Oh, the Bad Mother Police have been out in force again.
The perp this time? New York City first lady Chirlane McCray.
“I WAS A BAD MOM!” screamed the headline in the New York Post the other day, labeling comments she made in a New York magazine profile a “heart-wrenching confession.”
The Daily News piled on: “Didn’t want to be a mom.” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio even took the unusual step of calling for a public apology.
So, like any good police procedural, let’s look at the facts:
McCray became a mother for the first time at 40 when her daughter, Chiara, was born, and she felt torn and ambivalent.
She told New York magazine:
“I could not spend every day with her. I didn’t want to do that. I looked for all kinds of reasons not to do it. I love her. I have thousands of photos of her — every 1-month birthday, 2-month birthday. But I’ve been working since I was 14, and that part of me is me. It took a long time for me to get into ‘I’m taking care of kids,’ and what that means.”
By the time McCray and de Blasio’s son, Dante, was born, McCray, as happens in most marriages, became the default parent. She stopped working full-time for several years. And even when she returned to a full schedule, she was the one to do all the kid stuff, the pick-ups, drop-offs, summer camp planning, after-school activities. “The kids came first,” she told the magazine.
Then, when her mother and de Blasio’s mother became ill and moved down the block, McCray was the one who took charge of their care, drove them to medical appointments and to the emergency room.
If that makes McCray a bad mother, even by 1950s June Cleaver standards, then, good God, what does that make the rest of us?
Close to 80 percent of the mothers of school-age children work for pay outside the home, many of them full-time. Close to 40 percent of all mothers are either the sole or primary breadwinners in their families. And, unlike mothers in other countries, American mothers are so soaked in guilt that they spend virtually every scrap of what would have been their personal leisure time with their children instead. In fact, time-use research shows that working mothers today spend more time with their kids than did the coffee klatching at-home moms of the 1960s and ’70s.
But apparently that’s still not enough for what writer Ayelet Waldman calls the Bad Mother Police — an always watchful, harshly judgmental force that is “in a perpetual state of alert-level orange.”
Just what is it the Bad Mother police are on the lookout for?
“We are supposed not only to sacrifice ourselves for our children but to do so willingly, cheerfully, and without ever feeling any seething resentment,” Waldman writes in her book of essays, Bad Mother. “And when we fail, as we must, we feel guilty and ashamed.”
Above all, ambivalence is not allowed.
Yet ambivalence is what most mothers know so well. At once, you are seized by sheer joy and knocked off balance. You cease being who you once were in a way that most fathers don’t. The circumference of your life narrows, the horizon shifts, in a way that most fathers’ lives don’t. Or at least not nearly as much. So, yes, there is exhilaration and wonder. There is also exhaustion, a touch of terror, whirring resentment and mournful bewilderment.
And watching all the while are the Bad Mother Police, with their raised eyebrows, their pursed lips, their tsking and the whispering behind your back about how you, in your guilty ambivalence, can never measure up.
Jean-Anne Sutherland, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, felt the sting of the Bad Mother Police when she had her first child as a graduate student. “I felt so guilty all the time,” she told me. “Guilty if I stayed at home. Guilty if I went to work. And I saw all these moms around me feeling the same way.”
She wanted to understand why. So she put together focus groups of mothers of various races, ethnicities and income levels and asked them to describe the Good Mother. The mothers, despite their different backgrounds, described her the same way — like Madonna. Not the singer. The saint.
To be a Good Mother is “to be everything for your child,” said one.
To make sure your children are happy.
To be patient. Nice. Kind. Structured. All-giving. All-caring. Child-centered. Devoting all her time to her kids. Someone, another mother said, who “endlessly plays board games, and, you know, does crafts and takes outings.”
“Which is to say,” one mother said, chagrined, “someone completely other than I am.”
Somehow, Sutherland said, we all got the same memo: To be a Good Mother is to sacrifice everything and expect nothing. And in this flawed mortal world, that’s something no one but a saint can do.
Particularly if that mortal is also trying to work, as McCray did. Particularly if that mortal is consumed by guilt and wonders how much she should blame herself for her daughter Chiara’s struggle with depression and drug and alcohol addiction. (Chiara sought treatment and is in recovery.)
“The expectations for the Good Mother today are so outrageous, no one can pull it off,” Sutherland said. It’s like we’re always on display. It makes me question — exactly who we’re performing it for?
That would be the Bad Mother Police.
Notice none of the New York tabloids had much to say about de Blasio. But then again, he was not confronted by the same “choices” McCray was when they started their family. He continued apace with his career and his political ascent. He left all the caregiving duties, the family logistics and the household details to McCray. That, apparently, doesn’t make him a Bad Dad. That’s just what we expect.
And until we begin to expect dads to also be confronted by “choices” when children are born, until we recognize that raising children, as the writer Jennifer Senior says, is All Joy and No Fun, that it’s wonderful, it’s hard, it’s crazy-making, it’s rewarding, it’s heartbreaking, and yet even in your worst moments, you would choose to do it again, until we accept that raising kids is complicated, and force change in our workplaces and laws that right now only make it more so, the Bad Mother Police, with their exacting and impossible standards, their disapproving looks, will be watching, in a perpetual state of alert-level orange.