I did something really stupid the other day. Something colossally thoughtlessly stupid that could have resulted in a disaster. I was walking down the street pushing my son in a stroller and wrangling my over-excited, poorly trained dog on a leash. I saw my dog start to eat something unauthorized, and out of instinct, I stopped, let go of the stroller and grabbed my dog’s jaw so she’d release the detritus. The stroller rolled slightly and a front wheel tipped off the curb.
Not a fraction of a second passed before I grabbed the handles and righted the stroller. Then I realized what had happened, what could have happened, and my knees turned to jelly. I started apologizing and kissing my son (who of course was none the wiser) and almost let the phrase slip from lips: “I’m such a bad mother.” I almost said it and I almost felt it.
It’s an awful phrase I hear mothers say way too often. It’s become part of our vernacular, and women say it often without even realizing the implications. The phrase imparts such absolute judgment on our roles as mothers, suggests there’s one right way and one wrong way, that unless you never have a single transgression, you’ve failed.
I recently visited a friend who just gave birth to a gorgeous, peaceful little girl. I heard her mutter the words, “I feel like such a bad mother,” more than once during our lunch date. She had been a mother all of three weeks, and was already feeling like she was doing it all wrong. Like there was a manual she didn’t read or a gene she didn’t inherit and she was botching the gig. By doing what? Not knowing all the tricks to soothing her new daughter (tricks that change seemingly daily)? By not being able to do the laundry, walk the dog, and cook dinner all while learning the ropes of sleepless new motherhood?
Even today on the playground, two mothers uttered the phrase to me in conversation. One mom, a friend, was detailing how her daughter had tipped backward and busted her head on the concrete stairs. Her 19-month-old cried some and bled a lot, but was fine and over it in minutes. But my friend felt awful, declaring herself Bad Mother of the Year for this. For what? For not being able to stop a toddler from doing toddler things? She said she was already feeling guilty for having a weekend where she did a few things for herself, enjoyed some free time, some hobbies. God forbid. And for that she feels like a bad mother.
It’s a phrase I said, too. A lot. I felt like a bad mother and I said so. I failed my son in so many ways in the early weeks and months. I wasn’t able to breastfeed. Fail. I cried when he cried. Fail. And I still have those moments, like today’s dog walk/stroller incident. Last week, my husband and I fought in front of our son – complete with raised voice expletives. It makes my heart sink when I think about that. I’m embarrassed and angry that we allowed ourselves to fight in front of our son, and that I instigated it.
Sometimes I just want to put my kid to bed at 6:30 p.m. because he’s being a whiny jerk. Sometimes I’m eager for Monday morning to come so I can take him to daycare. Sometimes I wonder if I’m doing enough – attention, boundaries, books, outside time, green vegetables.
But I’m not a bad mother.
Say it again. We are not bad mothers.
We are doing the best we can. This isn’t a gig that you know how to do until you do it, even if you read every book and take every parenting class. Nothing prepares you for how hard it is. Nothing prepares you for how little sleep you get in the beginning. Nothing prepares you for the depths of the lows you can feel, the overwhelming feelings of guilt and imbalance.
But save for the Andrea Yates of the world, we’re all just fine mothers. We certainly have less-than-stellar moments, but every day we are learning. We’re not expected to be perfect, or have it all figured out. We’re expected to keep our kids alive while they explore the world. We’re expected to keep them safe and happy, for the most part.
So can’t we all just agree to never let ourselves utter those words, even when we feel like we’ve done something really bone-headed? If we allow ourselves to say that we are bad mothers, we will begin to believe it. We will continue to allow that judgment to permeate our collective conscious. And we will let that sentiment chip away at the joy that comes with each moment of being a mother.
Sara Michael is a first-time mom with Type A tendencies. She likes rules, makes lists, and follows plans. That all seemed to work out fine until she had a baby. Now she balances her need for order and answers with the desire to enjoy the unpredictable journey she is on with her 2-year-old son (and a second on the way). Her day job? She is a writer and editorial director at a health care media company where she manages content for an online publication. Her journalism background started in daily newspapers, covering health, science and government. Follow her on Twitter @sara_the_writer.