A few nights ago I met up with an older journalist for cocktails. We sipped our drinks and talked about work, men, the usual subjects. Then she mentioned she’s going to New Orleans for a week with nine of her friends from college to build homes. “That’s so cool!” I exclaimed.
“Oh, we’ve done a vacation together every year,” she explained. “We don’t all go every year, because when the first one of us had a baby, we made a rule that no children are allowed to come. Usually the ones with younger children miss a few trips. But most of us go each year and leave our kids home with our husbands.”
Color me flabbergasted. My stay-at-home mom never did anything like that. And my three sisters, who are moms, have behaved at times like they can’t go see a matinee with me without Navy SEAL-level advanced planning.
“I’m a bad mom,” my new friend smiled, sipping her cocktail while her two kids sat at home with a sitter.
“Oh, no!” I assured her. “You’re the kind of mom I want to be!”As a “bad mom,” I don’t mean, of course, that I’m going to be a negligent mother. I’m not going to drink or do drugs while I’m pregnant. I’m not going to park them (or myself) in front of the TV all day. I’m not going to watch them stumble home with booze-y breath and ignore it.
No, what I mean by being a “bad mom” is that I need to still have a life. In the social milieu that my sisters and I belong to — upper-middle-class, educated, professional, mostly church-going — there are certain conventions when it comes to how moms behave. Although not everyone in this milieu is like this, a lot of the women (and to a lesser degree, the men) are perfectionist with their parenting. My sisters, to certain degrees, each are quite concerned with being 100 percent available to their kids, 24/7. (I don’t write about them much on The Frisky, but I am actually the completely smitten aunt of four: a 5-year-old boy, a 4-year-old girl and two 3-year-olds. I know everyone says this, but my nieces and nephew really are mindblowingly smart and funny.) That’s a good thing in theory, of course, until it veers off to the perfectionist side: hardly ever going out with their friends or family, buying the kids lots of toys/clothes, fixing up endless snacks, interrupting phone conversations to answer their questions. I wonder sometimes, Why so much anxiety? Who do you think is judging? Or is it just you judging yourself?
I do want kids of my own. I really want kids of my own. But I look at my sisters and I feel kind of daunted by what upper-middle-class, educated, professional parents do. I want to do the rocking to sleep, the cuddling, the spooning peas, the bath times, the Halloween costumes, the long-division homework, the first date. But I don’t want to do those things I’m “supposed” to do in order to be seen as a “good mom.” To me, perfectionist parents are sublimating themselves — not just putting ordinary human selfishness aside to be a good and provident parent, but actually sublimating their personalities and interests. It’s like their main interest — maybe a better term would be “focal point” — is that their kids are happy all of the time, even if that comes at their own expense. And I know myself: I know I’ll be unhappy and resentful if “me” doesn’t get to exist anymore.
As I said before, my mom stayed at home with her five kids while my dad worked. Mom sat outside by the pool with us every day in the summer, fixed up mugs of hot cocoa in the winter, drove us to endless trips to the public library, picked us up at the nurse’s office on sick days, etc. And I know Mom loved being a full-time, stay-at-home mother — you’d have to if you have five children. But ever since I was a little girl playing with my baby dolls and daydreaming about being a mom myself one day, I knew that the suburban-stay-at-home grind would drive me crazy. My mom, like my sisters, didn’t often go out much to dinner parties or brunches. She has friends, but not a lot, and she hardly ever met up with them to see movies or shop. She never went on any vacations. Some of that’s just my mother’s personality — she’s an artist, a gardener, and a huge book reader, so her interests are mostly solitary. But she was also born in 1944 and I think some of her more Betty-Draper-on-“Mad Men” behaviors are just what her generation of mothers did. Instead of easing up, though, it looks to be blowing up. For whatever reason — more anxiety in parenting? a less stable world? practically everyone takes medication for ADD now? — in my sisters’ generation, the conventions of good motherhood have been amped up even higher.
It’s distressing to me that to not sublimate yourself — to go have cocktails on a weeknight with a young blogger, to take annual vacations with your best friends from college — is enough to make my new friend call herself as a “bad mom.” She was being glib, of course. But if you unpack her joke, there is a very real insecurity, and it’s just not one that even a future “bad mom” like me can ignore.