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  • Writer's pictureMarie Smysor Watson

One Bad Mother

Here's a little gem I penned five years ago. I stumbled across it, and yep! I still feel every bit of this essay. Also, sorry/not sorry for the language - I'm not in the running for a Mother of the Year award anytime soon! Read on to find out why...

I was recently driving up to my girlfriend’s place for some much needed time away from my husband and three sons. Just us two girls and a bottle of wine or two in a cabin on the river. My idea of heaven.

And then my mother called.

“I tried you at home,” she said, referring to our very out-of-date landline, used only by our parents and electioneers. “Where are you?”

I told her where I was going and that I was staying overnight and no, I didn’t know when I would be home the next day. She took all of this in. She was quiet for a moment and then said, “What kind of mother are you?”

Mom was joking (she used to leave my brothers and I to take trips with my father or her own girlfriends at frequent intervals), but this question – and the guilt that it’s meant to induce – drags many uncomfortable emotions to the forefront by their scraggly hair.

What kind of mother are you? As a question, it’s fraught with these unattainable ideals of motherhood. As a statement, it’s a stiletto knife, meant to thrust silently between the ribs, angled towards the heart. Its rhetoric is as tired as the mother it’s meant to wound, and yet we’re laid low by it, burdened by its ridiculous, defeating undercurrent of suppression: we are to always put our children’s aspirations before our own.

What kind of a mother are you?!? (Add as many types of punctuation here as needed).

Here’s my confession: I’m the kind of mother who doesn’t always wake up in the morning to get my youngest son on the school bus (he’s 9 ½). My husband is an early riser (I am not naturally inclined to get up when it’s still dark), so he makes sure everyone is running on time. I’m the kind of mother who dreads the thought of attending one more end of the year banquet (sometimes I go, sometimes I don’t). I’m the kind of mother who looks for volunteer opportunities that aren’t tied to her sons’ activities, because sometimes I’m just plain soul-tired of being known as _____'s mom. I’m the kind of mother who often dreams of a time in the future, when I am still youngish and they are no longer under my roof.

Here’s the caveat that always, always must be spoken in this context: Honestly and truly, my boys are my heart. It’s simply impossible to quantify my love, a mother’s love, for them. But (and here’s the shocking part), they are not my life. I’m a woman with many interests; sometimes they don’t relate at all to being a mother. For me, being a mother is not a full stop, but rather, a comma; there are many titles that follow after. There are even one or two that (gasp!) come before.

Of course, when my first son was born, I was twenty-three and wanted nothing more than to show the world that I was capable and confident and happy. Motherhood was a joy and responsibility that I took very seriously (it still is). But, as I added more boys to the family equation, I realized there wasn’t enough of me to go around (there never was, but it’s easier to pretend when you only have one). And as they’ve grown, I’ve come to the realization that even if it was possible, I simply don’t want to stretch myself that thin. There has to be some of me left for me. My thirty-nine year old self knows this much for sure: worrying about being a good mother is a self-defeating cycle. Also, tying your self-worth to another human being, even three as impossibly handsome and funny as my boys, is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea.

So I’ve chucked it all and rewritten the script: One Bad Mother – Act One, Scene One. (Spoiler alert: I don’t come off looking very good in it, by societal standards. But here’s the rub: I don’t give a ****).

My own mother was no slouch in the parenting department, but even she didn’t attend every softball game, nor every band concert, nor every speech competition. She probably didn’t even attend half of them. I don’t know because I don’t remember. She raised three kids as well, and frankly, by my younger brother’s senior year in high school, I’m sure her ass never wanted to warm another bleacher in her life. This is what I model for my own sons: I want them to see their mother as a strong woman who leads, who attends to both their needs and her own, and sometimes chooses herself over them, because that’s what is right in that moment for her. I expect them to have the same feeling towards me as I do towards my own mother: She was there when it really mattered.

I recently listened to an interview in which author Cheryl Strayed (a mother to two daughters) reported leaving her small children for three weeks in order to finish her monstrously successful memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.

“It’s room that we’ve granted men…fathers throughout time,” she said to the female interviewer. “I’m quite sure that a lot of people would judge me for it, and I think I might have judged other mothers for it before I did it myself.” Despite feeling as if she was somehow cosmically failing her children, she went away to a remote cabin in order to complete her book. The result was a richly crafted story, a brutally honest journey of love and loss and a shitload of hiking. It has spent over 126 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list.

