Sometimes I am a ‘bad’ mother. I shut myself in the bathroom to finish a few pages of the book that I am reading. At times, I lock the door to my room for some respite telling my children that I have an important call to attend which I actually don’t. Once in a while, I walk out of my own house to sit in a café or just to be away from the clamouring children. I have also set bad examples occasionally, yelling, shrieking and crying. I am selfish at times, prioritising certain other personal concerns over my children.
Am I the ideal mother? After all, I haven’t sat overnight with my children, after they have grown up, for their exams. Or taken extended leave during my children’s board exams. I have missed PTMs a few times even. Unlike some of my friends and acquaintances I haven’t let go of my work, hobbies, interests or friends because of my children.
While I have been an unconventional mother in certain things, I have been conventional in many others. Largely however, despite all the feeding, leaning, nursing, nurturing and teaching I have been doing, I have not really elevated myself to the typical venerated mother. Importantly, I don’t want my children to view me as some kind of self-sacrificing martyr either. I want them to know that I loved them with all my heart and I did my best. But sometimes their needs can come later in my priorities.
Nevertheless, during every Mother’s Day, and otherwise too, I find myself at a crossroads, wondering what it really means to be a good mother. When I see people posting photos of their mothers and praising them for having prioritised their children’s needs, at the expense of their own, I get miffed at the platitudes and eulogies. I know, such feelings are expressed with the best of intentions and yes, we all want to appreciate, thank and express gratitude to our mothers. But when we place them on a pedestal, we either continue to perpetrate the image of the ever-sacrificing, martyr of a mother or that of a perfect multi-tasker super mom who supposedly does it all with a smile on her face.
I also wonder as to how women who are independent, creative and feminists, and who are mothers too, fulfil their dual roles as ‘good’ mothers. For it’s not easy realising both identities, as quite often, one clashes with the other. Being a ‘good’ mother means sacrificing yourself as a person, for all your happiness and gratification is expected to emerge from the happiness and gratification of your children.
Moreover, do we really consider mothers as individuals with their own dreams, aspirations, feelings and failings? Or is it always in the context of ‘Mother’, a ubiquitous, taken-for-granted presence who is always there to love and care for us and our needs. As a daughter, I am equally guilty of doing the same with my mother. And how quick are we to judge, criticise and condemn mothers who do not exhibit these so-called motherly attributes of being sacrificing, patient, kind, generous, forgiving, and selfless. Yes, most of the mothers are all these. Or are rather conditioned to be. As women and mothers, we’ve been taught to be accommodating, understanding and accepting, which often makes it challenging to meet unrealistic maternal expectations. But women hardly have a choice, as they fear being accused of being selfish, self-centred and unmotherly.
But it’s too heavy a crown to wear and a burden too onerous to bear. Given a choice, would all women want to be always ‘motherly’ and self-sacrificing? When mothers complain, rebel or give up, they are often told, “but you are a mother!” A ‘good’ mother today has to do much more, besides the usual tending and routine work for her children. Mothers are often considered the primary parent whether they work outside the home or not. And she has to make everyday matter – spend quality time, engage children in intellectually stimulating and creative activities, stay on top with regard to school and course work, remain up to date on latest parenting guidance, be responsible for their nutrition, exercises, conduct, ethics and what not. Along with managing the house, career and other social responsibilities. There is immense pressure, to keep everything going smoothly, to adjust their already full plates and compromise at the cost of their physical, mental and emotional well-being.
There is no space anymore in motherhood to be oneself. To enjoy, ruminate, be lazy, careless and to do nothing at all on some days. While we may acquire time for ourselves, gaining the mental space to not to think about anything other than our children is hard. A recent movie, The Lost Daughter, portrayed the idea that being a ‘good’ mother means suppressing your own self, needs and desires. The protagonist, Leda, who as a young mother abandoned her children says, “I’m an unnatural mother,” to another younger woman Nina, whose depression and reluctance to engage with her child reminds Leda of herself.
We have been all been brought up on recurrent doses of the image of the perfect mother, always cooking delicious and healthy meals, keeping the house spic and span, dropping and picking their children from schools and other extra-curricular classes, helping them in their homework and games, a shiny guiding light for her children along with the latest Super Mom avatar, embodying an all-encompassing perfection. Along with patriarchal norms, pop culture and media have perpetrated the ideal and conventional role models for mothers to which mothers aspire to reach.
Such portrayals not only create expectations in children but also raise the bar higher for women to reach, no matter how hard it is. Mothers are placed on a pedestal and are compelled to remain there without any support. And when they sometimes fall, they are cruelly judged by a largely patriarchal society including their families and children.
Mother Blame and Mother Shame – the tendency to ascribe blame and guilt to mothers for any problems that their children may be facing – is not new. Apparently, it’s only a mother’s lack of care and love which cause children to fall ill, misbehave and run astray. Of course, it goes without saying the profound influence a mother’s care and nurturing or the lack of it, has on her children. But it is this very idea of placing the mother at the centre of a child’s life and vice versa which is debatable and should be challenged.
Ironically, it’s women who are socially conditioned to feel that they need to be available 24×7 for their kids. Mothers, whose lives revolve around their kids, have this false sense of martyrdom. One always tears oneself apart over what could have gone better. The impulse that I would be a better mother, if I sacrificed more of myself and my time for my children or that the key to being a good mother is self-flagellation is indeed fallacious. If motherhood is messy, not perfect or the hallowed experience, it is made out to be, then why can’t mothers be allowed to be messy and imperfect too? It is so important for mothers not to drown themselves with guilt, to remove this heavy crown voluntarily sometimes.
Mother Martyrdom is neither good for mothers nor for the children and the family. When mothers neglect their own needs and interests for their kids, it leaves them exhausted, stressed, and depleted. Where are the images in the popular narrative of overburdened, depressive, overworked, exploited, neglected and imperfect mothers? Or of those mothers who even when they falter, hesitate, halt or fall, still love and care for their children. We celebrate all unconventional attributes and people who are different, then why not celebrate unconventional mothers?
More importantly, when we portray mothers as selfless, sacrificing caregivers who make children the centre of their world, it isn’t good for anyone, specially our children to expect and emulate the same. It is important for all mothers to prioritise their needs to set a good example for our children.
A mother is human like all other individuals and hoisting her to the status of a goddess without little consideration for her well-being is neither favourable for her nor her family. Acknowledge and accept that mothers have their own dark moments, failings and imperfect moments.
In fact, all mothers should lower the bar themselves and celebrate the normal, ordinary and happy mom within all of us. We are all trying our best to juggle and struggle to balance our children’s needs with that of ours. Let’s celebrate mothers as unapologetic, unique individuals who have the right and space to their well-being and happiness. And it is okay to be ‘bad’ mothers sometimes.