Lowering the Bar

When bad mothers give us hope.

When reporters told Doris Lessing she had won a Nobel Prize in Literature as she was hauling groceries out of a cab in 2007, she said: “I’ve won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one, so I am delighted. It’s a royal flush.” Few would dispute that she is a brilliant writer. Her work is lucid, inspiring, and provocative. But it would be hard to argue that she was a brilliant mother. When she fled to London to pursue her writing career and communist ideals, she left two toddlers with their father in South Africa (another, from her second marriage, went with her). She later said that at the time she thought she had no choice: “For a long time I felt I had done a very brave thing. There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children. I felt I wasn’t the best person to bring them up. I would have ended up an alcoholic or a frustrated intellectual like my mother.”

I like remembering women like Lessing on Mother’s Day. They shock us now, those women who bucked convention and did things the way men have often done—just as selfishly and callously—denying maternity in a way that seems to defy nature. Take Dorothea Lange, the photographer who paid foster families to look after five of her children (and stepchildren) for months at a stretch while she traveled around California photographing migrant workers. Were these women bad mothers? Or talented, single-minded women who struggled to find ways to both create and give their children what they needed? They certainly make the rest of us seem outstanding—and put our ongoing, deafening, and dull debates about bad mothers in sharp relief. Today, women no longer need to escape their families to work or be happy—now they need to escape their own unrealistic expectations of what a good mother is. Guilt, judgment, and a distrust of female ambition are a hallmark of modern parenting, along with the literature about female fretting, which, over the past few years, has turned into a symphony of self-loathing. We spend more time with our children than women did in the 1950s, yet we consistently report higher levels of stress. Perplexingly, study after study has found that mothers are less happy than women without kids. And books about bad or uptight mothers are more anxious and defensive than defiant and liberating. Instead of giving the parenting police the bird on matters like food, sleep, work, and schools—or having a life—we write apologias. Haven’t millions of years of evolution already determined that the vast bulk of mothers would sever their heads with an ax to protect their offspring? Enough. If you love your kids and are doing your best, if they are alive, safe, and sane, then your mind should simply be at ease.

Oddly, the more involved we are, the more guilty we have become. In the 19th century, women in Victorian England banished children to the nursery. In France, women farmed out their offspring to nursemaids so they could “continue to have social lives and sex with their husbands,” says French philosopher Elizabeth Badinter. “We’ve always been mediocre mothers here.” Badinter’s bestselling book Le Conflit, la Femme et la Mère (The Conflict, the Woman and the Mother) has excited Europeans with her insistence that women should not let mothering make them miserable. She believes we are no longer oppressed by men; we are oppressed by our children. Badinter argues the insecurity of the modern workforce, and the prevalence of earth mothers who condemn disposable diapers, premade food, and cans of formula, have turned babies into tyrants: “We have passed from the troublesome child to the child-king.” I don’t agree with everything she says—and certainly the children are not to blame—but I love her boldness. Her insistence that women should be women first and mothers second is refreshing: unapologetic and confident. It’s true that the impossible idea of a perfect mother has become a tyranny, and that we refuse shortcuts our grandmothers yearned for. Now that we are allowed to be more than mothers, we wonder if we have the time to be anything but mothers if we are to be truly good.

I recently asked my own mother—a woman of great grace and kindness—for one piece of advice about how to raise my children. She said we should love, accept, and forgive them—also teaching them, with luck, to love and accept us too. It’s a calm model of parenting that has built into its core the idea of imperfection; theirs, ours, hers. Let’s make 2010 the Year of Lowering the Bar. Or, perhaps, Going to the Bar. Happy Mother’s Day.