The Good Mother Myth (edited by Avital Norman Nathman, with a foreword by Christy Turlington Burns) landed in my inbox in early November, when the eerie tentacles of Halloween were still creeping into my mood. The glut of scary movies on which my husband and I had gorged clung to my psyche, and so you will, I hope, excuse me if they colored my reading of this otherwise not terribly dark collection of essays about motherhood. While these mother-writers are examining the mythology of the perfect mother, what was on my mind during the shortening days of late October was the way in which the horror genre feeds another extreme image of motherhood: that of the evil, crazed mother who, at the very least, creates monsters and, at her very worst, is a monster herself. Consider Jason Voorhees’ origin story involving avenging his mother’s (herself an avenging killer) death, or Carrie’s overprotective, more-than-slightly unhinged God-fearing mother. Our images of motherhood, both too-good and terrifying, have a stranglehold on our popular culture that spills over into the lives and identities of all mothers. That’s a lot of pressure—and a lot of power.
In the five sections of this collection—Mama, Don’t Fail Me Now…, In the Mama Trenches, Inside Mama’s Mind, Mama By Any Other Name, and “No Good” Mama—the writers attempt to address some of the ways in which they struggle with what it means to play this all-powerful role. They take on the seemingly mundane (volunteering, cooking, Facebook) and the profound (religion, cross-cultural and open adoption, and death and loss). One theme emerges through these essays and stories: the ways in which mothers set high expectations for ourselves. And so, as K. J. Dell’Antonia points out in “Lucky American Girl,” we must all inevitably face at least one stage (and sometimes several stages) when we “really, really suck.” Motherhood identity is, after all, forged in our failure to live up to those expectations, our ultimate forgiveness for this perceived failure, and our acceptance of ourselves as the mothers we are rather than the fictional, idealized mothers we, or anyone else, create out of thin imaginings. Aly Windsor expresses this most deftly with a single sentence of her essay “An Existential Crisis Is Born”: “Getting comfortable with the unknown never occurred to me.”
These essays reveal the way in which the “good mother myth” is paradoxically both the product of our culture but also a product of each mother’s own mind. In “My Online Life as a (Not So) Lesbian Mama,” Christina Soletti writes about trying to hide her identity as a lesbian from her online community of mostly Christian mothers who she feared would judge her for being gay. “By withholding information and assuming that I would be judged—I was the one doing the judging.”
It is as if we are museum-goers hypnotized by images of the Madonna and child. And the only way to undo the spell, to break our gaze from this unrealistic prototype, is to reach out to each other, to confront each other with our own realities. “Here I am! A good-enough mother!” these essayists seem to shout. In “Parenting Without a Rope,” Heather Hewett writes about another mother who lost her child in an accident on the thin ice of an unfrozen lake: “I want to reach out to that mother in the coffee shop. I want to say, it was not your fault. We are not in control of the winter, the dog pulling the child, the ice. I want to put my arms around her, to comfort her sorrow, to cry along with her.” That’s what this book is: a comforting set of arms.
And so, while reading The Good Mother Myth, I shook off the mid-Fall fears of mothering failure and monster-making and nodded my head. Yup. Here we are. A lot of spilled milk. Even a little weed smoked (as Pauline Abraham confesses in “Joint Parenting”). But no monsters here. Just good-enough moms with their good-enough kids.