April 1, 2011


Bad Mothering
by Jennifer Durando

It is easy to spot a bad mother. She is the one letting her children run amok in business establishments. She is the one who brought her disruptive/crying/whining child to the theatre/restaurant/ museum. We all make judgments about these women. They’re somehow at fault that their children are being…well, children. Each one of us struggle with parenting. And we are afraid to share those struggles. We are embarrassed to tell other women that we don’t always know what to do. We are frightened that these confessions will broadcast our failures as mothers, and ultimately as women. We gauge our own successes as mothers by the failures of others. If we are doing a better job than she is, we must be a good mother.

It is rare to hear how well you are doing as a mother outside of Mother’s Day. We are not praised for all that we do, but will be chastised for what we fail to do. This is with anything. When you do well, it is expected and thus ignored. When you falter, it is noticed and addressed. Women do not approach other women to compliment them on their mothering skills. I know I am unlike other mothers. I have been honest about my shortcomings. I do not claim to know everything. I do my best. We learn to be mothers from our own mothers. We decide from their mothering how we will mother our own. Even the worst mother is a good mother in the sense that through her lack of parenting skills, her daughters will know what not to do, and in turn, be good mothers. This is the gift my mother gave me. She lacked nurturing skills, compassion, and patience; she was selfish, unyielding, and unloving. Children are to be seen and not heard. She lived by this credo. This all may sound terribly sad, but I believe she did her best. I can only imagine how she was mothered by her own if what we do, as I suggest, is learn how to mother from our own mothers. I’m grateful she was all those things. I may not always know what to do, but I know what not to do.

Competitive parenting is everywhere: school yards at dismissal, children’s sports events, dance recitals, PTA meetings, etc. In their idle chitchat, women compete with other mothers. Although it may appear that they are boasting about their children and their accomplishments, they are actually competing as mothers. If Johnny is a straight A student, on honor roll, and a star athlete, you are a good mother. If Matthew struggles with reading, needs tutoring, and doesn’t know how to catch a fast ball, let alone what one is, you are a bad mother. Really? Why must we measure our successes as mothers based on the achievements of our children? This is destructive. There are more Matthews than there are Johnnys which means there are mothers out there who are disappointed in their children and themselves.

I think I am a good mother, but my children may tell you differently. I believe I have given them the skills they need to be good human beings. I have always said that I don’t care what they do, as long as they are happy. And I actually mean this. Would it have been nice if my own son won a four year ride to a prestigious college? Sure. It would have afforded him some advantages in life. But in order for him to have achieved that, I would have had to take away part of his childhood. It would have meant daily tutoring, excessive preparation classes, and hours away from socializing with his peers. To have secured that for him, I would have had to stifle his individuality and enforced in him a disadvantageous set of values. Raised by the same mother in the exact same way, my daughter is academically successful. But I am proud of her because she is an incredibly giving and honest human being. So are you a better mother than I am because your son or daughter is valedictorian? Maybe. But it is not because he/she has achieved that commendable honor.

The small moments in motherhood are the ones that matter: when you need to repair wounds created by others, when you need to wipe away tears, when you need to pause and breathe so that your words, behaviors, and inactions nurture rather than defeat. These make you a good mother.

Jennifer Durando is an essayist, writing coach, and amateur poet. She is an underpaid, yet profoundly gratified adjunct lecturer in the English Department at the College of Staten Island, CUNY where she received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She is currently working on a collection of poems that unapologetically documents the afflictions of girlhood and negotiations of womanhood. When she is not teaching, creating, or pondering her place in this world, she can be found balancing a personal life, raising children, and doing laundry.