Every morning, I leave my toddler in the car while I hustle, a hound under each arm, the 10 metres to and from the gates of doggy daycare. And every morning, I cross my fingers that nobody sees me and calls the police.
I know I’m not alone. With so many rules about how or when to feed, socialize and Ferberize our offspring, good motherhood is like a really long game of Jenga: Just when you think the whole thing will collapse, you manage to add another block to the top. The collective blaring of blogs, books and public health campaigns makes it easy to second-guess ourselves.
She’s your friend and mine, she sends store-bought corn-syrup-based doughnut holes to the bake sale instead of organic scratch-baked wonder balls and uses screen time to toilet train. Her toddlers can be spotted slurping pouched purées long after they’ve learned to chew. And while she gleefully rejects the guilt involved in trying to be a perfect mom, she’s funny and carefree, and incredibly validating. Think the Bad Moms series, Workin’ Moms, the entire oeuvre of Ali Wong.
It’s so ubiquitous, I can hardly get through a daycare drop without another mom joking that we’re not winning “Mom of the Year” anytime soon. It’s fun to joke about how badly we’re doing it because motherhood is ultimately not something you can win at. And it’s lonely. So when a fellow mom confesses she finds evenings with her young kids really awful, I don’t feel so isolated. But by laughing and rolling our eyes at this so-called bad mother, are we making things any better?
The problem is, the bad mom stays in our good books because she is never actually a threat to her kids. She also always puts them first, even if she jokes about what a bad mom she is for texting while her kids go down the slide. In fact, she’s just the good mom in disguise. She may flick granola off her blazer, but she is still donning a blazer. She may appear slightly dishevelled compared to her child-free self, but she is still hot.
To actually change the pressures many women face while trying to devote themselves to both their kids and their careers, moms with power and privilege can play an important role. This will, however, require some uncomfortable feelings.
It makes sense that when moms already feel raw, they don’t feel particularly enthusiastic about taking risks and challenging gendered burdens. When I’m at work, for example, I’m hyper-aware of what I say with respect to my home obligations. I am careful not to say too much about family, to avoid becoming a mom first in the minds of my colleagues. Just this morning, when asked how I was, I wanted to say, “A teething child has kept me up since 2 a.m. two mornings in a row and I’m not feeling very stable, OK?!” Instead, I said, “I’m great!”
I’m keeping my guard up for a reason—swaths of research on gender and the workplace show how mothers are stigmatized as unproductive and too emotional. A 2007 study found that, relative to non-mothers and men, mothers receive lower salary recommendations by 7.9 percent and 8.6 percent respectively. The “motherhood penalty” is real. But what is at stake in my attempt to neutralize my family status to my colleagues? When does this become complicity in sexist nonsense?
The answer lies in considering what this new “bad” mom can’t do. She can’t admit to smoking a joint every day in order to cope with the anxiety of stay-at-home parenting. She can’t be open about her struggle with alcoholism, or her need for sober spaces. This makes her a killjoy—not a cool, bad mom. She can’t enjoy a glass of wine while pregnant, nor can she intentionally leave her kids in the car, in any weather, for any reason. She can’t admit to formula-feeding because she just didn’t want to breastfeed, because she wanted to preserve her nipples, or because she wanted to democratize feeding with her partner. If she did, she’d be a selfish, ignorant, probably feminist weirdo. And she can’t really admit to giving her kids unlimited access to screens when she needs to sit down and be alone with her coffee.
Why moms who brag need to stopPerhaps the most telling thing about the default bad mom figure—in movies and in real life—is the fact that only mothers who are privileged in a number of ways are allowed to show the cracks. Affluent women who outsource care work to a nanny and dinner prep to a delivery service may be judged, or may feel guilty, but they are still seen as ultimately responsible and impressive people compared to, say, women on social assistance who self-medicate, or lobby for labour rights, or rely on cheap snacks to fill their kids’ bellies at night.
Complicating what she can’t do is who she can’t be in order to fall under the umbrella of good, responsible motherhood. LGBTQ+ parents who don’t identify or aren’t recognized as moms are already excluded from performances of this exasperated-but-always-responsible parenthood. And those who refuse to gender their small humans are rendered irresponsible. When Toronto parents David Stocker and Kathy Witterick decided not to gender their Baby Storm in a birth announcement, they were shocked by the public’s vitriolic response.
Some women are already perceived as bad by virtue of racist stereotyping. Writer Bee Quammie explains that, “for black moms, [the challenges of raising kids] are often amplified by historical traumas and other disparities.” Racialized women don’t have the luxury of being celebrated—even in jest—when they self-medicate or brag about their sexual encounters. No, these public displays of cool, bad motherhood are reserved for the cache of whiteness, and only if the mothers and their children are responsibly contained.
The redeeming news is, motherhood is having a moment. We can ask questions like What have I done with my life? and we can blow racial stereotypes wide open by pointing to the disturbing consequences these scripts have for the survival and well-being of pregnant women of colour and Indigenous parents and families. We can validate our peers who, in moments of dinnertime hysteria, post pictures of their toddlers enjoying a dinner of infant ibuprofen and crackers. And we can mock and challenge how hard this juggling act is, and we can think about what becoming a bad mom might have to offer.
But unless we commit to pushing the boundaries of what is still socially acceptable bad-mom behaviour, we may only be reproducing the guilt-inducing, perfectly Instagrammable motherhood pressure we hope to resist. This commitment needs to be championed by the moms who have the most power to throw around, and it is going to take courage and a willingness to feel uncomfortably judged. Even as I make this statement call, I have to admit that I recently cropped out my messy living room when I posted a photo about the chaos of raising two kids under age two, unwilling to let the last bastions of my guard down. I want to joke about being a bad mom only on my own photoshopped terms.
As I attempt to be more honest about my child-rearing experiences and decisions with my peers, I still catch myself telling small fibs when I’m unwilling to expose myself to judgment from even my closest friends. But we have to stop using the script of bad-but-still-good motherhood to discipline ourselves and each other.
Only if we start to admit the cracks—I feel raw, stressed, depressed, unproductive, afraid, resentful, regretful, overwhelmed, guilty, lost—are we challenging the very real demands on parents and families. Otherwise, the new bad mom is just the good mom with a glass of scotch.