Why do good mothers feel so bad?

Happy mothers day composition. Flowers on white background. Studio shot.

You’re a good mother; your children show you that you are.

Your baby greets you with a thousand watt smile when you pick her up from her nap. She loves to be in your arms when she feels happy and she needs to be in your arms when she feels ill.

Your toddler can’t get enough of your snuggles. You’re the first person he wants to see every day, which for him means cuddling with you in bed at 5 AM as you desperately try to get a few more minutes of sleep.

Your pre-schooler thrives on your praise. “Watch me, Mama, watch me!,” he calls whenever he learns a new skill. And you’re the one he runs to when he is sad, or angry or frustrated.

We’ve been socialized to believe that children’s happiness and success can only be purchased with the coin of maternal suffering.

Your children love you, need you and cry for you.

You’re a good mother … so why do you feel so bad?

Because the dominant mothering ideology in contemporary culture, often described as attachment parenting or natural mothering, is designed to make you feel inadequate.

When you stop and think about it, your children themselves aren’t the ones who make you feel bad. They are happy, healthy, growing and thriving. It is other adults who make you feel bad, everyone from acquaintances to Facebook friends to the experts who write the parenting books that you consult. They make you feel inadequate, like you are failing to meet your children’s most important needs, that no matter how much you do, you are never doing enough.

It’s not an accident. It is a product of our beliefs about women. While many of us proudly declare ourselves feminists, we have failed to question fundamentally anti-feminist beliefs about motherhood, sacrifice and how the differing needs of women and children ought to be negotiated. We don’t question them because we have been socialized to believe that children’s happiness and success can only be purchased with the coin of maternal suffering.

It starts with the deep, powerful love we feel toward our children.

As Jana Malamud Smith explains in A Potent Spell: Mother Love and the Power of Fear, our love, as well as our terror of loss, leaves us vulnerable to being manipulated:

The mother’s fears of child loss and the derivative fears of harming children or caring for them inadequately have been continually manipulated, overtly and subtly, even aroused gratuitously, to pressure, control and subdue women for a very long time — possibly millennia.

And it seems as if there are dangers everywhere.

Ironically, there has arguably never been a better time to be a mother. The specter of dying while giving life has dramatically receded. No longer do women have to fear the consequences of traumatic birth injuries. It is the rare mother who has to bury a child. We can ensure our children are healthy, well educated and equipped with the resources to succeed in life and yet we still feel bad.

But you’d never know that if you are part of the natural parenting culture, which justifies its intrusiveness into maternal choice by promoting fear in regard to infant and child health. Natural parenting advocates inflate risks of rare events to monstrous proportions or invent theoretical risks that have never been seen in real life.

For example, childbirth is inherently dangerous, but has been made dramatically safer by the liberal use of obstetric interventions. Yet to hear natural childbirth advocates tell it, childbirth is inherently safe and any dangers that exist are caused by technology.

Infant formula has never been safer or more nutritious. Yet to hear lactivists tell it, breastmilk is lifesaving and formula is deadly.

Vaccines have never been safer or more effective (as evidenced by the bottoming out of incidences of childhood diseases), but anti-vaxxers utterly ignore both medicine and history in denying the public health triumph of universal vaccination. Instead they obsess about rare or even fabricated vaccine injuries.

By promoting fear about children’s well-being, the philosophy of natural parenting causes women to tightly regulate their behavior so it conforms with the “rules” of natural parenting and to pathologize and blame themselves when they fail in conforming to those rules. Hence the outpouring of guilt and recrimination for epidurals, C-sections, formula feeding and other deviations from natural parenting diktat.

The conceit behind natural parenting is that women can only be successful mothers if they lose themselves. Their pain doesn’t count; their suffering doesn’t count; their time doesn’t count. Yet neither mothers nor children are benefiting as a result.

Natural parenting — natural childbirth, lactivism and attachment parenting — were all created by religious fundamentalists who believed that women belong in the home and must be pressured to return to it.

Grantly Dick-Read, the father of natural childbirth, famously said: “Woman fails when she ceases to desire the children for which she was primarily made. Her true emancipation lies in freedom to fulfil her biological purposes …”

The founders of La Leche League wished to convince mothers of small children that they should not work. Promoting breastfeeding seemed the ideal way to pressure them to stay home.

And Bill and Martha Sears wrote: “We have a deep personal conviction that this is the way God wants His children parented.” And just in case you didn’t get the point: “Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything …”

Don’t get me wrong, mothering requires sacrifice. Mothers sacrifice money, time, convenience and indulgences in order to raise children. But it does NOT require maternal suffering. There is precisely zero evidence that women who suffer in labor or breastfeed or practice attachment parenting have children who are happier or more successful. There’s no reason to feel bad for being unable to or refusing to conform to the “rules” of natural parenting.

