Sunday, June 22, 2008

Bad Mother

I've been thinking a lot about the publicity of motherhood, partially because of my own pregnancies (Can I touch your belly? Can I feel the baby kick? Wow, you're huge! Are you sure you're not having twins?)and partially because of my dissertation. For the past 3 years (3 years? Oh my god. Seriously am I ever going to let this thing go?), I have been pouring over box after dusty box of Planned Parenthood archives, reading the memos, letters, pamphlets, telegrams, policy papers, etc. with an eye for the way hierarchies of worthy mothers were created and maintained and for the ways in which ideologies of motherhood were deployed and employed to uphold the surprisingly conservative aims of the organization (and that's my official methodology-- don't you love the humanities?). I have been obsessed with the "Good Mother," fleshing out her forms, tracing her influences, noting the ways in which she changed over the decades-- you get the idea. But I never really thought too much about the "Bad Mother," except to consider her as the not "Good."

That is until Thursday, when I was forced to confront the "Bad Mother" because she was me.

Harry was with the wonderful Jamie, and I took Jack with me to run some errands and go to a meeting on campus. We went to Target because Harry needed undershirts (all of his are stained with berries because Ben and I are bad at remembering to fight stains as we wash clothes), and I had 500 pictures on my camera card that I needed to print-- well, I didn't print all of them; just 174.

I usually wear Jack in the Bjorn. Everywhere. But when I parked the car, I noticed that he was sound asleep and that my space was right next to the cart corral. Instead of loading him into the front pack, I placed his cute little infant carrier in the basket of a cart. He woke up while I was still in line at Starbucks, but he was cooing happily and waving his scrawny little arms, so I headed to the Kodak kiosk, camera in hand.

About 50 or so pictures into the selection process, Jack started to cry. I held his hand and stroked his foot and patted his tummy, all in a very distracted kind of way as I hurriedly poked pictures on the touch screen and scrolled through page after page of photos, figuring I could pick my pictures quickly and he would settle down when the cart started moving again.

I'll admit, Jack cries a lot, and because of that, it is easy for Ben and me to go about our business with out paying much attention to the noise. And the noise gets really loud and screechy really fast.

I remember being a little concerned that his screams would bother my fellow shoppers, but I was mainly focused on scrolling through my camera card as fast as I could.

I was only half listening, in fact, to anything when a woman walked by me and muttered, "That baby needs some attention, lady."

She got almost to the doors past customer service before I snapped out of my daze and barked, "Are you serious?"

She wheeled around and stalked back toward me. "Yes! That baby needs attention now!"

"He's a fussy baby," I sputtered, shocked at her audacity and at the shrill warble coming out of Jack's wide open mouth.

"That don't matter," she told me, insisting, "I'm a pediatric nurse," in a tone that-- in retrospect-- makes me think she probably is not. "The first thing you need to do is pick up that baby."

"He's fine," I said with conviction I no longer felt. He didn't look fine. He looked small and desperately sad, with a red, blotchy face, tears in his glassy eyes, his tiny fists clenched and shaking. Ad how must I look, responding to this little scrap of humanity by not responding? By turning my back?

Never mind that I was printing pictures to be lovingly pressed into his baby book and how many second babies have a baby book as complete as the one kept for the firstborn? Never mind that Jack is in my arms or strapped to my chest almost every moment of the day. Never mind that he sleeps in my bed so that I can respond to his first stir or whimper, that despite these best efforts, he often spends some time each night wailing, secure in the arms of people who love him, that he was fed, dry, clothed and safe. This person saw a snapshot of me and my baby and decided I was a bad mother.

"I'm going to report you," she threatened.

As bad as I felt, this statement registered as ludicrous. What would she say? There's a crying baby at Target whose mother won't pick him up? Because I seriously don't think the state has enough money to investigate those complaints. And if they do, they need to allocate those resources to the Wisconsin Dells because, dude, their lake got washed away in the flood last week.

"Oh, yes," I told her, my eyes wide. "I definitely think you should."

She left, then, and I did pick Jack up, my hands shaking so hard I called Ben to come help me finish my shopping because I couldn't breathe very well and of course Jack stopped crying and when he smashed his little cheek up against mine, I could feel his tears.

Since then, I have thought of a million snappy retorts and have been told by everyone to forget about, to shake it off. For some reason, though, I can't.

I didn't even go back to pick up my pictures.


  1. Anonymous9:51 PM

    Good mother, don't you know babies have to cry to stretch their little lungs? Maybe not, but you do an amazing job caring for the boys....Bomma

  2. What a horrible, judgemental bitch!! I am so so so sorry! You are not a bad mother! I'm almost shaking just reading this. I'm glad Ben could meet you. I'm just so sorry.

  3. Oh. My. God.

    I cannot believe someone would say something as absurd as that. I am so sorry you had to deal with that kind of "I'm so much better than you" crap from another woman (one who perhaps doesn't even have kids, because you know, we're all good mothers when we don't have any kids of our own).

    That's hideous. ((((((((((hugs))))))))

  4. Anonymous9:57 AM

    Who SAYS something like that?!? You most certainly are not a bad mother!

  5. Umm, yeah - letting your baby cry doesn't make you a bad mother. How did she know what he needed? If he was hungry and is only breastfed, there wouldn't be much you could do. You seem to be a great mom - so don't stress about what one crazy lady thinks!

  6. Anonymous1:20 PM

    I kind of think you nailed it with this observation. This stranger saw a snapshot of your life and made this whole judgment about your character. What she might have failed to understand is that a truly bad mother would have abandoned the baby and kicked her sorry ass. I admire your restraint. Seriously...

  7. Anonymous8:59 PM

    I think there is really something here. Maybe it has something to do with the amorphous definition of good and bad mother.
    As a second wave feminist, I have often rejoiced that the shame that used to infuse so much of female sexuality in the pre-pill days is largely as antique as the girdle! But I think that shame is still there. It is just applied to other aspects of the female experience now...
    Anyway, I wish you had done the pigeon neck and told her to kiss your ---

  8. Anonymous8:44 AM

    Sarah you are a good mother. Trust me. In my line of work I see the caliber of mothers who warant a verbal attack in grocery stores and believe me, they would benefit from society coming down a bit harder on them. You are brilliant, fun, creative, talented, loving, fair and honest. You do not need to prove your love of your children or your great parenting skills to anyone. Don't harshly judge yourself. Also don't believe that this woman is a reflection of how you are viewed as a parent by society. Trust me she isn't.