When people asked my great grandmother how she raised eight children without losing her sanity, she’d say, “With one blind eye and one deaf ear.” For me, this pearl of wisdom means not only that I can let my kids get away with occasional misbehavior if it’s not hurting anyone, but I also have permission to ignore them now and then. And I do ignore my kids sometimes, freely and without fear of judgment. What was harder for me to ignore when I first became a mom were all the Supermoms out there, who seemed to be parading their accomplishment capes and brandishing their lassos of superiority in my plain sight.
We all know Supermom. She’s that mom in the subway with freshly washed hair, not a single cheerio stuck to her butt. She’s in line at the bank with four kids in tow, all dressed in matching outfits. Her kids say please and thank you, and I’m quite sure none of them are stick beads up their noses either.
When I first became a mom, a good mother was Supermom, a woman selflessly devoted to raising children, having a career, and keeping a home. It was an ideal that I could neither reach nor discard. I used to feel like Supermom was doing those perfect things on purpose just to showcase her superiority. How dare she?! I felt her white-hot judgment all over me and my unwashed hair, my children’s mismatched clothes and bead-accessorized noses.
Then one day I was reading The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, and I came across this line:
“Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman… It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended protective wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. They were women who idolized their children… and esteemed it as holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.”
–Kate Chopin, The Awakening (1899)
Even though Chopin’s novel was written over one hundred years ago, she managed to express my exact feelings about the Supermoms around me. I realized then that the Supermom was not a new phenomenon, and she only had control over me inasmuch as I gave it to her. I had placed Chopin’s mother-woman up on her pedestal when I buried my self-doubt and hostility rather than acknowledging them as acceptable parts of a loving whole.
In The Myths of Motherhood: How culture reinvents the good mother, psychologist Shari L. Thurer says, “there is a glaring need to restore the mother her own presence, to understand that she is a person, not merely an object for her child, to recognize her subjectivity.” This recognition was the gift my great grandmother had given me, the permission to be my own person outside the position as mother of my children.
Battle Hymn of the Good Enough Mother
With the help of therapy, I finally allowed myself to be vulnerable with my fellow mom friends; they in turn opened about about their own anxieties. To my surprise, when I finally plucked up the courage to confess my insecurity to friends, I became more powerful. I welcomed the dawn of a new age, the era of the good enough mother. When I learned I wasn’t alone, I felt more powerful at having put Supermom in her place. She might have been better (or maybe she wasn’t), but I was good enough.
Indeed, Thurer says, “The nervousness parents feel about their inadequacy will dissipate when decent people are encouraged to mother in their own decent way,” which was just what my friends did for me. By breaking “the conspiracy of silence,” we–the good enough mothers–experienced the triumphs of motherhood together and helped each other through the trials. I am doing my best to craft an honest community from genuine respect and non-judgment that buoys my confidence and increases our shared influence.
 Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. New York: Bantam Dell, 1981. Print. (originally published in 1899 by Herbert S. Stone & Co.)
 Thurer, Shari L. The Myths of Motherhood: How culture reinvents the good mother. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994. Print.
 The phrase “good enough mother” was first used by pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott in his book, The Child, the Family, and the Outside World (Middlesex 1973), p. 11.
This post is part of a series of responses asking for thoughts on “good mothering.” Please email me at TheMamafesto (at) gmail (dot) com if you would like to participate!
For me, being a good mother means balancing motherhood with the rest of my identity in a way that lets all parts of me thrive.
My husband and I never thought we wanted to have kids, and then suddenly, in my mid-30s, I changed my tune. Luckily, my husband – who, like me, performs improv comedy, and is comfortable improvising not only on stage but also in life – found his way toward changing his tune, too. When I got pregnant, we were thrilled…but there was ambivalence, too. Basically, I spent much of my pregnancy freaking out that becoming a parent was going to overwhelm the rest of my identity. There’s an entire chapter in my book about my fear of becoming, as I delicately put it, “a douchebag” – one of those moms who abandons all of the other interests and relationships in her life in favor of 100% absorption in Little Precious.
Now that my daughter is almost two years old, I look back at my prenatal fretting and think, “Why did I have so little faith in myself?” Sure, balance is hard – really hard — but it’s always been hard; being a mother just puts a new set of pressures on the scales.
I shouldn’t say “just,” because balancing the energy I put into parenting with the energy I put into my career, my art, my relationship with my husband, and all the other relationships in my life – it isn’t always easy. Not at all. But in some ways, spending my entire adult life pre-motherhood focused on attaining balance was the perfect practice for becoming a mom. It gave me self-knowledge. I know, for example, that if I don’t write, I turn into a restless, anxious mess. Does my writing time look different now that I’m a mother? Sure. But part of being a good mother is honoring all of the other parts of myself — all my other needs — because doing so makes me ME, and that’s who my daughter needs. And then when I’m with her, I can be completely present. I can lose myself with her – and find new parts of myself, too – because I am not relying on her to feed all the parts of me that need feeding.
I think I’m making it sound easier than it is, and that’s not my intention. There are days when all that my husband I do is take care of her, and work, and collapse in a heap. But the further we get from her infanthood (and what a pang it still gives me to think that’s something we’re leaving behind), the more I regain a feeling of independence, and time and space and energy to write and socialize and dream outside of the role of mom.
And while motherhood definitely introduces new limits to my life (I can’t spend a Saturday afternoon vegging out in front of the TV, for example, and the money we might have spent on travel goes to daycare), I’m finding that it also liberates me in some very deep ways. Love does that. And I love being a mother. I love being HER mother. I love spending time with her more than almost anyone else.
Does that mean I don’t regularly need time alone with my husband, friends, or relatives? No way.
I’m reminded, as I so often am, of something I’ve learned from performing improv. It’s a notion that’s gotten more and more mainstream attention in recent years, so maybe you’ve heard of it: “Yes, and.” I won’t get into what it means for the art of improv, but the way I apply it to my life is this: We can hold two things to be true. I can need time with my daughter, and I can need time away from her. I can love being her mother, and I can know that being her mother also means being a woman who’s madly in love with her husband and needs time alone with him…and an artist who needs to feed herself with new experiences and the time and space to process them creatively… and, and, and.
What does it mean to be a good mother?
To me, it means simply and profoundly this: Being myself.
Amanda Hirsch is the author of Feeling My Way: Finding Motherhood Without Losing Myself. She blogs at amandahirsch.com and Having a Ball Having it All and is on Twitter at @amanda_hirsch.
Paula Kamen wrote a piece in response to the “Alinea Restaurant Baby” scandal, where two parents were called out on Twitter by the head chef for bringing their infant to the upscale restaurant.
What is a good mother to do?
…I know some readers are probably thinking: Wouldn’t it be easier if I just managed my kids better? Before I had kids, I thought that parents whose kids misbehaved in public were entitled and self-absorbed, flippantly allowing their kids to run amok with no regard for anyone else. But now I see that controlling those kids’ every move, especially after a whole day with them at home spent constantly policing, is more difficult than one would think. This is even with taking every precaution possible.
Now my family’s main requirement for picking a restaurant is where we are likely to enrage the fewest people. I typically request that we be seated far away from others, even in an empty party room if possible. We go to dinner when restaurants are the least crowded, at early-bird hours so extreme that they would embarrass even the most flinty senior citizen. But no matter how well we plan, because of a series of other demands — like my husband’s or my work going late on a day when there’s slim pickings in the larder — it’s inevitable that once in a while, we land at 7 p.m. in a crowded pizza place.
Read more at Crain’s Chicago Business.