The fallacy of the ideal mother
I was a reluctant mother.
Unless they are just bathed, dressed in clean pajamas and holding their own warm bottle in their tiny hands, I don’t like babies very much.
Before I had my two sons, I would see moms in the Walmart with their carts full of diapers and peanut butter, pleading with the snotty-nosed toddler in their cart to stop spilling their raisins. I would cringe and think, “Oh my god. That is so going to be me some day.”
I would read stories about kids who wandered away from the family reunion and were later found face down in the hot tub. I would silently whisper, “Oh my god, please don’t let that be me some day.”
For years before I actually had children, I knew that I would not be an ideal mother. An ideal mother is patient and soft spoken. She stares tragedy down with grace and faith. She gently wipes snot and shit without reaction. She would never lose her kid and she is completely fulfilled by her role.
Once I had my boys, I became the dread-filled mother. Driven by fear. Exhausted, resentful. Making it through each day with my breath held, I never really saw the upside of parenting.
Unfortunately, I was not without the assistance of the ideal mother. For years, she kept residence inside my head, providing an ongoing narration about how I was failing at maternity and femininity. Against her backdrop, there was very little joy. I saw parenting as a care taking business – a transaction. I was supposed to keep the children safe. They were supposed to provide me with my life’s purpose. This was all part of a rinse and repeat cycle, going back generations.
And so, dutifully and without enthusiasm, the three of us plodded along. My eyes always scanning the horizon for hidden hot tubs, the kids trailing their raisins behind us.
Embracing the upside of parenting
When I stopped care taking my kids, I created my family.
The rebellion against the ideal mother started the night I scrapped nasty (but homemade!) casserole into the kitchen sink and drove my kids, then 3 and 1, to McDonalds for the first time. Over the years, more skirmishes occurred. During this time, the boys and I sort of waited each other out – they got older, and I got over myself. Eventually I smothered the ideal mother. I killed her dead. I introduced myself to my kids and started practicing “organic parenting.” I yell, I curse, I kiss and I hug. I hold onto them and push them away. They hold onto me and push me away. Together, we horrify and delight each other, all the time.
A few months ago I read about a new study that found that babies as young as 13 months old can learn perseverance by watching their parents muddle through failure and repeatedly attempt to reach a goal. Babies who witnessed an adult struggle with an activity were significantly more likely to try longer before giving up, compared with babies in groups who did not watch adults struggle.
I read that and thought, “It turns out, I’m an ideal mom after all! My boys are so lucky.”
Now that we have actual relationships, I have started to see the upside to parenting. My friend Anne, mom of three boys, is fairly confident that her sons are going to turn out ok because they are growing up in a house where the mom talks. I love this theory so much, because if talking is the criteria for building mentally-sound adults, my boys are on track for spectacularly healthy lives.
At ages 14 and 12, our conversations can cover a lot of ground. “My throat hurts.” “I sat by myself at lunch today.” “How do you think Luke Skywalker knew to find Yoda in the Dagobah system?” “What’s a blow job?”
We have three rules: 1) I keep my eyebrows low (facial expressions that show surprise or shock shut conversations down fast). 2) If they want to talk about it, I want to talk about, too. 3) If I want to talk about it, they have to listen. I muddle through as best as I can, dragging my husband in when things get away from me. We say a lot of words at the boys, and then we hold our breath. (Holding breath is a consistent parenting tactic, no matter who is running the show.)
We are all operating inside the system of Free Will, so in the end it’s a wait and see situation. I want to believe that we are headed for happy endings, but since I exchanged the transaction of motherhood for the actual parenting, all I know for sure is that I am wide awake for the ride.
Erin W. is the managing editor and lead writer for the She Recovers blog. She lives in Virginia where she has been working on and blogging about recovery since 2013. After years of trying to do recovery alone, she discovered the beauty of connection and friendship through She Recovers in 2017.