Lowering the Bar

Article excerpt

Byline: Julia Baird

When bad mothers give us hope.

When reporters told Doris Lessing she had won a Nobel Prize in Literature as she was hauling groceries out of a cab in 2007, she said: "I've won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one, so I am delighted. It's a royal flush." Few would dispute that she is a brilliant writer. Her work is lucid, inspiring, and provocative. But it would be hard to argue that she was a brilliant mother. When she fled to London to pursue her writing career and communist ideals, she left two toddlers with their father in South Africa (another, from her second marriage, went with her). She later said that at the time she thought she had no choice: "For a long time I felt I had done a very brave thing. There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children. I felt I wasn't the best person to bring them up. I would have ended up an alcoholic or a frustrated intellectual like my mother."

I like remembering women like Lessing on Mother's Day. They shock us now, those women who bucked convention and did things the way men have often done--just as selfishly and callously--denying maternity in a way that seems to defy nature. Take Dorothea Lange, the photographer who paid foster families to look after five of her children (and stepchildren) for months at a stretch while she traveled around California photographing migrant workers. Were these women bad mothers? Or talented, single-minded women who struggled to find ways to both create and give their children what they needed? They certainly make the rest of us seem outstanding--and put our ongoing, deafening, and dull debates about bad mothers in sharp relief. Today, women no longer need to escape their families to work or be happy--now they need to escape their own unrealistic expectations of what a good mother is. Guilt, judgment, and a distrust of female ambition are a hallmark of modern parenting, along with the literature about female fretting, which, over the past few years, has turned into a symphony of self-loathing. We spend more time with our children than women did in the 1950s, yet we consistently report higher levels of stress. Perplexingly, study after study has found that mothers are less happy than women without kids. And books about bad or uptight mothers are more anxious and defensive than defiant and liberating. …