Good Mommy Guilt

by Esther Emery

Remember how Delicia commented once about her freedom from the sugar and masturbation guilt? I know that about her, that she can have candy for breakfast without losing half her day negotiating the sin of pleasure and the pleasure of sin.  It fascinates me.  We must have grown up at different ends of this great nation.

Today it’s my turn to be the one who is free.

I’m reading Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. I’m only halfway through, but I know exactly what Warner is talking about. I’ve met these moms that she’s describing, who are perfectionists, who feel anxiety that if they fail to control some detail of their child’s life said child will be doomed to “loserness.” I see these women posting on Parenting forum threads called “13 months and not walking” and “piano vs guitar?” I’ve maybe even admired them. But I’d be hard pressed to compete.

I think I missed the day they handed out the mommy guilt pill.

Now, who am I kidding? I’m not free of conflict. I’m not free of missing my son when I’m at work, or missing my work when I’m at home. There are lots of things that bum me out and stress me out and freak me out, but what Warner and her interviewees describe? I can’t even touch it. I don’t keep up with the Jones’s (I’ve never met the Jones’s!) and I’m perfectly comfortable expecting my 11-month-old to play independently while I work on scripts or at the computer, sometimes all day long.

Is my outlook really different from the moms that Warner interviewed? Well, I am a little younger than they are. Gen Y is not so interested in any kind of perfection. In fact, you might say we have an expectation of “loserness.”  I also don’t come from the middle class, and certainly not the upper middle class. Having been raised below the poverty line, I tend to focus my parenting low on Maslow’s hierarchy. Is he fed? Is he safe? Well then, what the hell are we talking about?

But I have an additional card in this game, an advantage that even my Gen Y, working class peers aren’t guaranteed. I had a terrible mother.

Did I just say that?

Oh, yes. Really terrible. I had a terrible mother.

She was a great lady. She was a great writer, a wonderful poet, a passionate political and social activist, and an amazing teacher. But if you were to measure her against a 21st century model of good parenting, she would fail. She didn’t cook. She didn’t buy clothes. She didn’t brush hair. She never threw birthday parties. She didn’t create consistency, or make her children feel emotionally safe. In fact, she spent most of the day at her computer, with her intense, distracted stare focused on the world outside, or maybe the world inside, but certainly not the world around her.

And I turned out fine!

(Please tell me that isn’t the punch line.)

I’d love to make it that simple. “I turned out fine, and since I turned out fine, obviously it’s okay to be an emotionally absent, financially reckless, completely undomestic(ated) mom.”  Ha ha! I’m one of seven children, and to say that all seven of us are and were “just fine” all the way through would be a total misrepresentation of the truth.

But does that have anything to do with my success as an adult?

Popular culture loves to blame Mom. From Mrs. Portnoy to Dina Lohan, we love to show how the failures of the offspring can be traced to the misbehaviors of the matriarch. If she was present, she was suffocating, emotionally destructive, cloying. She demanded too large a place in her child’s heart. Oh, how selfish!  And if she was absent (working, for example), well, that’s selfish, too. It drives me crazy.

I refuse to blame my mother for my life. But I don’t give her credit either. Being released by mutual displeasure from my mother’s nest at age 15 has given me a deeply individualist perspective on what it means to grow up. I am who I am because of me, regardless of my mother’s foibles and her triumphs (which are many more and more glorious than this post makes them appear). Milo will be whoever Milo will be because of Milo. I can’t craft his intelligence or his identity, and I don’t want to. I only hope I can raise a child who will stand on his own two feet, who will speak as he thinks, act as he believes and vote his conscience; and who will furthermore recognize that his mother is a person, rather small and altogether without superpowers (how disappointing!) and not by any stretch capable of the mass wreckage popular culture wants to give me credit for.

Do you think our culture is quick to blame moms? Do you think we deserve it? Do you find yourself living the “Perfect Madness” or have you found a way to get around it?