The Good Mother

I recently watched the movie, The Lost Daughter on Netflix. It explores some of the unvarnished truths of motherhood. The director, Maggie Gyllenhaal, has talked about the two models of motherhood we espouse as a culture—the bad mother who is neglectful and unfit or the good mother who tries to live up to all the mommy blog advice. She believes that most mothers are a combination of these stereotypes. Some viewers may have felt disturbed, shocked, or judgmental during the course of this movie, but I felt liberated. It was such a relief to realize that I wasn’t alone in my imperfection, that many mothers are riddled with guilt.  

I first became a mother in 1975 and then again in 1976. I had married young and waited 6 years to have children. For those first 6 years, my husband and I led equal lives. We both had good jobs, shared the household duties, took some great vacations, and shared in all decision-making. Once we had children my life changed a lot; his changed very little. I don’t blame him for that. Back in the 70s that is just the way it was. I stayed home and looked after the babies while he was advancing in his career and traveling more often.

So there I was, an intelligent, independent woman suddenly responsible for two little human lives. I had post-partum depression (which hadn’t yet been identified as a thing) and sleep deprivation. I remember getting in the car one day to do some shopping while my husband watched the children for a brief time between feedings. As I was driving, a feeling of freedom washed over me. I thought, “What would happen if I just kept driving?” Of course, I didn’t do that. I loved my children and would never have deserted them. I just felt overwhelmed—and guilty. Surely I was a bad mother for even entertaining these thoughts.

Before my husband and I had children we were increasingly pressured by our parents and friends to start a family. When we finally complied (why would we ever be so selfish as to remain childless?) it seemed that I was constantly dodging judgmental landmines. I decided to go back to work when my children were two and four. We hired a full-time nanny as I wanted my little ones to grow up in the comfort of their home, not in daycare. For this, I became the pariah of the neighborhood. It was unconscionable that I should go back to work and leave my young children in the care of a nanny! Such a bad mother!

I felt the sting of societal judgment many times over the years. My children are adults now with children of their own. Society has accepted the working mother and times have changed—but not enough. Mothers are still judged and shamed for being imperfect. Maybe we need more movies like The Lost Daughter to make some space for mothers to be human beings.