I knew I was a bad mother about three days into the game. That was when my milk should have come in but didn’t and my son screamed bloody murder because, while my body thought colostrum was enough, his did not and he protested. Violently. So violently, in fact, that we were keeping the other new mothers in the post-surgical wing of the “Mother and Baby Unit” awake at night, or so I was told by the nurse who took my baby from me and shoved a bottle in his mouth. You know the other new mothers I’m talking about - the good mothers who could properly feed their babies and, as such, deserved some sleep. Eventually my milk did come in but it was not soon enough for me to evade the pangs of my first failure as a mother.
The next major failure (and I designate this as a “major failure” because there were several failures of less magnitude between this one and those I experienced in the first few harrowing days of my son’s life) was not properly baby proofing our tri-level home. Said home had three small half-flights of stairs: one from the entry way up to the living room, one up from the mudroom next to the garage to the kitchen, and one up from the living room to the bedrooms. I had put baby gates on two of the stairs but, for some reason, did not put a gate on the stairs down to the mudroom. Tiled stairs that led to a tiled floor. Cold, hard tile.
My son – my sweet, happy, and brilliant child despite having the curse of a bad mommy - was just learning to crawl at the time and testing his newly developed skills in between the kitchen and the living room. Unfortunately, his newly acquired locomotion skills failed him when he rounded the corner into the kitchen and he tumbled down the stairs. Thankfully, the only physical damage he sustained was a bump on his forehead and a scrape on his cheek. The emotional damage was far greater, I was sure. During this critical cognitive developmental period of his life when he was struggling with trust versus doubt, I had failed him. In doing so, I was sure that I profoundly damaged his ability to trust anyone ever again.
Yet another major failure was “dropping my basket” after my daughter was born. In layman’s terms, I had severe post-partum depression. I slept too much, cried the majority of the time, and let the house go to crap. I withdrew socially and mentally. I let me marriage deteriorate to a degree that it was almost impossible to recover. I considered suicide. After all, my children would have been much better off without such a terrible mother.
My most recent major failure as a mother was returning to school. This was a doozy and actually included several interrelated residual failures. Ironically, the decision to return to school is what initiated my recovery from the previous major failure of having succumbed to post-partum depression and not having been able to fight it off with the Super Powers that are supposed to come with motherhood (which must be latent as I have yet to have experienced them and it’s been over a decade). Returning to school was like pushing a magic reset button on my personal identity and my value as an individual, beyond just cooking, cleaning, nursing, and changing diapers, It was an opportunity to revive the pieces of me that had atrophied in the previous years and reconcile them with the pieces I had gained in becoming a mother and, more generally, in growing up.
That is not to say it was an easy decision. I felt (and still do to some degree) that I was putting my needs before those of my children and my husband. And perhaps I was, but what kind of parents can someone who has lost so much of herself be? I was not going to be that sort of role model for my children, both for their benefit and my own. Still, I couldn’t shake that stubborn remnant of doubt that I had made the wrong decision and the fear that I would someday see my mistake unfold in living color on the news when my neglected children committed the next Columbinesque school shooting rampage.
These feelings of having critically failed my children – the two most important people in my life - were not abated by the other mothers in playgroups we attended or on the parenting message boards I frequented. Rather, I was continually berated for not having been more informed about breastfeeding and more aggressively resistant to bottle feeding, for not having more effectively baby proofed the mudroom stairs, for not have taken better preventative measures against PPD, and for putting my desire to return to school before the needs of my children. I was continually provided with examples of how other better mothers had much more effectively dealt with these issues and never EVER took their eyes off their children for one minute, how they NEVER made mistakes, and how they ALWAYS put the needs of their children before their own. God forbid these women ever hide in the bathroom for five minutes of solitude. In the places where I was hoping to find support, camaraderie, understanding, and solace, I found some of the ugliest criticism to which I have ever been subjected.
That is not to say that I have not been on the giving end in the Mommy Wars. I have made my share of backhanded comments about formula feeding being tantamount to poisoning babies. I have subtly rebuked playgroupies and fellow message board surfers for choosing medicated childbirth and allowing their babies to “cry it out.” I have audibly “tsk”ed women in King Soopers for yelling at their children during a shopping expedition. I was a perpetrator of Guerilla Mommy Warfare. But I have since realized that all of the energy I was spending on tactical offensive “I am a better mommy than you” attacks or defending myself against return fire was energy I should have been spending on my children. They had effectively become Mommy War Refugees. These little people who had come into my life and ultimately changed it for the better. That was the biggest failure of all.
I have often wondered why other women are our own worst enemy. Perhaps it’s a case of downward social comparison – if you drag others down and focus on their failings, it minimizes your own. That was the case for me, in retrospect. Maybe it has more to do with caving under the social pressure applied to women to do it all - to be the perfect mother, the successful (yet not bitchy) corporate executive, to perfectly execute those elusive Super Mommy Powers – and the criticism that mothers levy on one another is a form of displacement. But I have given up wondering, just as I have given up the battle, and I no longer regard every one of my mistakes as a failure on my part with the potential of irreparably damaging my children. It is what it is, and the only thing I can do about it is to avoid falling into the same traps from this point on. I try to be more empathetic when I see a woman speak too sharply to her whining children in the grocery store or the woman who is late picking her kids up from school; not because I am better person than those Message Board Nazis but because I have been there. I have been that woman at my wits end because I have had three hours of sleep in the last week because of a colicky baby, and I have been the one driving up to the pick-up line at the school to see my children standing pitifully on the curb with a scowling teacher’s aide who is no doubt eager to get home to here own children. I have felt the tug of war between my children’s needs and my own. What those women need to hear is not how someone else handled it all better but how they are not alone in this struggle to do what’s right for their families and themselves.