Myths Of Mothering Society Divides Mothers Into Two Categories — Good Or Bad. Neither Label Is Quite Right.

By MARY JO KOCHAKIAN, The Hartford Courant

Probably the worst thing you can call a woman is a bad mother.

Who is held in less regard than a self-absorbed woman who has damaged her children? A woman who is bored by them, indifferent to what they need, who uses them for her own gratification?

She is not even in the same universe as the good mother. The good mother is fascinated by her children. She wants only what is best for them. She knows, intuitively, what they need. For her, nurturing is easy. And she is so resourceful she doesn`t get bored.

“Before I had children, I bought the myth — good mothers are totally devoted. And I blamed the others,“ says Jane Swigart, author of The Myth of the Bad Mother (Doubleday; $18.95). “Then after I had children, I thought, `My Lord, this is really a complex task. And a very difficult one. And people aren`t talking about it.“`

The truth, of course, is that the ideal of the good mother is impossible to live up to.

There are mothers who are truly abusive. But they are far different from mothers who love their children, want to do their best for them, and fear because of their shortcomings that they are bad mothers, says Swigart, who lives in Woodside, Calif.

“There`s nothing more painful to a mother who loves her kids than to not be able to give them what they need. Yet we can`t talk about it when we can`t,“ Swigart says.

Mixed in with pure joy — those “glorious moments of effortless giving“ to a child — are times of resentment and anger. Monday, you may have one of those peak moments — basking in contentment and love as you rock a fussy baby to sleep, perhaps — and Thursday you may be furious that you have to crawl out of bed for the fourth time to rock that baby, who is wakeful because he has a cold. You have, with your anger, moved from the realm of good mother to bad mother. And you suffer.

“This is such a threatening area, a vulnerable, sensitive area in women`s lives,“ Swigart says.

The reluctance to address “this blind spot“ led her to scour literature and psychoanalytic writings about the experience of caring for children. (Her investigation led to a doctorate in psychology and literature.)

“There was very, very little on the mother. But enormous amounts on the child,“ she says. Because of the disturbing feelings constant contact with children evokes, “we search for a scapegoat, the source of emotional pain,“ Swigart says. “As a society, we point a collective finger at `bad mothers,` silencing all mothers about the realities of child care for fear they might be the source of their children`s problems and suffering.“

Women are often reluctant to talk to their husbands about the difficulty of caring for young children, or their fears of being inadequate. “Nobody wants to know how difficult it is to take care of a child,“ Swigart says.

Men often do not want to know: “To pursue their own goals without worrying excessively about the well-being of their children, men need to see their wives as loving mothers, for whom care-giving comes easily,“ she writes. Even Sigmund Freud may not have wanted to touch this dark area, she says; in his analysis of his pupil Helene Deutsch, who became a famous psychoanalyst, there was never any discussion of her conflicts as a mother.

Deutsch, in order to pursue her work as a psychoanalyst, delegated the rearing of her infant son to a nurse. In her autobiography, Deutsch acknowledged a “painful suspicion I was depriving both my son, Martin, and myself of a rich source of happiness.“

It is a “collusion of silence,“ Swigart says.

Only through confronting the negative emotions can mothers get the support they need, Swigart says. For everyone`s benefit, child-rearing should be recognized as a collaborative effort, she says. It is not one woman`s job; it should deeply involve the father, extended family, employers, government.

Discussion of the dark aspects of child-rearing is the first step, she says. “That`s the only way we are going to change conditions for children to get the nurturing they really need. … Children cannot be nurtured if the mother is not nurtured.“


“Before the birth of my first child, I had little curiosity about what mothers actually experienced when they took care of their children. I vaguely believed women were either good mothers who made their children happy or bad mothers who made them miserable. The bad mothers had many names: the Castrating Mother; the Smothering, Intrusive Mother; the Cold, Rejecting Mother. The good mothers seemed pretty much the same: they loved their children unconditionally and worked constantly to provide what was best for them.

It was not until I became a mother that I realized how much we use these myths — of good and bad mothers — to obscure the chaotic sometimes overwhelming experiences that child-rearing inevitably stirs up in us. There is something about the extreme vulnerability of young children that makes it difficult to look closely at what is involved in taking care of them. Our resistance is even greater when it comes to acknowledging what child rearing feels like on a constant basis.“

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