The Bad Mother

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I admit it, I read Us Weekly–but I didn’t subscribe to it, it just showed up in the mail one day. Honest! Anyway, the issue I got today was the third issue in a row with Kate Gosselin on the cover–in a bikini, no less. (She looked pretty good, too. Whoever did her tummy tuck did a great job.) Now I don’t personally know the woman. I’ve been aware of the criticisms of her for some time, but most of them have been about how she treats her husband. But this latest issue is focusing on what kind of mother she is. And, on behalf of all bad mothers everywhere, it pissed me off.

People love to make themselves feel righteous at the expense of others.

The headline is, “Mommy, you’re mean!” This was in response to Kate telling one of  her daughters when sitting at the edge of the pool, “If you splash me, you’re dead meat.” Oh, please! Has no mother said something like that at one time or another? The fellow vacationer who reported this added, “She was not joking.” She probably wasn’t–she really did not want to be splashed. And as for her daughter calling her mean, that’s hardly unusual either. My five-year-old daughter once looked at me solemnly and said, “I hate you.” What had I done? I had yelled at her because she had taken all the things off her shelves and dumped them on the floor. Turns out she did that so that she could clean the shelves. My bad. How was I supposed to know?

I’ve got news for the folks who don’t already know this, but mothers are not perfect. They get angry, they don’t pay attention, they want to escape–but not all the time. Yet if someone happened to witness this “bad” behavior it would be easy to assume that the mother involved is a bad one. The main criticism I have of Kate Gosselin is that she set herself up for this. Didn’t she know that people would descend on her like vultures at the slightest hint of imperfection?

All mothers have dirty little secrets: times when they lost it, when they wanted to run away, when they wished they had never had kids. (And if you haven’t yet, wait. You will.) They don’t talk about it because they know they’ll be judged harshly. The only emotions or qualities a mother is supposed to have sounds like a litany from I Corinthians 13: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” I wish Paul had inserted the word “perfect” in there, because only perfect people can love this way all the time.

Mothers try to live up to the expectations of others, but they won’t always. It’s not possible. When people criticize mothers–especially when other mothers do it–I feel like saying that bit about stones and glass houses. Or quoting Jesus: “Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone.” That ought to stop the critics in their tracks. But of course it doesn’t. Because people love to make themselves feel righteous at the expense of others. If I can say that Kate is a bad mother, I must be a good one by comparison.

I’m not saying that there aren’t truly bad mothers in the world. There are plenty of them, unfortunately. But their sins are those of abuse, neglect, and abandonment. And even a bad mother is a good mother some of the time, which is one reason why children tend to want to stay with them, even when their mothers have horribly mistreated them. The child may be damaged by his mother’s actions (or inactions) but he holds on to what he knows. Because no one can replace mommy.

That’s what’s so hard about being mommy: no one else is good enough. You are irreplaceable. Sometimes that fact makes you feel good, other times it feels like a albatross around your neck. The trust that your child has in you makes it hard to accept your failings. But your child makes mistakes, too, and what better example of redemption than to see that his mother is not perfect either. Reassure your child that you love her,  explain what you did wrong and ask for her forgiveness. And I guarantee she’ll give it, maybe not right away, but she wants to be close to you again even more than you want to be close to her.

Love covers a multitude of sins, they say, and that’s the way it works with children. As long as they know you love them, they’ll forgive anything.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

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