Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Good Mother Myth ed. by Avital Norman Nathman

goodmothermythThe Good Mother. You know her, don’t you? She’s got one or two or three perfect children who, without fail, eat three balanced, healthy meals every day. There are no dirty faces, there are never anything less than perfect manners, and when they aren’t excelling at school, they are completing any one of a thousand imaginative-yet-mess-free craft projects. The Good Mother devotes exactly the optimum amount of time to each child, not to mention her husband, with whom she enjoys a perfect and fulfilling relationship – not to mention a highly active sex life. Oh, and a career. She has that too. The Good Mother is beautifully turned out at all times too, exuding a casual elegance even on the school run. You’ve definitely seen The Good Mother. She’s all over mummy blogs, Pinterest, and Facebook, posting pictures of her perfect family.

Well, in news that will shock precisely no one who has ever had a child, The Good Mother is a big, fat myth, and finally there’s a whole book all about just how much of a myth she is.

There is nothing like other people’s ideas of what motherhood should look like to make a mum feel like the biggest failure on earth. It’s all meant to be explosive rushes of love, and while you get less sleep than you used to, that’s totally fine because You Are A Mother And That Is What You Do. Which is true, of course, but sometimes it really, really sucks, and mothers should be able to admit that without a chorus of gasps and disapproving stares. I have a two year old who has, at best, a casual relationship with sleep. I miss sleep. I adore my daughter with every fibre of my being but ohmygodiwanttosleepforawholenightplease.

Praise be, then, for The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality, a collection of essays edited by Avital Norman Nathan, which perfectly displays the many types of motherhood that actually exist. From the opening sentence of the opening essay (“The first time I dropped my daughter Sonya on her head from a great height, she was about eight months old”) to the final poem that deals with the disapproval the mother faces from people when she leaves the kids with their dad and goes out for a few drinks, the book is an exercise in pure catharsis. For there is no one form of what a mother is, and in 270 pages this books covers as many different experiences of motherhood and the expectations it comes up against as it can: single motherhood, what society thinks of Black motherhood, adoptive motherhood, teen motherhood, transgender parenting, lesbian parenting, not to mention what happens when a child is born extremely and unexpectedly prematurely or with a severe illness and the parents find themselves at home, without their child, who is in a hospital incubator, hooked up to a forest of machines.

What happens when you just say no to being on all those voluntary school boards, or brazenly buy cakes for the bake sale instead of whipping them up from scratch? What if you decide not to breastfeed? What if you breastfeed in public?  How about if you put your child in daycare so you can go back to work, or decide to be a stay-at-home parent? Depending on who you talk to, you’re wrong. Always, always wrong. Except you’re not, of course, and if you ever need reassuring, then this book is essential reading.

Some of my favourite essays were the ones that reflected on the mothers’ own journeys to motherhood. Particularly moving for me was one in which a woman who had suffered from mental health problems had to weigh up, with her husband and her doctor, what the risks were of becoming pregnant while taking various medications (spoiler alert: she did, and her son is healthy and happy). Another was the reflections of a woman who had suffered horrible mental and physical abuse from her own mother growing up, and how she confronted the fact that history does not have to repeat itself. Another deeply moving essay came from a mother whose children lived with their father instead of her, covering how she dealt with being “the invisible mother”.

Reading this book, I cried, and I laughed, and then cried again, and laughed again, and frantically underlined bits to go back to. But mostly I thought: “Thank God.” Because we all make mistakes sometimes. Even if we don’t, there is always something about motherhood to feel guilty about, whether that be the fact that we didn’t bath her yesterday, or on Friday she would only eat bread. It does not make us bad parents. The Good Mother is a Myth.

I wish every pregnant person in the land could be given this book, and told: “Don’t worry. You’ll be OK.” Who do I talk to about it being prescribed on the NHS?

The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality, ed. by Avital Norman Nathan (Berkeley, CA: Seal Press, 2014). ISBN 9781580055024, RRP £9.75

5 comments on “The Good Mother Myth ed. by Avital Norman Nathman

  1. Kate Lace
    March 6, 2014

    I wish I’d had that book. I found motherhood insanely boring and couldn’t wait for the little dears to bugger off to school so I could have my life back. I didn’t have the patience to cope with all those ‘mummy, why does…?’ questions and as for trying to pretend their dreadful daubs showed real artistry… But the crushing guilt of not thinking my kids were gifted and talented – because they frankly weren’t – was awful. My kids were nice, bright, polite kids but NOT gifted and I wasn’t going to lie to them or other mothers by saying they were. And amazingly, they all grew up healthy and normal and balanced.

  2. Kate
    March 6, 2014

    This book sounds amazing. Does it cover the post-early years? Being a mother of teenagers? Or a mother of adults? Because parenting never stops, and I’m beginning to wonder where the self-help books are that acknowledge the struggle of older mothers with older children.

  3. Kirsty D
    March 6, 2014

    That’s a good point Kate. It definitely goes past babyhood, and there is a lot of discussion of what it means to be a mother generally, but not so much specifically on teen and adult parenting.

  4. Christine A
    March 6, 2014

    Great review, anything that helps us be “good enough” mothers. Kate a really good book on parenting adult children is Don’t bite your tongue by Dr Ruth Nemzoff

  5. Pingback: Is A Mothers Love Stronger Than Dads? - Parenting And Mental Health

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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