of conflicting emotions, but a lot of it is instinctual as well. We might not be able to articulate why we feel strongly about attachment parenting or co-sleeping or breastfeeding, but we feel it in our gut.
One of those instincts is an overwhelming need to protect our child. Better known as our inner Mama Bear, we sometimes feel this sudden and impulsive surge of emotion — fierce protectiveness, along with a mix of fear, anger, frustration — courses through our veins. We don’t care who or what caused this threat or pain to our child, but we are ready to pounce. We go into attack mode, with a take-no-prisoners gleam in our eye. We are Mama Bear, hear us roar.
The first time I went all mama bear was when another parent disciplined my son for something he did to her child on the kindergarten playground. Admittedly, my son was in the wrong, but so was this woman and her couldn’t-be-totally-innocent child in my mama bear mind. Logic didn’t matter. Rationality didn’t matter. Empathy didn’t matter. None of that mattered. I was pissed. How dare someone reprimand my child? How dare they assume to know what had gone on?
The mama bear protectiveness mixed with other feelings, like embarrassment and anger at my own son for his part in the whole ordeal. I turned over his mistakes and poor decisions in my head until they became something bigger than they really were. I became convinced that I was doing a pretty shitty job. I became convinced that this other mom and her child were just another example of over-helicoptered special snowflakes. And I was utterly convinced that my son’s role in the scuffle meant he was on the path to assholery and a future that likely included a short stint in the county jail.
I wanted to rush in and fix the problem. No, not just fix the problem — I wanted to make it go away entirely. I was ready to attack, but attack whom, I’m not quite sure. Mama Bear might be fierce, but she’s doesn’t always make sense. In other words, sometimes Mama Bear has her head up her ass and needs a reality check.
There’s probably some scientific or evolutionary reason parents feel the mama bear surge of fierce protectiveness, but mama-bearishness (come on, that’s totally a word!) seems to be only getting worse in this age of helicopter parenting, social media watchdogging, and parental defensiveness. Parents feel entitled to call out any kind of misbehavior, no matter how small, resting safely in the self-righteousness of parental love. “Just looking out for my child,” Mama Bears say.
Well, I call bullshit. Mama bear instincts don’t give you the right to be an asshole, especially when you’re an asshole to someone else’s kid, and mama bear feelings are sometimes nonsense delusions we’ve wound up in our own minds.
Here’s the thing: All kids are assholes sometimes. They are kids. They make mistakes. My kids act like assholes sometimes, and — news flash! — so do yours. They are kids, after all. They fuck up. And here’s another news flash: So do we.
So what if, instead of going mama bear on everyone to protect our special snowflakes, we cut people some slack? What if we empowered our kids to stand up for themselves, instead of rushing in to protect them? What if, instead of assuming other kids are the problem, we considered the possibility that our oh-so-perfect child might have been slightly responsible for whatever went down as well? What if — just what if — instead of freaking out about everything, we calmed a little bit and realized that growing up involves conflict?
Five years ago, when I heard that mom reprimanding my son, I went full-blown mama bear and flipped the hell out. How dare she talk to him that way? I let her have it. And how dare he act that way and make me look bad? I was angry that she thought my son was an asshole, or even worse, that maybe I was raising an actual asshole. But he was a kid — a little kid who made a mistake, apologized, and learned a lesson.
This mama bear instinct to protect and defend — and to fret about the worst-case scenarios — might be natural and instinctual, but that doesn’t mean it’s always right. So take a deep breath and CTFD, Mama Bears. The kids are all right.