The Good Mom Myth
When I recently received a couple of unsolicited comments about how great I am as a Mom, I realized how much I needed to hear it . . . AND didn’t believe it. I reached out to my beloved online parent groups to get a gauge of whether my reaction was typical or not. What I heard back was complicated and important, and led to a final conclusion: the “good” mom is a myth and we should abandon it. It also reinforced my Art & Science of Mom mission to build positive messaging in the noise of modern parenting influences, both outside of us and in our own heads.
Ask yourself: How many times in the last 24 hours have I berated myself for something parenting related? My examples: Forgot and missed my 7-year-old’s Daisy meeting, sent my 4-year-old to school with one glove on the first snow day of the year, and couldn’t settle down this wild child at bedtime, my girls asking “Where’s Dad?” while giving me worried looks.
Am I a good mom? Such a simple question, yet so complicated. In my work with kids and their parents, we stay away from labeling kids as “good” or “bad,” as well as labeling emotions, thoughts, and behaviors as “good” or “bad.” Confession: I haven’t been able to practice this toward myself as a mother.
I may intellectually push against the very nature of evaluating goodness as a Mom, but it felt so good to hear people say it to me. This planted curiosity about whether my experience was isolated to me, or if it was more of a phenomenon. So as any responsible psychologist mom would do, I did a poll on Facebook.
The (Unscientific) Study
I started with a hypothesis based on observations of so many mothers I know: we struggle to believe we are “good,” and either have trouble hearing this and/or not believe it, BUT we would feel good hearing a positive message.
Next came the method to test my hypothesis (am I taking you back to grade school science fairs?): create a survey. The poll attempted to capture a range of responses in a simple way with a dash of nuance. Here’s how it went:
Question: “When you hear, ‘you are an amazing mom,’ what is your response, at least inside your head? (Be honest!)” [For total transparency, I also included the assurance that no names would be published and that this was for a blog post.]
Yes I am amazing, thank you.
No, I’m not.
That feels really good to hear because I either never hear it or my brain doesn’t process ever hearing it, I see the NOT amazing so much.
Are you talking to me? Disbelief.
Other (elaborate in comments)
My “participants” were members of two different online parent groups, one local and one national/international, who saw it on their Facebook feed and felt moved to participate. A total of 274 responses yielded the following results, in order of popularity:
That feels really good to hear because I either never hear it or my brain doesn’t process ever hearing it, I see the NOT amazing so much. -- 45%
No, I’m not. -- 24%
Yes, I am amazing. -- 14%
Other -- 7%
Disbelief -- 4%
(“I try and it takes a lot of work” was added in one group for 10% of that group)
An honorable mention goes to the addition of “I’m an amazing mom on Facebook,” endorsed by two people, but come on . . . maybe some people missed it or weren’t fessing up!
Okay, so my “research” was totally unscientific and biased and I’m not going to pass this off as actual science (see – being responsible), but still good enough to do what good research does: make us think. The negative responses clearly outnumber the positive, confident reaction with a mere 14% simply agreeing that they are amazing (kudos to you!).
Percentages are usually just the start of a more complicated story, which is where the comments came in with the heart behind the numbers. Some comments mirrored my own experience: it feels good to hear praise, but we undermine ourselves with thoughts like “you should have seen me yesterday.” Our internalized negative messages drown out what we experience as drips of praise.
One unexpected theme revolved around the authenticity of the praise: was this a “throwaway” compliment to gloss over a tough parenting situation, or credible and heartfelt? Others questioned if unfair conditions were attached, like they are an “amazing” parent because the children happen to be well-behaved in that moment. When the kid starts throwing a tantrum in the restaurant, does that mean the mom is no longer “amazing?”
Most thought-provoking for me, however, was the questioning of the question. What does “amazing” even mean? I had picked that word to be synonymous with a range of praising words (good, great, incredible, wonderful), but it interestingly elicited some negative reactions. Doesn’t amazing mean better than others? Don’t put me on a pedestal – I’m working just as hard and care just as much as other parents. This elevation feels untrue, and possibly adds pressure to be “greater than” others.
DON’T Take the “Am I A Good Mom?” Quiz
I took this final point to heart and started thinking – what does GOOD even mean? We often tell ourselves and others “I’m such a bad Mom” or ask ourselves “am I a good Mom?” I do it all the time in a loop of automatic thinking that has been programmed in my brain, and I don’t even fully realize I’m doing it. It brings up more questions, like what are the expectations – are they even realistic?
What messages do we get from the world at large about who is a good mom? How wrapped up is this question in gender roles and stereotypes for women? (On that note, I always aim to be inclusive of my Dad readers, but in this case I think we can agree there has been historically much more pressure and emphasis on women to excel as mothers. But I do honor the challenges of modern fatherhood in another blog post.)
When I google-searched the title of this piece – Am I A Good Mom? – the results made me uncomfortable: “Characteristics of a good mom,” “7 signs you’re a good mom,” “Are you a good mother? Take this quiz!” “Signs you’re a bad mom.”
There is just no way that the being and act of motherhood can be simplified down to “7 signs” or an online quiz. The quick judgment inherent in this modern habit of wanting quick answers, or reassurance, does not and should not fit the complexity of parenthood.
My new hypothesis: the “good” mom doesn’t exist and the concept causes more harm than good. With the exception of abusive and neglectful parenting, most of us are parenting with nuance and humanity, on a continuum of great and difficult days, months, and years. We should show ourselves as much compassion as we show our children in the fruitless pursuit of feeling like a “good” mom and celebrate who we are just as we are.
This sounds great, and was originally the end to this piece, but I couldn’t leave it there. The reality is that negative messages are in surround sound everywhere we turn – from the trivial self-deprecating parenting memes to the more serious laws inhibiting parenting judgment (see Safety First: Have We Gone Too Far?), and the constant barrage of social media showcasing unattainable and glossy images of parenthood (ahem – celebrity post-baby bodies – just STOP IT!).
Call to Action: Be the Change
As Ghandi famously said, “you must be the change you wish to see in the world.” So please join me in BEING the change for positive messaging for Moms. Can you list more strengths and victories than weakness and failures in the last 24 hours of parenting? Can you give a Mom friend a heartfelt, specific praise about their parenting? Let’s do this . . . we are doing much harder things everyday while we raise our children with nuance and humanity.