But I wonder what would’ve happened if she hadn’t decided to leave her kids behind with their (I’m sure) more than capable father? She may have finished, but it certainly would have taken much longer. She very well may not have been able to plumb the emotional depths she needed to craft such a searing tale with little people interrupting her to wipe their rosy little cheeks. I, for one, am glad she tapped into her “bad mother” side and gave the world her story. And I’m sure her husband did just fine.

So why does our society not place as high of a value on fatherhood? How come we rarely hear What kind of a father are you? in that same judge-y, grating tone? It’s because, in our world, a bad father is just that: a dad who’s perpetually intoxicated, or physically/emotionally/sexually abusive, or simply just not around. The bar for being a bad father is set pretty damn high. Conversely, the opposite is true for mothers: Forget to send in Halloween treats one blessed year and you’re branded with a scarlet M for life.

Then there is the question of sacrifice. I find it baffling that mothers are given so much credit for subjugating their entire beings for their children, but none at all for bettering themselves. Considering how much we value personal success and growth as a society, it makes little sense. But mothers are held as a breed apart – we must always remain a step behind, leaving room for our kids (and invariably our husbands) to crowd in front, their hopes and aspirations coming before anything for ourselves. We are supposed to be beggars, glad for the small part of us left, the part that they haven’t consumed.

I, for one, have had enough. I’m calling bullshit.

Listen - I’m not advocating for moms to suddenly start ignoring their kids to pursue all of their unrealized dreams; the world is certainly not suffering for lack of forty year old prima ballerinas with noticeably gray roots. Mothers and fathers, it’s your job to do the boring stuff and the hard stuff and the downright painful stuff. Bake them the damn birthday cake, whether you feel like it or not (ATTENTION DADS – if you can teach college physics, or rebuild engines, or run an office, you damn sure can follow a recipe). Volunteer to chaperone the junior high school dance, even if you’d rather be subjected to a marathon of the Teletubbies than watch pre-teens twerk. Talk to your kids about love and suicide and sex and addiction and heartache because It’s. Your. Job.

But – newsflash – it’s not your job to do everything.

My goal is not to incite a revolution here, merely a shift in priority. So to all you bad mothers, I say this: go forth to the ninth &*$#@%! band concert of the school year. Or don’t. Or end up going, but cop a bad attitude about the whole thing (no names shall be mentioned here). Choose not to attend yet another parents’ meeting because you’d rather have coffee or drink margaritas with your friends – send your husband instead. Or don’t. Don’t let your mom ass go numb for the fourth night in a row on the gym bleachers while you watch your son play basketball (or warm the bench). Save yourself from death by minutiae (ie. the small shit). Be the bad mother. Really, it’s the part both you and I were born to play.

Because, in the end, it won’t matter anyway. All that your kids (and mine) are looking for is the sum of the whole experience. They won’t remember that you skipped out on the sixth grade science fair (unless they won first place and you were AWOL on a drunken binge with the neighbor – chances are, they’ll probably remember that). They won’t remember you as a good mother, one that gave up all of your own time and passion and life to support them. They will only remember that you were good enough.

So - I had a wonderful time at my friend’s cabin. She and I had a deep, meandering conversation that stretched into the night and through the next day (one of the main topics of course: motherhood). I stayed until 5pm that next evening and then somewhat reluctantly set out for home. On the way, I passed my husband and sons driving in the opposite direction. My oldest son was at the wheel, trying out his newly minted driver’s permit for the first time.

Kudos to you for not thinking: What kind of a mother isn’t there to take pictures of that?

Honestly, this thought didn’t even cross my mind. It rarely does. Instead, I did a u-turn and followed him. When he stopped, I pulled up beside him.

“Hey!” he said, rolling down his window. “I’m practicing.” My husband gave a smiling thumbs up from the passenger seat. I waved at my younger two, in the backseat.

“Good! How about we get some ice cream for supper?” I said, motioning to the Dairy Queen down the street. A chorus of nodding blonde heads from the car.

What kind of a mother are you? A good one and a bad one both, swirled together much like the chocolate and vanilla cone I ate that evening, under the bright September sun, recharged from my time away. I was happy simply to be there, with my family, at that one very particular moment in time.

I’m a bad mother. I own it (and so should you). So don’t expect me at the next PTO meeting. I’ll be at home, busy writing Act Two.

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