So let’s get something straight once and for all.
Good mothering has nothing to do with how many kids you have, if any. It has nothing to do with whether you work an outside job or not. And it has nothing to do with what kind of food you serve or what kind of temperament you were born with. Good mothering is not about being perfect, and it’s not about winning some illusionary contest.
Good mothering is about making good choices and about being your personal best. We don’t compare ourselves with others, only with our own selves and with what we know we’re capable of. The wonderful news is that all of us have so much more potential than we’re even aware of. The flood gates kind of open once we start moving in the “personal best” direction; it’s an interesting phenomenon. But as long as we perseverate on the negative and continue complaining about what we don’t have and don’t like, then we’ll most likely not ever see better days.
I’m definitely not the best mom that’s ever lived. I have made my fair share of mistakes, and I expect to make more along the way. A lot of the “good mothering” stuff I’ve had to learn on my own. I had a fine mom to learn from, but I still had to go through everything for myself, which is really a helpful way to learn something for real, when you think about it. If my mom (or anyone, for that matter) took over for me and did all the dirty work so that I didn’t have to or shielded me from the unpleasantries of life as an honest-to-goodness, down-to-earth mother, then I probably would not have acquired as much confidence and competence as I now have, as a result of having had to make my own way through it all.
Also, as with everyone’s case, I’ve had to recognize all the good things my parents did that I would like to continue with my children, as well as recognize all the less-than-good things that I would like to do differently. The process will be the same with my children as they someday consider how I have raised them and decide what, in their own parenting style, they would like to continue as well as what they would like to change.
The point is that it’s about being a certain way (mainly, reflective and teachable, both rooted in love, gentleness, patience, and humility), not merely doing certain things a certain way (though our actions do serve as the necessary evidence that we are, in fact, being a certain way, whatever that way may be).
While being perfect is impossible and irrelevant (anyway), we can make a distinction between poor mothering and good mothering. We are not passing judgment on the person; rather, we are evaluating the choices and actions of the person to determine if the kind of mothering done can be considered effective and, thus, good.
So this section simply serves as a reminder that imperfection is actually a part of good mothering for the majority of your life with kids—or else your kids probably aren’t getting the majority of what they need from you, primarily time, attention, and loving-kindness.
I mean, sure, go ahead and try to keep your house spick and span and in perfect order at all times (that is, if you’re the one responsible for keeping the house clean). Points deducted if you don’t even live in a house. (I’m currently residing in a two-bedroom apartment with two sons and a husband.) Your children will be right there to mess it all up, so you might as well get used to having some chores undone at any given time.
And, yeah, give it your best shot to do your hair, make-up, and clothes all nice like you used to when you were single and physically a catch. The hard (and, for some of us, depressing) truth is that we’re going to have to rely on other means to make us beautiful these days, qualities that can only be cultivated on the inside, for example. This might not be the case forever, but it is the case at least for now, when time exists in the negative and stains, messes, and dirtiness are all beloved constants.
You don’t have to purposely look like a train wreck, just understand that your “best” these days might simply equal putting your hair in a pony tail and brushing your teeth (if you’re lucky and have two hands available (which is an unpredictable occurrence), you might even get to brush with toothpaste—although it is possible to get the paste on with one hand if you’re able to balance the brush just right and then get the paste to stay on the brush). Bonus points if you can manage to put on deodorant (I can’t tell you how many days I’ve said to myself, “I just put it on the other day, so I should be good”).
Better yet, just try your very best to get your kids to do exactly what you want them to do at all times. That’s the true mark of perfection in motherhood, one’s ability to control every little thing about your children. Well, let me let you in on the biggest secret around: Kids will be kids! No matter how hard you try to keep them from it. So you might as well put on some comfortable clothes, even if they don’t match, and take a big breath. Go with the flow, and do only what you can. Remember that your children are the most wonderful gift a woman can have (even when they—and you—are out of control), and do your best to treat them—and yourself—as human beings (even when no one is acting humanely).
Here’s the short list of good mothering: Always take advantage of every opportunity to do the things you’re going to wish you did more of.
Hold, hug, kiss, comfort, talk things out, apologize, listen, explain, pray, have fun, sit together, play together, reminisce, take pictures on birthdays and holidays, read books together, spend time together, talk about the day, address misbehavior and disrespect, praise the good, encourage the desirable, acknowledge accomplishments and solid efforts, just “be there” in silence or support, and build up instead of tear down. Above all else, cherish the everyday moments.
Good mothering is wrapped up in doing the things and being the way that, later, you’ll be glad you did and were. Whatever those things and ways may be for you.
This writing is also included in Loved: Writings on Motherhood and Caregiving, a collection of reflective and expository writings by Tiffany Tyndall.