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The Mommy Wars

The missed opportunity behind the badge of bad mommyhood

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(Library of Congress)

We’re in a bad mommy moment. There are blogs including Her Bad Mother (tagline: “Bad is the new good”); Bad Mom (tagline: “Embrace Badness”); Bad Mutha Blogger (featuring a photo of a baby in a onesie reading “Mutha Sucka”); and Bad Mummy, No Cookie (tagline: “Tough chick with kick-ass kid making it up as I go along”). There are articles such as Kara Jesella’s look at the mob of scribbling “naughty mommy” bloggers in The American Prospect. And there are books; you’d have to have been trapped under a pile of Transformer action figures not to have heard about Ayelet Waldman’s provocative new memoir, Bad Mother.

Mothers are reveling in their self-declared outlaw status, bragging about their kids being unwashed, un-toilet-trained, potty-mouthed, or prone to Barbie-hoarding. MacBook-tapping moms detail their own tendencies to plunk their kids in front of the TV (ooh!), have a cocktail (oy!) and give their kids non-organic, preservative-laden, character-branded junk food (veyizmir!)

Though it’s trendy to say you suck at motherhood, I doubt most of the women declaring this actually believe it. Their boasting is really about being cool. They may drive a Veggie-Booty-strewn mini-van, but their hearts are on Harleys. The problem is that by embracing “bad mommydom,” we opt out of redefining what it means to be a good mother. Most confessional writers aren’t taking up the gauntlet of redefining the norm. Instead, they identify as Other, which lets them off the hook; they lose out on the chance to say imperfect mothering is good—it’s normal, healthy, flexible.

Is it so “bad” to put yourself first once in a while, to admit that parenting can be maddening and boring, to acknowledge that our culture has elevated motherhood to an impossible ideal without actually providing social services that allow us to get anywhere near that ideal? Being a “good mom” does not mean being utterly self-negating while telling yourself it’s all for the children. It is just as narcissistic to talk about how awesomely bad you are as it is to boast about how perfect you are. (And yes, as a parenting columnist, I am aware that I am the bottle calling the sippy-cup BPA-free, if you know what I mean, and I think you do.)

All of us live and write in a culture of panicked hovering and competitiveness. (I don’t think fathers are immune, but mothers are still most often the ones blogging about the minutiae of babydom, playdates, and extracurricular activity pickups.) And now we’re witnessing backlash not just from the mommy bloggers but from the mainstream media. Parenting magazines, women’s rags, reality TV, and The Today Show have all picked up on the term “helicopter parent” and are suddenly mocking moms who can’t back off. The New York Times’s designated chronicler of the ovaried over-educated, Lisa Belkin (the writer who created a faux revolution with her disingenuous “Opt Out Revolution” article), recently wrote an entirely anecdotal piece saying that the age of alpha parenting may be coming to an end, and that micromanaging one’s offspring is falling out of favor.

Announcing that helicopter parenting is over is like saying that something is the new black. Guess what? Black ain’t going anywhere.

What is new is the notion of fake casualness. Now we’re supposed to be relaxed and real, but this unstudied-ness is, in fact, carefully studied. “Authenticity” is the operative buzzword. One trend in weddings is for low-key-seeming family-style fetes that actually cost as much as a more formal event. Clothing trends are bohemian and punk-influenced rather than overtly luxe, but they still come at price points that would make a real hippie have a seizure. Fashion mags talk about how much men love women who eat, and urge women to have dessert, but we’re still supposed to be a size two.

In other words, the standards women are held to are as high as ever. Now we’re not supposed to be self-negatingly child-centered, but our kids still have to come out brilliant, accomplished, and adorable. No wonder it’s easier to throw up your hands and call yourself “bad” than engage in debate about the impossibility of perfect goodness.

I’m not blaming the mommy bloggers for society’s unachievable standards. But blogging about how edgy you are for refusing to buy your daughter princess-themed merch (or the converse, blogging about how edgy you are for agreeing to buy your kid princess-themed merch) is small stakes. Ayelet Waldman often pushes my buttons, but she’s one of the few parenting writers who comes by her badness honestly. She’s written about loving one of her kids more than the others, about loving her husband more than any of her children, about hoping that her son would be gay but not that her daughter would be a lesbian, and about her battle with mental illness so severe that her seven-year-old told her, “I am afraid you’re going to kill yourself.” That’s far too much authenticity for some folks. It makes “OMG, I’m so bad, I haven’t washed Coco’s hair in three days” pale in comparison.

Certainly nobody’s perfect, and most of us aren’t truly bad. It might be nice to put some of the energy we pour into our personal performance art toward working to improve the lives of moms who truly are considered bad by the wider world—moms who can’t feed their kids, moms in abusive relationships or with substance abuse problems, moms who really are overwhelmed. Claiming to be a badass by typing while your kid watches Blues Clues doesn’t really help anybody.

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The Mommy Wars

The missed opportunity behind the badge of bad mommyhood

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