Novelist Ayelet Waldman caught a lot of flack when she wrote in the New York Times that she loves her husband, writer Michael Chabon, more than she loves her children.
That’s a weird thing to say (no matter how much Smartmom likes Chabon’s work!). How do you measure such things — with a scale, a ruler, or a measuring cup? Do you monitor your heartbeats, heavy breathing or the swelling of your chest?
The media, especially the blogosphere, went berserk over Waldman’s honest (if strange) assertion, and Waldman became the poster mama for bad mommies everywhere.
Then came Britney, the prom queen of moms you never want to have. She takes drugs around her kids, and drives her pick-up truck with her son on her lap without a seat belt.
She’s guilty of one egregious act of bad mommydom after another. She’s also, apparently, mentally ill. Still, the public can’t get enough of her via the celebrity magazines, blogs, and television shows.
Waldman, in a recent issue of New York Magazine, empathizes with Spears for all the public vitriol that she has had to endure and tries to explain why the public (especially other mothers) likes to vilify mothers.
“One way to find consolation in the face of all this failure and guilt is to judge ourselves not against the impossible standard of the Good Mother, but against the fun-house-mirror-image Bad Mother. By defining for us the kind of mother we’re not, the Bad Mother makes it easier for us to live with what we are.”
So that’s the standard now? Buddha knows, we can’t live up to the Berkeley Carroll ideal of the perfect stroller mom, but can it really be that Waldman believes that it’s good enough to just stay one step above lousy moms like Britney, Ayelet Waldman, or Andrea Yates, who drowned her five children in a bathtub?
But being “better than bad” is not the same as being good. And what is a “good” mom and how do you know whether you are or aren’t? There’s got to be some objective standards, right?
The problem is that it’s hard to quantify. That’s why things like extreme selflessness, baking cookies and sewing homemade Halloween costumes have become misplaced markers of mommy achievement.
Baking cookies has always been one of those good mom measurements. Do you? How often? And from scratch or mix?
And selflessness — that gets (homemade) brownie points. What about when a mom needs some meditation-time for herself? A night with the girls and some margaritas? Never. I’ll just sit by the crib and suffer, she thinks.
But some of the best moms would neither know how to be selfless nor the difference between Duncan Hines, Betty Crocker or Mark Bittman.
That’s because none of that stuff has anything to do with good parenting. What’s really important is how you talk to your kids and whether they feel loved for who they are.
Smartmom believes that good mothering comes in many sizes, shapes and colors. But there are, of course, some mommy basics:
Moms (in partnership with dads) are required to love, feed, clothe, shelter discipline, and educate their children. They must make them feel warm and secure; comfort them when they are sick; hold them (and listen to them) when they are sad.
Still it takes a whole lot more to win the Mommy sweepstakes. Here are some of the ways that Smartmom has tried to win the crown:
• Reading the entire “All of a Kind Family” series to OSFO and agreeing not to cry at the sad parts?
• Forcing Teen Spirit to take that musical theater class in fourth grade. He hated doing it but Smartmom was — you guessed it — trying to be a good mom.
• Throwing elaborate, themed birthday parties for Teen Spirit (Beatles, Harry Potter and Who Wants to be a Millionaire)?
• And what about all those trips to see the dinosaurs and the dioramas at the Museum of Natural History with Teen Spirit and those endless hours in the basement of the Children’s Museum of Manhattan with OSFO?
Doesn’t that stuff count for something? Ask your kid. The real time to measure whether you are a good mom or not will be 20 or 30 years from now when your kid is sitting in a therapist’s office talking about the long or short list of terrible things you did as a parent.
The shortest list wins the mommy Olympics. And you can bet that baking cookies or making Halloween costumes won’t be the crux of the issue. Smartmom can just imagine what Teen Spirit and OSFO will have to say about the emotional damage she — inadvertently, mind you! — caused them.
Will Teen Spirit tell his therapist about the time she slapped him in the face when he refused to write a memoir for his third-grade teacher?
Will OSFO tell her therapist about all the times Smartmom embarrassed her in front of her friends?
Will they complain about all those fights between Hepcat and Smartmom about HIS clutter in the living room?
Will they hate her for calling them Teen Spirit and the Oh So Feisty One in her Brooklyn Paper column?
All this talk about good and bad mothering got Smartmom thinking about a good mother she has known.
Smartmom’s mom, Manhattan Granny, got bonus points for refusing to move to the suburbs when everyone was ditching the city for backyards and ballgames in Westchester.
An urban mom years before there was Urban Baby, dinner was take-out from the sadly defunct Williams’s BBQ on the Upper West Side and a Sara Lee brownie. Saturday meant a Fred Astaire movie at the Thalia or the Martha Graham Dance Company at City Center.
But most important, Manhattan Granny was a loving person who was always great to talk to; analytical and incisive as needed.
Sure, Smartmom has spent years complaining about her mother with her therapist about — wouldn’t you like to know?
And they’ve had more than one receiver-slamming fight on the phone. But that’s not the point. The best moms, like Manhattan Granny, are quirky and interesting and can’t be measured by whether they’re selfless martyrs or good bakers.
“The most important thing is creating a space where your child feels safe and can experience childhood in a happy and playful way,” Diaper Diva told Smartmom over a recent oatmeal breakfast at Sweet Melissa’s.
Which brings us back to Ayelet Waldman. Who cares if she loves her husband more than her kids? The important thing is whether she covers the basics and sprinkles in a heavy amount of herself and the things that matter to her.
Like Smartmom’s kids, Waldman’s are going to talk about her in therapy anyway. So why not?