Have you ever called yourself a bad mum, either out loud or in your mind?
I certainly have and I know many other mums have too.
I’ve been thinking about this label that we use. Why is it so prevalent? What does it even mean? And what is the impact of using it?
I’m going to share my thoughts here, and invite you to reflect on some questions that may be helpful in exploring this for yourself.
Defining a bad mum
As I said, I’ve called myself a bad mum in the past. I can remember it happening in two different types of situations. Firstly, when I’ve been feeling really guilty or regretful about something that didn’t go well, and secondly, in a self-deprecating way.
Interestingly though, I don’t actually think I’m a bad mum but yet the label came to me so easily (more on this later).
What is a bad mum?
Let’s look at the types of situations in which we tend to give ourselves this label.
Here are some real-life examples sourced from many conversations with mothers. They have called themselves a bad mum after:
- Yelling at their children.
- Arriving late to school again.
- Forgetting to pack food, drinks, extra clothing, nappies or school books.
- Crying in front of their children.
- Not throwing their child a big birthday party.
- Not buying the “right” type of toys for their children.
- Buying too many toys for their children.
- Their child getting hurt accidentally or their child hurting someone else.
- Having trouble breastfeeding.
- Being unable to settle a crying baby.
- Their child isn’t well behaved in public.
- Not being about to create a regular sleep routine.
- Feeding the kids another frozen meal for dinner.
- Wanting to and then returning to work.
- Not feeling like running around at the park with the kids.
- Allowing too much screen time.
- Being distracted by their phone a lot.
- Not enrolling their kids in lots of activities.
- Not being involved enough in the school.
- Booking a babysitter to go out and enjoy lunch with their friends.
- Not having time to tidy the house.
- Feeling bored playing with their children.
- Not doing enough craft with their children.
- Realising they don’t love motherhood all the time.
It’s quite a list, isn’t it? It’s definitely not exhaustive. I’m sure you can think of others.
None of these things make a bad mum from my perspective. Even if you were to tick numerous items on this list, I still wouldn’t consider you a bad mum. This list includes mistakes (which everyone makes and are part of the learning process), legitimate choices in parenting approaches and lifestyle, and also normal challenges of motherhood and matrescence.
We also need to remember that we have different approaches to parenting. So, what one person might consider a poor choice or behaviour, may be considered completely acceptable and even positive by another.
What strikes me, is that these examples do not fit into the perfect mother ideal. You can read more about that here, but in a nutshell, the socially constructed perfect mother ideal is the mother who does it all and gives all of herself, with a smile. Mothering comes naturally to her and she has perfectly behaved children who are a reflection of her perfect parenting.
Why do we call ourselves bad mums?
The perfect mother is the standard by which mothers measure themselves. We’re not even necessarily aware that we’re doing it, because it’s so deeply internalised starting in childhood and so much of the external messaging we receive reinforces it. But this perfect mother is not real or attainable and calling ourselves a bad mum every time we don’t measure up to one part of her unachievable standards is hurting us. By this disempowering definition, we are ALL bad mums at some point in time. And that’s simply not true or helpful.
So, what do we get out of calling ourselves bad mums?
Does it feel like the just punishment or reprimand for what we’ve done wrong? Do we feel like we need to shame ourselves or make ourselves feel guilty? (Many of us would have received this response to our mistakes as children.)
Do we believe that criticising ourselves will motivate us to do better? (Research actually shows that self-compassion is a far greater motivator than criticism.)
Do we feel like pointing out our own apparent failures will help us avoid the pain of someone else pointing them out first?
And in the case of self-deprecating references to being a bad mum, do we feel that this might help others connect with and accept us? Do we ever joke about being a bad mum when we don’t really believe this is true, because it might make us more relatable, likable, or less threatening?
I feel like I can relate to all of these in some way. What about you?
The impact of calling ourselves bad mums
The words we use to describe ourselves matter. What we believe about ourselves matters.
The more we say “I’m a bad mum”, the more it feels true. Our brains start to look for evidence to support this label and because they simultaneously discount or ignore evidence to the contrary, we see plenty of this supporting evidence. We literally stop paying attention to the positive things we do and we experience even more guilt and shame.
We no longer have a balanced view of our mothering. We worry more about the longer-term impact of our poor decisions and actions on our children. Are bad mums the ones that screw up their children? I think that’s a deep fear of many mothers. We wish we could make their lives perfect but the human experience is imperfect and we are imperfect. Maybe we feel like we need to make it up to them, which may lead to us making decisions we normally wouldn’t.
The words also matter in front of our children. Just as we did, they learn about what a good mum is from what they see and hear in their own home and they carry this into adulthood. They are also learning about how to respond to their own mistakes and imperfections. Are we modeling self-criticism or self-compassion?
If we feel like we are falling short, we tend to push harder. “I’ll try to be better.” “I’ll try harder or do more”. This is often not what is really needed.
The more we use the label “bad mum”, the more we question ourselves. And the more we question ourselves, the less we are questioning the outdated and unrealistic standards and ideals of motherhood in modern society. As Sociologist, De. Sophie Brock explains, the bad mother exists so we have something to compare the good mother to. Its existence perpetuates the unrealistic perfect mother ideals.
The problem isn’t us or our mistakes and imperfections. The problem is the standards that we feel we have to meet.
Taking a different perspective
We are trained from early on in life to look outside of us to measure our success or worth. Experts know better. Rank yourself against others. But the real measure of our success should be our internal standards.
What if we weren’t so concerned about what society calls a good mum or bad mum?
What if each of us decided for ourselves what sort of mum we wanted to be, based on our own inner wisdom and desires, and only measured ourselves against that?
This doesn’t mean that we can’t take on the advice of experts. There is a lot of really helpful advice out there. But that advice needs to be run through our own internal checks:
- Does it align with my values and goals?
- Does it feel right for my family and I?
What if we saw the things that have triggered the bad mum label as opportunities to learn, grow and align better with what’s most important to us?
What if we accepted ourselves as imperfect (and yet still amazing) human beings, with good intentions and endless love for our children, who are navigating our own transformation and identity shift?
What if we saw the inherent complexities and challenges in parenting and accepted that no one is getting it all right and that we don’t have to be perfect to be good mums?
What if we approached ourselves with compassion, love and forgiveness when we fell short of our own expectations and soothed ourselves through the discomfort of when we fall short of the expectations of others (knowing that we don’t have to meet the expectations of others, if they are not right for us)?
What if you weren’t a bad mum at all?