In which I say I’m a good mother

“I’m a bad mother.”

Even as I heard myself say those words to Mike last week on the phone, I cringed.

Mike was away for most of the week, so I was parenting solo, and Dominic had a wracking, chesty cough that started up whenever I put him down to sleep. At first we thought the cough was due to the shocking air quality in Luang Prabang at present – it’s grey and smoky and ash is falling from the sky because everyone’s burning their rice fields in preparation for planting. But after the cough had hung around for ten days, I enlisted the help of a Lao-speaking friend and went in search of a local pediatrician.

“How’d it go?” Mike wanted to know when we talked that evening.

“The doctor listened to his chest and said he sounded fine. He knew the English words for asthma and bronchitis – my two big concerns. But he said it was just a cough and it’ll probably go away by itself.”

“Good,” Mike said, sounding relieved. “So it all went fine then.”

“Yes,” I said. “Except for the part where the doctor asked me to undress him and I laid him in my lap to do that because there was no examining table, and then he rolled and I almost dropped him on his head on the tile floor. I’m a bad mother.”

I’m a bad mother.

It wasn’t the first time I’d caught myself saying this recently, and more than one of my mothering friends use this phrase frequently. They toss it off casually to chastise themselves for not being quick enough to catch a slipping child and prevent a tumble, or to justify why they’re allowing the child to eat sweets or watch television, or even just to explain a grubby hands and face.

“Why say it at all?” Mike asked, when I explained the subject of this blog post over breakfast this morning.

“I think we say it as a defense when we feel that someone might be judging us,” I said.

“So,” Mike said. “Let me get this straight. Since you’re mostly hanging out with friends when you do this, you call yourself a bad mother to fend off potential judgment not from the global faceless audience but from people who already know you and like you?”

I took a bite of toast and thought about this for a second.

“Exactly,” I said. 

“That makes no sense,” Mike said.

And it doesn’t, really, which is why I don’t want this phrase to become a standard part of my vocabulary. Words are important. The words that we tell ourselves repeatedly, no matter how flippantly, can carve channels of belief into our minds. Our emotions – following the path of least resistance – find those channels and are guided by them. And while “I’m a bad mother” is far from the worst thing I can imagine myself saying, it’s not exactly what you might call “life-giving” either.

In addition.

I want to be secure enough in my decisions that I don’t feel the need to justify those decisions to my friends – at least not with an off-the-cuff blanket statement about my worth as a mother. And I want to trust that when things like tumbles happen, my friends won’t be watching with a spirit of criticism but with a spirit of fellowship – fellowship that comes from understanding that no parent, no matter how careful, can prevent every mishap.

Most importantly, however, I don’t want to say this too often because it’s not true.

I am a good mother.

Sure, I have moments when I almost drop my precious bundle of joy on the floor. And we’ve fed him too much papaya, mango, and pumpkin lately so his nose and toes have turned a bit yellow because of vitamin A overload. And sometimes I sit down beside him on the floor while he plays and watch an episode of Glee, or check my email while he’s in the bouncer instead of giving his royal babyness my full and undivided attention.

But I am a good mother.

I read to him, hug him, and make him baby food that’s far healthier than what I eat. I spend inordinate amounts of energy teasing smiles out of him. I delight in kissing him up under his pudgy little arms in that spot that makes him squirm and squeal with laughter. I let the dog lick his feet because he loves it so, and I don’t let the dog lick his face because I love him so. I take him outside to look at clouds and coconut trees. I explain butterflies and the wind. I give him fascinating toys to experiment with, like the toe spreader from a pedicure set I’ve never used, my hairbrush, and an egg whisk. I drag myself out of bed and comfort him when he starts to cry after I’ve just fallen asleep (though sometimes not until after I’ve begged him to “please, please, just stop it”). I watch with wonder as he sets about every day the demanding business of learning to live in this world. I would do almost anything, anything, to protect him.

And the thing is … I think that’s pretty much how most mothers operate. Not as perfect mothers, sure, but as mothers who love their children up, down, sideways and sleep-deprived. Mothers who sometimes makes mistakes, but who are learning more every day. Mothers who are doing the best they can to love their children unselfishly and wisely and energetically and patiently (yes, particularly patiently).

So let’s not call ourselves bad mothers – at least, not too often.

Let’s say it like it really is.

“We are good mothers.”

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24 responses to “In which I say I’m a good mother

  1. You said it well. Love covers a multitude of sins right? We all do our best and in the end, it’s usually more than enough.What’s scary is the day that you realize your own parent didn’t know anymore than you do . . . wow, and you made it.

  2. Love this. I do the self-defense thing all too often too. And I’m not a mother!

    Happy mother’s day from the UK 🙂

  3. I needed to read this!! Thank You! The phrase “I am a bad Mother” as been doing a nasty loop in my brain lately. I know it’s not true, but my 9 yr. old is such a challenging child! I’ve been taking the burden all on myself saying her problems are all my fault and I know this is not true.

