by Annette Cycon
The "Myth of the Good Mother" is all around us, and most of us have eaten idealized messages of motherhood with our Cheerios every day since childhood.
- "A good mother is always patient and loving."
- "A good mother never loses her temper."
- "A good mother has no needs of her own and should be able to do it all."
- "A good mother never wants to run out of her house screaming."
Traditionally, mothers are expected to care for everyone in the family, provide nutritious meals in a clean and organized home, manage all the demands associated with children, extended family, holidays, schools, health care, work and partner, make the appointments, buy the birthday presents, get up in the night with the puking child... and the list goes on and on. At the same time, mothers are expected to be paragons of virtue who are always patient, calm, loving, self-sacrificing, beautiful and never angry. Mothers who work in jobs outside the home have an additional set of responsibilities on top of this.
I am not bashing dads and other co-parents here. In a majority of families, dads and co-parents shoulder household and childrearing responsibilities too, shopping, cooking, cleaning, schlepping, nurturing and everything else. My husband was a full partner in all things family-related and even so, I still felt primarily responsible. It wasn't about him, it was about me. And this what I hear from moms all the time at MotherWoman: that no matter what, the myths of motherhood are alive and well and harass us from the inside out.
We work like crazy to keep up with unspoken expectations to be perfect, or at least "good enough," and then are very hard on ourselves when we can't achieve them. Mothers become sad, angry and overwhelmed, and then they get down on themselves for being sad, angry and overwhelmed. It's a downward spiral of expectation, striving and failing, disappointment, and either anxiety, sadness, rage or giving up.
When my daughters were young and lived at home, rather than challenge these beliefs -- "Something is wrong with this picture and it isn't me" -- I blamed and questioned myself, thinking, There must be something wrong with me. I certainly didn't want to be considered a bad mother, either by myself or anybody else, so I pretended to have it all together, tried to do it all, didn't ask for help and exhausted myself. Worse than that, trying so hard to be a "good mother" made me depressed, anxious, isolated and hard on everybody else. Who did I take my frustrations out on? The people closest to me -- which gave me something else to feel guilty and depressed about.
I recently met a mom of a three-week-old baby who blamed herself because her baby is not on a schedule yet. She told this story in tears, upset that she couldn't solve the mystery of her newborn and make him content all the time. In less than a month of motherhood, she was already using the myth of the good mother to beat herself up!
In MotherWoman groups, moms get an opportunity to untangle and challenge good mother myths in the company of other moms who drank the Kool-Aid too. We share the crazy-making standards we hold ourselves up to, see how unfair and unrealistic they are and dismantle them. Once I see how I am stressing myself by expecting myself to be able to do it all, I can give myself a break and make some other choices. The mom of the three-week-old baby was so relieved to realize that she could stop blaming herself. Talking about this negative spiral and hearing that other moms identified with her feelings made all the difference for her.
Dominant messages and images about what "good mothers" should look like and how their lives should be reinforce white, heterosexual, middle-class concepts of motherhood that fail to reflect the lives of a majority of mothers, including mothers of color, single, low-income, young mothers, LGBTQ, multi-racial, multi-generational, immigrant, divorced or co-parenting families.
Women in these circumstances have to work twice as hard to prove themselves in any arena, whether in the workplace, school or motherhood. If a mom is depressed or struggling emotionally with stress in her life, her inner strength is compromised, making it even more difficult to battle discrimination and other barriers. A negative cycle begins. This is not just her problem. It is a problem for all of us.
Myths of motherhood are toxic. They not only diminish our personal empowerment to value ourselves and raise our families according to our own beliefs and choices, but they also reinforce oppressions that keep a majority of women disempowered, pushing them farther into a corner. The silver lining, if there is one, is that angry women are powerful women. MotherWoman harnesses the power of women to speak the truth about motherhood so that we can stop the negative cycle of motherhood myths. Supported by a respectful community with realistic expectations, mothers can get on with the most important business at hand, raising the next generation well.
Annette Cycon is the founder of MotherWoman, a non-profit dedicated to supporting and empowering mothers to create personal and social change. She develops and offers professional trainings on perinatal emotional complications to build community-based perinatal safety nets for moms and families. She has been leading mothers' support groups for over 20 years, and believes that speaking the truth about motherhood is revolutionary! She is the mother of two daughters, ages 23 and 21.