This week, the Cut presents stories about the complex bonds of parenthood.
What makes a good mother? When your kids are tiny, awestruck sponges with big saucer eyes, your main job is to make happy sounds while keeping them alive. That’s about it: Talk talk talk in a cheerful tone about anything, while handing them bite-size, fast-dissolving, flavorless snacks and pointing at shit — pointing and smiling and pointing. “Look at this monkey motherfucker,” you can say about a sock monkey, then make it dance, and your awestruck sponge will laugh and you will know that you are the best motherfucking mother on the face of the planet.
You can also drink giant margaritas and have long conversations with your spouse about the motherfucking motherfuckers at work and the motherfucking shit they pull that is such a motherfucker, while your sponge smears refried beans into her hair. The boundless joy and temporary misery and rebound joy of babies is never diminished by your dyspeptic nature, your judgments, your sociopathic streaks, your inconsistent, incompetent, incomplete-ness. Babies can seem very taxing to the outside observer, but for parents with around-the-clock bad attitudes who need to let out the darkest sludge of their souls or they’ll drown in it forever, babies are quite pleasant and relaxing. Babies are like intelligent pets who love you for you. Babies are like unintelligent therapists who listen oh so closely to anything and everything and who are paid in bland snacks and pointing gestures. Babies are easy. They are not quite people yet.
There are hints that they will one day become people, though, like when I asked my daughter, age 2, what she was doing with this big rubber ball under one of her feet, and she answered, “I just fucking widdit.” Appropriate usage, like someone who really understood the word’s etymology and alternative meanings and Latin roots.
That’s when I knew the definition of “good mother” had shifted drastically without my noticing it. New sorts of behaviors would be required of me now. I might have to bite my tongue occasionally. But that was okay! I was prepared. I entered this new phase of responsible language and behavior with a flexible, can-do attitude. I quickly made up fake names for people who were bugging me — “Lucinda,” “Mariah” — and called them “stupid dummies” instead of “motherfucking pieces of shit.” When my husband made me very angry or when the washing machine stopped working or when the whole world turned into a giant shit storm, I said things like “Ha-ha, that’s silly!” or “Daddy is being silly!” but as my smile slowly faded from my face, I would be thinking darker thoughts, about how certain silly motherfuckers better stop being so goddamn silly if they know what’s good for them.
My personality around this time must’ve seemed a little insipid to the casual observer on the street. Barking cheerful shit about how everything is SILLY: This is the sort of behavior that makes younger women very, very concerned about the idea of ever bearing offspring. They don’t know about the filthy, foul thoughts floating around in a mother’s gutter-rat brain. To them we look a little bloated and harried, with a big fat smiley face painted on top. We seem to own a lot of Tupperware. We are certainly not very sexy or interesting to others during this phase. Fuck “others,” our gutter-rat brains hiss. Our lives are a blur of bland snacks and dirty laundry and kids that say I can’t poop, help me poop, as if that’s medically feasible. We are maybe still wearing our stretchy maternity jeans. We are maybe half-listening. We couldn’t give fewer fucks if we tried. Maybe this means that we are bad mothers now, but frankly, we give less than zero fucks about our relative ranking on the mothering ratings scale. And thankfully, our mini-humans, aged 3 to 5, are still easily tricked into thinking we are the best mothers in the entire universe.
Until one day, suddenly, they’re not buying it anymore. When my second daughter was about 6 months old and my oldest daughter was 3, I kissed my oldest daughter goodnight as she burbled something about her giraffe toy. As I was leaving her room, I said, “Yeah, that’s the giraffe Daddy got you at the zoo, when you were really little.”
“I still little,” she replied flatly.
This was a reprimand. I had started treating her like a big kid, mostly out of necessity, but she wasn’t a big kid yet. My distracted, blathering, half-attentive “silly, silly, silly” cheer (while I changed and fed her little sister) wasn’t going to cut the mustard anymore. My daughter was little enough to require my full attention, but she was also big enough to call me on my shit. The definition of “good mother” had shifted drastically, once again.
And then the definition of “good mother” shifted again. And again. And each year, I tried to balance my own needs, my own alternating waves of giddy happiness and sulking and enthusiasm and contempt, my own by turns whimsical and neurotic and heavy and optimistic and judgmental nature (which changes like the weather! But with no forecast!), against the needs of my offspring, who were steadily becoming actual people who spoke words and understood subtext, even.
And then, around the time my youngest daughter reached the age of 6, I stopped saying “silly” and started saying “stupid” or “messed up” instead. I didn’t want to model nastiness, but I also didn’t want to pretend that the world was a kaleidoscope of pretty daydreams and unicorns with rainbows coming out of their asses. After all, my children were human beings with tastes of their own, and their bullshit detectors were becoming more finely tuned by the hour. Better to be genuine and authentic and to also be fallible and weak, I figured, than to seem like some platonic ideal of A Good Mother, only to disappoint in the end.
