Motherhood is a paradox.
It is a time of some of the greatest joys and the heaviest sorrows; exhilarating adventure, accompanied by crippling fear. As humans, it’s hard to accept two polar opposites as true at the same time, and our brain tells us only one can be right.
When it comes to parenting, often there IS no one right answer. Our society gives us so many conflicting messages about motherhood that it can make our heads spin. It’s like there are two voices competing for our attention, and which one we listen to can impact our whole outlook on our status as mothers. We spend a lot of time thinking we’re a Good Mom or a Bad Mom and are absolutely convinced that we are, depending on which of two voices pops up at any given time to grade us on our decisions.
One gazes upon your little darling as he says “thank you” to a stranger without prompting, and says “I’m a Good Mom.” It’s a pleasant, encouraging voice that is as lovingly affirming as an episode of Mr. Rogers.
The other voice is harsher. Every mistake made is weighed, measured, and cataloged, and brought back to your attention during sleepless nights. This voice looks disapprovingly down her nose at you when your child yells “oh, sit!” and he isn’t trying to instruct the family pet to do a trick. She utters the judgment we all fear is true: “I’m a Bad Mom.”
A Tale of Two Voices
I know these voices well. They follow me through the day as my child smiles and chats up strangers in the grocery store, treating everyone like a potential friend; they hover near when that same child is screaming for applesauce loud enough to be heard three aisles over.
The kind one encourages me when my son counts to 20. What a Good Mom to have such a smart child!
The mean one shakes her head and tsks at me when this same child makes a huge mess. What a Bad Mom to have such a naughty, messy child!
You gave birth naturally! What a Good Mom! (Hooray!)
You failed miserably at breastfeeding. What a Bad Mom (whomp whomp).
You can’t fight tyranny with logic
My loving, logical husband assures me the judgy voice is wrong. I (kind of) know she’s wrong. We all know she’s wrong. But her tyranny does not have an off switch. She is not swayed by logic. Hers is a realm of fear and shame and regret, and she controls it with isolation.
In my calmer moments, I can laugh at her, and sometimes even joke about my laid-back approach to motherhood: “my child ate food off the floor because I’m a good mom.” But when my child makes it down the driveway and into the street because I dawdled a moment too long before chasing him, it’s hard not to believe she is 100% correct. I am a Bad Mom.
I’ve heard that if you worry you’re a Bad Mom, don’t. Bad Moms don’t care about that, that’s part of why they’re bad, and I try to take comfort in this. Wanting to be a Good Mom, to be the best mom for your children is the heart of what a Good Mom is. The judgy voice can criticize all she wants and keep her stupid lists. But that doesn’t change the foundational truth that your children have a mommy who loves them and knows them and wants the best for them. Sometimes we need help remembering this.
How do we fight the Judgy Voice?
Here is where community comes in. Each of us knows the struggle. We are haunted by the question “Which voice is right?” We are often afraid to reach out, to share our failings and let people know that we fall short because hearing others confirm what that awful voice tells us would be painful. But we also know how good it feels when you hear confirmation that what the kind voice says is true: You are a Good Mom.
Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. Tell people when you’re struggling. At the same time, be kind to the moms who are bravely reaching out. Support the moms in your circle by being the kind voice: tell the mom at Target with the screaming child that she’s a good mom; assure the 8-month pregnant woman that she’s beautiful, and she’s doing a great job growing a human; tell the overwhelmed mother with a newborn and two toddlers that she’s got this.
Each time we hear “you’re a good mom” it erodes the judgy voice’s power over us and strengthens the kind voice. The judgy voice is loud. Let’s be louder.