So if suffering is not integral to raising happy, healthy children, why are natural parenting advocates exhorting women to suffer? Why do good mothers feel so bad?

Because one of the central unexamined assumptions of our culture is that women deserve to suffer. When your children show you that you are a good mother, you deserve to feel good. Don’t let acquaintances, Facebook friends, parenting “experts” — those who profit from or rest their self esteem on the tenets of natural parenting — make you feel bad.

Happy Mother’s Day!

  • Zornorph

    Sometimes when I read this sort of thing, I wonder if I speak a different language. I have, a few times, encountered people (I say people but it’s always women somehow) who have tried to guilt/shame me about a particular parenting practice of mine or the other. And for me it’s just like water off a duck’s back. There just doesn’t seem to be anything for that net to catch on. I know society sets different standards for fathers (particularly single fathers) and so it’s a low bar I have to clear. But those who try to use guilt and shame honestly simply amuse me.
    I don’t claim to be a perfect parent – sometimes I think to myself that my son should be further along in one particular skill or the other and if I spent more time working on it with him, he’d already be there. But then I know that I spend more time with my son than the average parent (much less the average father) and he’s happy and thriving. I’m not going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I’m not going to give up all my free time and spend every waking moment worrying about his development. Yes, I’ll let him play on the tablet for an hour without blinking and worrying that it’s rotting his brain. Because I see he’s just as happy to go outside and play or spend the weekend at the beach.

    I really think it’s unfortunate and unfair that so much guilt is heaped onto mothers today. I don’t have the answer, but for me I can just turn off those sort of feelings like a light switch. I wish I could transfer that skill to everyone.

  • Emilie Bishop

    I have a bio son, age 3, and my first foster placement, age 4.5 months, who’s been with us a month. For anyone wondering if Dr. Amy’s making this stuff up and if you really didn’t give your baby the best start to life because you delivered with pain relief or couldn’t breastfeed or used daycare or whatever, I am here to tell you–you are fine. You likely didn’t do hard, illegal drugs or binge drink while pregnant. Your baby didn’t enter the world addicted and need to withdraw. Your baby didn’t develop with an impaired central nervous system that makes them nearly impossible to sooth or adhere to an age-appropriate feeding and sleeping routine.

    If you didn’t do drugs, you are ahead of many women’s curves. Happy Mother’s Day. You’re doing just fine.

    • Cartman36

      So true. I wish you and your family all the best especially your precious foster baby. Babies being born addicted breaks my heart.

  • Empress of the Iguana People

    Well, part of my issue is people telling me (usually in kinder words) that I’m letting my kids run wild too much and I need to be stricter with them. can’t talk more. bad week in my head.

    • J.B.

      I’m sorry.

    • Who?

      I’m so sorry. Parenting can be hard, without all of what you are living with.

    • guest

      I think this is a common criticism towards parents today. I hear it a lot too. “I never let my kids do “. All of my friends have said they get similar comments. It gets super irritating. I’ve made a vow to myself to never say a word about someone’s parenting choices (provided there is no abuse).

      • Charybdis

        My 14 year old son will get comments from other kids about things he does/gets to do. I taught him how to put gas in the car about 4-5 years ago and often have him do it for me when we are out and about. I taught him how to make his own grilled cheese (on the STOVE) when he was in kindergarten. He’s learning to make his own baked chicken now (he’s a wrestler and is learning how to eat/exercise/diet appropriately to avoid crash weight loss to “make weight”). He knows how to do laundry WITHOUT eating the Tide pods (whites, colors, towels, what to do with new clothes that might bleed), fold laundry, vacuum, steam mop, change sheets, load and unload the dishwasher, etc. I will let him eat cereal for supper sometimes. Or have chocolate cake for breakfast sometimes. He drinks sodas and will eat cereal with ALL THE SUGAR. But not every day, all the time.

        I will also send him into the store BY HIMSELF to get milk while I wait in the car. I will send him into a restaurant to pick up a carry-out order while I wait in the car. He now has a “debit card” (It’s an app I found that is used for allowances, etc. I control the amount of $$ that goes on the card, can specify where/when the money can be spent (spend anywhere, gas stations only, restaurants only), can add money immediately if I agree to the purchase if he requests it for *reasons* , he can message me in real time for funds, plus I can turn the card off from my phone if it is lost, or if I deem it necessary) so he can start to learn about handling money, budgeting, etc. It will also help when he goes off to wrestling camp this summer, so he won’t have to carry much cash with him.

        We let him jog/run alone, let him go to the bathroom by himself in public and generally don’t hover anxiously by the sidelines wringing our hands. Is he perfect? No. Will he make bad decisions along the way? Yep. How else will he learn? It is our job as parents to turn a baby into a functional, responsible member of society and by golly, we are doing our damnedest to do so. He doesn’t make it easy sometimes, but there you go. Other parents think we are odd because we are more “free range” than “helicopter” and as such, DS has more freedom than other kids his age, who are often still treated as if they are kindergarteners.

