“I’m a bad mother.”
Even as I heard myself say those words to Mike last week on the phone, I cringed.
Mike was away for most of the week, so I was parenting solo, and Dominic had a wracking, chesty cough that started up whenever I put him down to sleep. At first we thought the cough was due to the shocking air quality in Luang Prabang at present – it’s grey and smoky and ash is falling from the sky because everyone’s burning their rice fields in preparation for planting. But after the cough had hung around for ten days, I enlisted the help of a Lao-speaking friend and went in search of a local pediatrician.
“How’d it go?” Mike wanted to know when we talked that evening.
“The doctor listened to his chest and said he sounded fine. He knew the English words for asthma and bronchitis – my two big concerns. But he said it was just a cough and it’ll probably go away by itself.”
“Good,” Mike said, sounding relieved. “So it all went fine then.”
“Yes,” I said. “Except for the part where the doctor asked me to undress him and I laid him in my lap to do that because there was no examining table, and then he rolled and I almost dropped him on his head on the tile floor. I’m a bad mother.”
I’m a bad mother.
It wasn’t the first time I’d caught myself saying this recently, and more than one of my mothering friends use this phrase frequently. They toss it off casually to chastise themselves for not being quick enough to catch a slipping child and prevent a tumble, or to justify why they’re allowing the child to eat sweets or watch television, or even just to explain a grubby hands and face.
“Why say it at all?” Mike asked, when I explained the subject of this blog post over breakfast this morning.
“I think we say it as a defense when we feel that someone might be judging us,” I said.
“So,” Mike said. “Let me get this straight. Since you’re mostly hanging out with friends when you do this, you call yourself a bad mother to fend off potential judgment not from the global faceless audience but from people who already know you and like you?”
I took a bite of toast and thought about this for a second.
“Exactly,” I said.
“That makes no sense,” Mike said.
And it doesn’t, really, which is why I don’t want this phrase to become a standard part of my vocabulary. Words are important. The words that we tell ourselves repeatedly, no matter how flippantly, can carve channels of belief into our minds. Our emotions – following the path of least resistance – find those channels and are guided by them. And while “I’m a bad mother” is far from the worst thing I can imagine myself saying, it’s not exactly what you might call “life-giving” either.
I want to be secure enough in my decisions that I don’t feel the need to justify those decisions to my friends – at least not with an off-the-cuff blanket statement about my worth as a mother. And I want to trust that when things like tumbles happen, my friends won’t be watching with a spirit of criticism but with a spirit of fellowship – fellowship that comes from understanding that no parent, no matter how careful, can prevent every mishap.
Most importantly, however, I don’t want to say this too often because it’s not true.
I am a good mother.
Sure, I have moments when I almost drop my precious bundle of joy on the floor. And we’ve fed him too much papaya, mango, and pumpkin lately so his nose and toes have turned a bit yellow because of vitamin A overload. And sometimes I sit down beside him on the floor while he plays and watch an episode of Glee, or check my email while he’s in the bouncer instead of giving his royal babyness my full and undivided attention.
But I am a good mother.
I read to him, hug him, and make him baby food that’s far healthier than what I eat. I spend inordinate amounts of energy teasing smiles out of him. I delight in kissing him up under his pudgy little arms in that spot that makes him squirm and squeal with laughter. I let the dog lick his feet because he loves it so, and I don’t let the dog lick his face because I love him so. I take him outside to look at clouds and coconut trees. I explain butterflies and the wind. I give him fascinating toys to experiment with, like the toe spreader from a pedicure set I’ve never used, my hairbrush, and an egg whisk. I drag myself out of bed and comfort him when he starts to cry after I’ve just fallen asleep (though sometimes not until after I’ve begged him to “please, please, just stop it”). I watch with wonder as he sets about every day the demanding business of learning to live in this world. I would do almost anything, anything, to protect him.
And the thing is … I think that’s pretty much how most mothers operate. Not as perfect mothers, sure, but as mothers who love their children up, down, sideways and sleep-deprived. Mothers who sometimes makes mistakes, but who are learning more every day. Mothers who are doing the best they can to love their children unselfishly and wisely and energetically and patiently (yes, particularly patiently).
So let’s not call ourselves bad mothers – at least, not too often.
Let’s say it like it really is.
“We are good mothers.”