Interestingly, my younger daughter was a little bit more ready for the real me than my older daughter was. When I told them both that the news on TV was sometimes dark and depressing because bad things were happening all over, my older daughter said, “Please let’s not talk about this.” My younger daughter announced that she wanted to watch the news because she liked depressing things.
So I turned on CNN and the first thing we saw were people setting cars on fire. “What are they doing?” she asked. “Okay, this is going to be a little hard to explain,” I told her, then talked in circles about Michael Brown and Freddie Gray and systemic racism and the blind spots of law-enforcement culture. I tried to talk about bad cops without making her believe that all cops were evil. I tried to talk about how the things MLK Jr. fought for don’t only exist in the past the way the kids’ books seem to imply. I bungled this conversation. Thanks to an education heavy on neo-Marxist texts, I toggled between micro and macro, got bogged down in weird nuanced concepts like “social reproduction,” and argued with myself until my head was up my own ass. But even after all of that, when I asked my daughter what she thought, she said she could see why people were angry enough to set stuff on fire, but she could also see why people didn’t want them to set stuff on fire. She said she could understand both sides. And that seemed like a reasonably okay place for a 6-year-old to land on the matter, for the moment.
I was glad she didn’t pick either side. Because this is a kid who went as Darth Vader for Halloween when she was 4. When she was 5, she claimed that Darth Vader was good, not bad. When I reminded her that Darth Vader murdered a whole planet full of people, she said, “Those were just aliens.” That made simple sense, but it also seemed worrisome. But then a few months ago, I overheard her playing with Star Wars Lego figures:
Seven-year-old daughter (as Greedo): By the way, alien is a bad word.
Nine-year-old daughter: But you just said it.
Seven-year-old daughter: It’s okay if aliens say it. But when humans say it, it’s bad.
As you can tell from this exchange, I am, personally, not a very good mother now that being a good mother includes being a vigilant censor. Dr. Dre’s The Chronic is left in the CD player in the car and then forgotten, and then I have to have long conversations about words children and even adults never, ever say. Lucinda’s real name is used in mixed company, along with adjectives that shouldn’t be overheard, even briefly and out of context. I am sloppy sometimes.
But the ground is moving under my feet! These are not awestruck sponges anymore! And as these mini-humans get older, the definition of “good mother” will change by the week, by the day, by the millisecond. I definitely don’t want to be the cool mom, who drinks beer with her teenagers, but I don’t want to be the strict mom either, the one who says, “All of these modern trends are evil, put on your burqa and shut up.”
I will need to learn how to bite my tongue. But even that won’t work sometimes! My mom generously bit her tongue for years, never mentioning the fact that this or that boyfriend was quite obviously worthless, never suggesting, out loud, that when you spray your hair with Sun-In and it turns the same color as a circus clown’s hair, you might reflect on your bad choices for half a second instead of insisting on spending a good chunk of your eighth-grade year looking just like a circus clown. But as honorable as it may be for a mother to keep her judgments to herself, eventually people start to wonder about the filthy, foul thoughts floating around in her gutter-rat brain. She can’t win!
Maybe being a good mother means letting your kids be themselves, first and foremost. Maybe it means being prepared for a kid who loves Hootie & the Blowfish with all of her heart. Maybe it means embracing a grown child who wears suspenders and bow ties, or reads nothing but romance novels. Obviously, it also means being nice to the worthless little dicks and the dismissive, self-involved, vainglorious losers and the terrible, horrible boyfriends and girlfriends and friends and associates your children will drag across the threshold eventually. You have to keep making happy sounds, but without any pointing. You can’t insist that your kids grow up to be better than you have ever managed to be in your entire life.
In short, being a good mother depends on being a total control freak at first, and then slowly letting go of all control until you’ve basically reached a state of learned helplessness, but without caring any less! You have to keep your heart open, even when it’s being smashed to bits. You have to keep your eyes open, even when you can’t stand what you’re seeing. You have to say what you can, and then keep your mouth shut. Tight.
Or maybe that’s not how it works at all. I’m not sure. I don’t know what will be required of me, but I’m pretty sure whatever it is, I probably won’t notice until I’m already screwing it up. I’ll try not to let my inconsistent, incompetent, incomplete-ness get in the way, but I will probably fail. I’ll tell my kids that we’re all just humans. We do our best. We fail a lot.
My kids won’t find that informative or useful or touching, mind you. They will find it confusing, then vague, then really annoying, then sentimental and clichéd, then indicative of my elaborate rationalizations for being a bad mother. And then later, much later, probably after I’m dead, they’ll be drinking giant margaritas and having long conversations with their spouses or friends about the motherfucking motherfuckers at work, and they’ll remember something I said once, about how even the real grade-A motherfuckers out there are usually only doing their best.
And they’ll think, My mother was a good mother. They’ll be wrong about that, of course, and also I’ll be dead by then. But still.