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Who Decides What Makes a Good Mother?
by Staci Schoff

My first pregnancy was a bit of a surprise (if you can call "I had unprotected sex while hoping not to get pregnant" a surprise, that is). And, like most women, I had mixed feelings in the beginning. I like to hope that it was the hormones talking when one day I burst into tears and told my husband that I was already a terrible mother for wondering if I was happy about this pregnancy. Because I was certain the microscopic clump of undifferentiated cells in my uterus knew this and would be traumatized, for life, by it. So began my obsession with being a "good" mother.

Today there are all kinds of prescriptions and formulas one can follow to be a good mother. If you go to a La Leche League meeting you'll learn that all you have to do is breastfeed your baby every time he stirs (day and night), and have no intention of weaning to be a good mother. If you watch the Dr. Phil show, you'll learn that if your children are "well disciplined" without being spanked or yelled at, you're a good mother. Marc Weissbluth will tell you being a good mother means your kid is a good sleeper (sleeps twelve hours a night alone and naps in the afternoon). A visit to the Weston Price Foundation will confirm that good mothers only feed their kids food that would have been available prior to industrialization.

And, truly, that's just the beginning. I think the only way to figure out what it means to be a good mother is to go back to the beginning. What makes a good mother chimpanzee, for instance? Nobody expects her to save money for college or sleep train her baby in order to consider her a success as a mammalian mother. What we expect of her is, simply, to feed and protect her baby until he's old enough to fend for himself.

My rule of thumb is that if it isn't something that could have been done by a Neanderthal mom, than it can't be a moral directive (otherwise known as, something everyone must do in order to be a proper mother). For instance, Neanderthal mom could not play Mozart through her abdomen for the listening enjoyment of her fetus; therefore, playing classical music for the developing baby doesn't have anything to do with being a good mother. It's a fine thing to do, of course, if she's into that sort of thing. It just has no bearing on whether or not she's a good mom.

Nature and History both make it clear what is required of us as mothers. We have an obligation to insure the survival of our offspring, which, necessarily, implies loving them, feeding them and keeping them safe from harm. I don't think anyone would really disagree with this. Where we run into trouble is in the examination of what, exactly, it means to love, feed and insure the safety of an infant or child.

For example, you'd think that smoking would have nothing to do with loving your children, until a rabid anti-smoker suggests that if you really loved your kids, you wouldn't do something that could cause your early death. And then you think, Gosh, can only non-smokers be good moms? Are all non-smokers good moms, then? And what if I drive too fast on the freeway or eat potato chips or exercise less than three times a week? Does that mean I don't love my kids too? I'm not an advocate of smoking, by the way, just wanting to differentiate between what's bad for your health and what's bad parenting.

You'd think that "feeding" your kids is pretty self-explanatory, and easy for most mothers to accomplish. But not in America, today. "Good" moms breastfeed (but not for too long), and "good" moms serve only healthy foods (meaning, those that are considered healthy according to the latest study reported by CNN—subject to change at a moment's notice, so stay tuned). Good moms allow their kids just the exact right amount of sweets and junk food (not so much that they'll suffer tooth decay or obesity, but enough that they won't be geeks or sugarmongers).

By far, the most volatile area of interpretation is in what it means to "protect a child from harm." In the 1970's, when I was four, I have a distinct memory of playing, most days, at a park (not within eyeshot of my babysitter's house, but close by) with the other preschoolers. No moms climbing on the rocket-shaped structure with us, or even sitting on the bench watching (with sunscreen, bottled water and organic vegan cookies on hand). Today, should I be dumb enough to actually admit to someone that my four-year-old is playing alone in our fully-six-foot-fenced back yard while I'm inside writing this, I'll, no doubt, be told the story about that one kid. You know the one, somewhere, who was playing in his back yard (full-nine-foot-fence with barbed wire on top) and someone landed by helicopter in the yard and kidnapped him. His (very bad) mom (who was just in the kitchen where she could see and hear through the open window, but dared to take her eyes off him for a minute) never noticed a thing until he was gone.

Admittedly, there are a lot of things out there that a mother, naturally, wants (and needs) to protect her children from. All good mothers do their best to keep their children safe, but what poses (and doesn't pose) a great threat of danger varies, according to who you ask. When my kids were babies I was most terrified of the "bad nanny" scares and, therefore, never left my kids with a sitter. I was being a good mother, not because I drove myself to the brink of insanity by never being away from my kids, but because I did what I felt I needed to do to keep them safe. However, not everyone has a mind-numbing terror of babysitters, and I assume those mothers do what they need to do to keep their kids safe by choosing caregivers whom they trust. That's being a good mom too.

When a friend of mine heard that my baby was sleeping in my bed with me, she was beside herself with wonder at how I could possibly be getting any sleep. I, on the other hand, could not understand how she could stand getting up several times a night to sit in a chair for fifteen minutes while her baby ate. She prefers to sleep alone and I prefer not to drag my butt out of bed in the middle of the night. What does this have to do with being a good mother? Leaving your baby to sleep in the shed, on top of the lawnmower, next to the gasoline in ninety degree heat is bad parenting. Letting your baby sleep with you, in a swing, in his car-seat or in a crib is a matter of personal preference and circumstance.

Just like hemlines and hairstyles, popular parenting practices change with the wind. In American culture, the only women labeled "good" mothers are those who are paying attention, following directions and (I know, I've been there) driving themselves completely crazy trying to keep up with all the latest scares and fads. But growing up with a health food nut or a fast food junkie does not make or break a kid's chance at a happy and successful life. What is important for a child is to grow up with a mother who loves him, unconditionally, whatever form that happens to take. If your kids know they're loved, they'll probably grow up and make fun of the tofu sandwiches you packed in their lunch boxes, but they won't feel unable to cope with life as a result of your quirkiness. And, let's face it, what fun is being an adult without something to tease your mother about?

I finally had to acknowledge that being into healthy cooking and literature doesn't make me a good mother. It just makes me a healthy cook and a reader. Certainly, my kids benefit from those personality traits; however, they'd also benefit if I was a mathematician and bilingual. But I'm not a "bad" mother for not being either of those things. I'm just…me. A good mother has a loving relationship with her child; her unique personality (and its inherent strengths and weaknesses) is not something to scare out of her…it's something to celebrate.

Staci Schoff has a website and a blog. She's the stay-at-home mom of two boys and lives in Oregon.

feature added on 2005-12-03 :: ::

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