        I have the FIDO philosophy about this: Fuck It, Drive On.

        • Empress of the Iguana People

          At 14, I was biking alone 2 miles to the library and my stepfather’d give me money to buy milk to bring home from the convenience store. Nearest place to get it.

        • guest

          Love this! My kid at 6 can make scrambled eggs on the stove and is working towards being able to ride his bike around the neighborhood without a grownup (he needs to show me that I can trust him to listen to instructions even when I’m not there). Both my kids pick up after themselves and help with laundry and cleaning.
          The debit card you talk about sounds amazing! I’m going to look into it for when mine are a little older.

          • Charybdis

            It’s called Greenlight. It’s awesome. I really like it for the reasons I listed above, as well as the fact that the app will alert me when he spends money on something. He likes it because it’s a debit card with HIS NAME on it, it has a PIN number (for purchases only, he can’t use it at an ATM) and it is his. He carries it in his wallet and it looks so much cooler than forking over cash when making a purchase.

            He was over the moon when he realized that some vending machines will take cards…..

    • Mishimoo

      If your kids “run wild” like mine do – in that they have decent self-confidence and self-esteem, they love fiercely, and they aren’t afraid to express their own opinions (even though it feels like constant arguments) – then you’re doing a great job even though your head and judgemental people say otherwise. So many of the problems people mention are normal, age-appropriate behaviours and even though they’re frustrating as hell, it is such a relief to see that technically-speaking the kids are actually okay.

  • MaineJen

    Have you been reading my mind? Instead of feeling happy yesterday, I struggled with feelings of inadequacy and guilt. I’m not a mother who goes above and beyond in the traditional ways…I’m not on the PTA, I don’t volunteer with Little League, I don’t have any kind of a chocolate chip recipe handy, I don’t do crafts. I’m my own weird kind of mom, and it’s a struggle to feel okay with that.

    Thank you for this!

    • AnnaPDE

      Having one of those mums myself, I can tell you first hand from a kid perspective that all the volunteering and craft and homebake stuff doesn’t matter.

    • momofone

      My son saw something that said “Having a weird mom builds character.” He repeats it at every opportunity. Go on with your weird self! 🙂

      • Empress of the Iguana People

        I should make my kids matching shirts with this phrase.

  • Amazed

    Hey, you have a holiday over there? Happy Mother’s Day to all of you!

  • Namaste

    Oh, and happy mother’s day to each and every one of you lovely ladies!

  • namaste

    Ladies and gentlemen, I have a very important announcement to make. As a salute to our friend Phil Harris, I arrived at a hotel in Brisbane this morning. I can now say that I have personally been in a basement in Australia. Case closed.

    • Who?

      Welcome to Brisbane! I hope you are loving the autumn weather we are turning on for you. Have a wonderful trip.

      And happy mothers day.

    • The Vitaphone Queen

      I thought you were talking about the comedian and singer Phil Harris (best known as Baloo in Disney’s The Jungle Book in 1967).

      …Or were you? I haven’t been on here in a while.

      • namaste

        Whoops, I meant Peter Harris. He is a troll who parachutes in occasionally.

      • Namaste

        Personally, I like Phil Harris’ The Thing. “Get outa here with that ——— and take it down below!”

    • AnnaPDE

      Why is it important to have been in an Australian basement? Do I get extra points for showering in one at work?

      • namaste

        There is a big debate on another thread about vaccines with a guy named Peter Harris. It inexplicably and ridiculously disintigrated into an argument on the existence, or lack thereof, of basemnts in Australia. I meant the above comment as a joke.

        • AnnaPDE

          Thanks! I realised that this Peter Harris person was completely loopy, but I must have missed the basement discussion.

          • Mishimoo

            It’s still an ongoing issue with him. Anyone who disagrees with him about the existence of basements in Australia is immediately labelled an American.

    • kfunk937

      I think that was Peter Harris, but yeah. When I saw you post about the pending trip, I almost added a property search on homes with basements, lol. It was too ridiculous to bother with, though.Hope it is (or was, considering I’m reading this over a week later) a great trip!…and once again I see I should’ve kept reading.

  • Megan

    This is great. I credit this site for helping me shed my guilt around not meeting the “requirements” of “natural” parenting. I enjoy my kids so much more and help mothers in my practice to feel less guilt too. Thanks, Dr Amy!

  • Nick Sanders

    Happy Mother’s Day to all of you!

  • Kq

    Thank you.

  • fiftyfifty1

    Happy Mother’s Day to you, too. Thanks for doing all you do to advocate for mothers and babies!