  4. Hey Lisa,
    This is a really great post! It has been very thought provoking – I think we all have a tendency to do this downplay of ourselves in self defence or in self-frustration (at least I have this very unhelpful expectation of perfection in myself that results in self-frustration when I do something that is simply human…). It is great to think about how we think about ourselves and how that can be unhelpful.
    Mark and I have been talking about parenting and about the fact that whatever style we may choose – we will be good parents – we will love and feed and nurture and encourage and discipline our kids. That in itself means we will be good parents. It was nice to read your thoughts on a similar theme this morning – I read them out to Mark and we’ve had a great discussion about it!

    • I told Mike about this comment (cuz it’s so much fun when someone says they’ve had an interesting discussion sparked by a post) and he said, “enjoy those breakfast discussions now, before you have kids.” Then we both laughed. Glad you enjoyed it.

      • ahh, object lessons – aren’t they great. After this post and the discussion it led to, I then had a day where things went wrong and I stuffed some simple things up and ended up so frustrated at myself! Mark’s gentle reminders of our earlier breakfast discussion were helpful and not yet helpful. It can be so weird how we judge ourselves on little lapses rather than on the whole…
        And as for breakfast disussions – I guess here is as good a place as any – we have about 16 weeks until our breakfast discussions wil also be interrupted (hence the discussion on parenting styles). *grins*

  5. Funny thing is, I said that exact phrase this morning as we left for church and I felt as though she was under dressed for the weather. And in my head as the x-ray tech took pics of her twisted foot on Monday. When they sent me home from mom’s group on Wednesday because she had green goop running from her nose (which I hadn’t noticed) and I still dropped her off with the childcare workers. And when when she touched a hot burner on the stove 3 days ago. Guess it hasn’t been a very self induced uplifting week. I’ll have to work on this. Thanks for the post. You said it more eloquent than I could have!

  6. Loved this post! Because you shared all the great things you are doing with Dominic! Just came back from helping my daughter with her 4 children ages 8 to almost 2. If I could bestowe on her the honor of sainthood I would! I don’t know how she survives her days. She homeschools and currently has a husband who is laid up due to a hip operation. So she is the sole caregiver but does it very graciously. Sure she explodes from time to time as they do exactly the opposite of what they know they should and cause her much grief. The youngest walked out the back door on to the deck and the two of us never noticed until she climbed down the stairs and ran across the lawn! She knows that God gives her grace everyday and she needs to accept it. You are a “GOOD” mother! You love him and he knows he can depend on you to be there for him. The best days are ahead – don’t let Satan speak those lies into your head. Just keep loving on Dominic and praise God for the opportunity that you have everyday to be his mother!!


    • Thanks, Kathy. Gosh, some mothers really do deserve a sainthood nomination. I know several at the moment who are doing a fabulous job with very heavy loads indeed.

  7. Yes! You’re a good mother! How could you say or judge yourself otherwise? It breaks my heart that good people doing a good job with an impossibly difficult task (raising a child without incident) would be so hard on themselves. Anyone who would judge a mother for not saving their baby from a slip or tumble do not have opinions worthy of consideration. I would be a terrible mother….because I just couldn’t do what you do….thus choosing to steer clear of procreation!!

    • For me, personally, I don’t usually seriously judge myself otherwise, but I was catching myself increasingly saying otherwise, and sometimes I think saying precedes believing. Not always, but sometimes. And it’s funny what sorts of judgements you do become more sensitive to when you have a little one. I suspect it’s different for different women, but having a baby certainly highlights some latent insecurities. Which is good in a way, as that’s an opportunity to keep growing as a person.

  8. I love your message and that adorable picture of you two! It’s important in all aspects of life. I have to stop saying (thinking) “I’m JUST a mother.”

    • Yes, I get you on that one, too. Mike reminds me all the time that “keeping the baby alive” is really quite a remarkable achievement for a day. And you have two of them!

  9. Thanks for sharing this–made me smile 🙂 And the pic was great. I read your list of all you DO do for your little guy and I thought, “wow, she must be Super-woman!” Sounds like you’ve got something really good going on–keep it up 😉 Also keep coming back to the fact that he didn’t actually fall–you caught him, which I think what mothering is all about–catching our children before they take totally nasty tumbles (literally and figuratively), or at least being their to give them loads of kisses after they do fall 🙂

    • Thanks. Although I think it’s probably important to point out what was NOT on that list of things I do … like all our laundry. Or almost any of our dishes. Or scrubbing toilets. This, you see, is what frees up the time to explain the wind. (And, also, possibly part of the reason why sometimes I find myself lying on the tile floor in hour three of “nothing but baby” thinking that I might lose my mind). Although, don’t get me wrong … REALLY glad I don’t have to scrub our toilets in this season of my life. Very grateful for our lovely housekeeper here in Laos.

      • My friend lives in Indonesia and have to admit, I am JEALOUS of her b/c of the housekeeper. But hey, whichever continent you rock out, laundry and definitely clean toilets are WAY overrated 🙂 Referring her to your blog now.

        • Completely agree with you about clean toilets being over-rated!! Though, I must say, if I don’t have to clean them, I’ll take clean over less-clean any day.

  10. Amen! Thanks for the reminder about the power of words, even when said lightly. Makes me reflect on the teasing comments we make to our kids which we know are only in jest — but do they? Do we make sure the true messages we want them to believe are spoken just as often? I’ll be thinking about that this week….

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