So Marissa Mayer announces her micro maternity leave of two weeks. The world explodes:
“What kind of a mother is she? Does she even know what it takes to raise a child, leave alone twins! What kind of message is she sending out to other mothers?”
Indrani Mukerjea (allegedly) murders her daughter Sheena:
“What kind of mother would kill her own child?”
Bad mothers are always in vogue. And it doesn’t always take murder.
I have heard this far too many times. A woman does something that puts her interest before that of her children. She is instantly labeled a bad mother and several discussions ensue on good mothers and bad mothers and the effect they have on their kids.
No one ever talks about bad fathers.
Women are constantly blamed for not being ‘good’ enough.They are either ‘too emotionally involved’ with their children, or ‘not present enough’. Meanwhile, the men in their lives quietly slink under the radar. Mamma’s boys get bad names, while daddy’s girls are cool.
Post Indrani’s arrest, I saw this query on a popular social media forum: Do cunning and selfish women make good mothers? Are mothers selfish when it comes to providing for their own children? Are there any scientific theories that talk if a woman would make a good mother or not? Can you site some instances from real life where a mother’s conduct was distasteful? Are there cases where a mother harms her child because she’s jealous of her child?
I was first amused and then angry. Just like I was when I read articles talking about what kind of mother would raise a rapist. Just like I was when I defended Marissa Mayer here.
Motherhood is constantly beset by feelings of failure, often corroding you in the process. If you have a career, you are neglectful; if you don’t, you are smothering. If you discipline, you are controlling; if you don’t, you are weird. If you are present, you are too involved, if you are not, you don’t care enough. It’s like you can never win. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
Ayelet Waldman in her book Bad Mother explores this guilt and ambiguity and says she wrote the book because so many women she knows are in real pain. “They are so crippled by their guilt, by their unreasonable expectations, that they can’t even allow themselves to celebrate the true joys of being a mom.”
Mothers are expected to be all things to all people. A good mother is expected to sacrifice of herself and her happiness for her child. She should be there when her child wakes in the night; she should be there in the morning when they wake up, she should be there for tucking them in with stories at bed time. She should always put her child’s needs before her own. If she does have needs, they should be invisible.
The only requirement of a father is showing up. Being in the same room. All it takes to be a good father is to do photo-opp things. Like wearing your baby or pulling a stroller .
Mothers are often asked, “Do you think you are good mother?” If not by others, by themselves, by the self-doubt that is an intrinsic part of motherhood.
I wonder if one ever asks this question of fathers.
Why is ‘good’ part of a mother’s default setting? Perhaps nurturing and caring is a byproduct of giving birth, but the whole ambivalence of parenting stems from the fact that mothers are always expected to be good, and almost nothing is expected of fathers. It speaks a lot about us if we always blame mothers for things like say, ‘bad upbringing’ or any kind of deviant behavior in the child. Before they are mothers, they are also human beings, and are all human beings good? No.
Motherhood is a state of continuous conflict, negotiation and renegotiations for a woman. Fatherhood, on the other hand is just a side effect of being men. Parenting is a state of ambivalence for both parents. The difference is: women are spoken of as being mothers before they are women. And men are always men who are ‘also’ fathers. In this complex playout of emotions that ensues, if the onus is always on the mother to be good, while the father is deemed good unless proven bad, is just unfair.
We really need to up the ante for our men. They can’t just play Kinect with their children or watch television together and check the “daddy time” box. Many men (mine included) refer to time spent with their own children as “babysitting’. I have burst enough capillaries screaming out loud that you DO NOT babysit your own children.
I wonder if anyone asked if Steve Jobs was a good father. Or Bill Gates. Or Narayan Murthy. Or Peter Mukerjea for that matter.
(A version of this post appeared as my Pune Mirror column on 14th September 2015)