What makes a good mother?
Or perhaps a better question might be: What do you consider to be good mothering?
It's a rhetorical question, but nevertheless the reason I ask is because every woman I know who has children seems to struggle sometimes with what it means to mother well. In fact I don't know a single one who doesn't now and again fear that she is doing a bad job, that she is somehow failing her children despite her best efforts, and who doesn't occasionally catch herself hoping against hope that her children will grow up to be far more forgiving of her perceived motherly mistakes than she herself is. My first forays into the blogosphere have shown that it is no different for a lot of the virtual mothers I meet. Of course it isn't. Why would it be?
The question posed by this post seems on a superficial level to be a fairly easy one to answer. We can surely all agree on the basics of food, warmth, love e.c.t. But dig below the surface, and the question becomes complicated. It becomes emotive and delicate. Opinions on the smallest of issues can become polarised. We start to judge each other mercilessly.
All of us are very much influenced by what we believe other people may think of us, (and our mothering) however much we would like to pretend or insist otherwise. Human beings are social animals - to want to fit in and be liked is an essential part of our makeup. Seeking the approval and acceptance of others is in part instinctual, after all our ancestors lives depended on the support of the whole group. We are not designed to rear our young isolated and alone. But alone we often are in this modern age, the extended family and close community or tribe that was once always on hand to help and give guidance is there no longer. We have no choice but to try to make the best of it and work with what we've got, finding our own parenting way, often in near darkness. We turn in our thousands to parenting books, but often these give confusing and contradictory advice, and so we stumble along unsure, trying desperately not to repeat the same mistakes we feel our own parents made, while joking nervously with other parents who make up the substitute community of the local toddler group or on-line forum, about how our kids are heading for therapy in twenty years time.
The majority of my identity is rooted in being a mother. I take pride and find meaning in my work, I enjoy my friends and my writing, I have lots of interests, but mothering is mostly what I do. And being that I am determined to provide my children with as much love and stability as I possibly can, the question for me then becomes how to do that to the absolute best of my ability, whilst still retaining a sense of self - not to mention my sanity.
Before I had children I was extremely judgemental when it came to other peoples parenting. I had all sorts of ideas about what sort of mother I was going to be (a lot of the ideas were in hindsight rather vague, but definitely involved being better at it than almost everybody else.) I was going to be endlessly patient for one thing. I was certainly never going to shout silly things like, 'I'll count to three....' oh no. It never once occurred to me that there would be times when I would rather do almost anything than look after my child. Or that I would ever desperately watch the clock, counting the minutes untill bed time. Or that I would ever say no to a small child who wanted to do some painting, simply because I could not face dealing with the mess afterwards.
Oh, how I can look back now and laugh at my younger self and her ridiculous notion that motherhood might for some reason change her entire personality. That it would transform her from a rather idle, truculent young woman who liked a good party and could never get up in the morning, into a serene and patient angel who loved nothing more than 6.oo am starts, and having next to no social life. The reality of parenthood and the subsequent realisation that I could never live up to my own initial standards of perfection, forced a major about turn in my attitude and ideas about mothering, and these have continued to evolve and grow with my childrens different developmental stages and my own changing circumstances.
The difficult truth is that over the years I have found the needs and wants of children to be boundless, and that in a zealous quest to be a 'perfect' mother it is all too easy to run oneself completely into the ground. I have had no choice but to develop ways of protecting myself from being sucked dry. Most of all I have had to struggle to find a way to truly accept that keeping a little bit back for myself is o.k. I find this extremely difficult to do without collapsing into a pit of guilt and self flagellation. As much as I tell myself that I don't buy into these notions of endless maternal sacrifice being the one true path to womanly righteousness, and as much as I do take steps to meet my own needs aswell as theirs, I still feel guilty about it. I feel guilty that I could not provide my children with the consistent stability of a two parent family, even though I know that my relationship with my ex-partner was damaging me psychologically. I feel guilty for occasionally feeding my children frozen pizza for tea when I'm exceptionally tired, even though I know that the vast majority of the time they eat perfectly healthily. I feel guilty that my children do not enjoy the endless after school activities that their friends seem to - ballet, karate, rugby e.c.t - because I cannot afford it, or manage the constant too-ing and fro-ing on my own with no partner to help out or make sure dinner's ready when we get home. Even though I know that my kids are fine. Even though I hate that pushy style of parenting that allows children no free time in which to make their own entertainment!
My point is, that although I know intellectually that my mothering is good enough - more than just good enough, it's still extremely hard for me to put a full stop at the end of that sentence and have done with the self doubt. The secret for all of us I think, lies in a genuine acceptance that less than perfect but perfectly good enough, really is good enough.