Bad Mothering

I'm anxious to get on the porch and do some bad parenting. Jonah's home with strep throat and I want to read my book, while he reads his. So, this post must be short and will surely need a follow up.

There's been a slow buzz about Ayelet Waldman's and Dooce's new books. Lisa Belkin talks about it today on Motherlode and makes reference to an article she's got coming out in Sunday's magazine. I'm a bit worried that she's got it wrong, so I just want to quickly describe what bad parenting is.

Bad parenting is most of all self-depricatory. I really hope that Lisa Belkin isn't going to take the name at face value. All these parents, from Ayelet to Dooce to all the bloggers, are SUPER involved in these kids lives. They aren't necessarily in the PTA or driving SUVs, but they are really into their kids.

These parents aren't leaving their kids in daycare for 50 hours a week. In fact, they've quit their jobs or work part time in order to have their kids in daycare as little as possible. Sometimes there's no way around daycare, but then these parents get them out as soon as possible. The bad parent movement is really about rolling your own kid.

It demands that dads are involved. Sometimes they are actually the primary parent. Absentee dads are shunned.

Kids first, career second.

These parents might may not be keeping the kids in a ton of activities, but their kids aren't playing video games or TV for hours. They're taking their kids to the museum and having lunch at the mall.

So, it is rather laid-back in some ways, but there's a clear priority of values.

31 thoughts on “Bad Mothering

  1. I feel like “Bad Parenting” is really code for “Bad Ass Parenting.” These parents aren’t bad parents, they know they’re not bad parents, but the label of bad mothers makes them seem rebellious and cool and hip — and it probably sells their books.
    More power to them.

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  2. Kids first, career second. These parents might may not be keeping the kids in a ton of activities, but their kids aren’t playing video games or TV for hours. They’re taking their kids to the museum and having lunch at the mall. So, it is rather laid-back in some ways, but there’s a clear priority of values.
    Exactly right. I have no idea how to measure “good parents” vs. “bad parents,” but good parenting is nine parts time, and only one part money/organization/opportunity/skill. In the long run, that one part adds up, to be sure; it’ll always be better for kids and parents if neighborhoods have parks, if there are buses to take families to museums, if the local library is well-stocked, if YMCA memberships aren’t too pricey, etc., etc. But seriously, in the end, generally speaking, you make a choice: slack off in your career ambitions, and spend time with your kids, eating lunch with them and going to their soccer games, or don’t. For 90% of us it’s pretty simple, really.

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  3. good parenting is nine parts time, and only one part money/organization/opportunity/skill.
    No, it’s not. Bad parents don’t feed their kids some of the time–after all, they had a free lunch at school that day (everything here happened to me when I was a kid), bad parents don’t take their kids to the doctor when they’re sick or to the dentist. Bad parents take their kids out of school when it’s inconvenient to have to take them to and from and just keep them home instead (no, this doesn’t count as home schooling, or even unschooling). Bad parents leave their kids alone at night so they can get high and party without the responsibilities.
    What you’re discussing is the difference between average and good, both of which are *good enough*. It’s not cool or hip to pretend you’re being ironic about the title of “bad” when there are kids out there genuinely getting bad parenting.

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  4. You make some really good observations about how involved the so-called “bad parents” actually are. I hadn’t really thought of it that way, but you’re totally right.

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  5. “Bad parents don’t feed their kids some of the time–after all, they had a free lunch at school that day (everything here happened to me when I was a kid), bad parents don’t take their kids to the doctor when they’re sick or to the dentist.”
    Yeah, organization is really important. Got to change those diapers regularly, give baths at least a couple times a month, feed those kids about 5 times a day when they’re home all day, brush those teeth early and often, give them Tylenol at appropriate intervals when they’re feverish, get them off to school in the morning, make those doctor appointments, enforce that homework and bedtime, put on hats and sunblock as appropriate, keep them hydrated on hot days, make sure things are going OK at school with the teacher, make those playdates, etc.

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  6. I agree with Kai. I wouldn’t be so annoyed if they were calling themselves “bad ass parents.” But, there are really kids out there with bad parents (or those who can’t be anything but bad parents given their circumstances), and it’s a tragedy beyond compare, one that we can do nothing at all to fix.
    And, you know, A actually thinks she’s a better parents than the “earth mothers” or “over-parenting mothers” or whoever she’s choosing not to emulate. Her “bad parenting” is a choice, one that she does not believe hurts her children (and, frankly, my guess is that she actually thinks it’s the better choice, not just for her children, but for her), and one that she is not pushed or forced into.
    Compare this to the mothers who truly don’t care whether their children get fed or who are unable to feed their children (for lack of resources, or because their tragically lost themselves). I’m more sympathetic to Dooce’s reflections on her post-partum depression, which was significant and severe. Her period of “bad” mothering wasn’t a choice among reasonable options, and, it probably was bad, except that she had the support system to get help and save herself and her child.

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  7. PS: I’m really looking forward to the book by the Chabon children. They’ll write one, right? They have two writer parents and all the right connections. 🙂

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  8. Laura,
    FYI, Ayelet’s book is really well-written and interesting, I was really disappointed in Dooce’s. What works in a blog doesn’t necessarily work in a book.
    Just letting you know – if you only have time for one, pick Ayelet. I’m not just saying that because she’s a friend.
    BJ, I’m sending her your comment about the kids. She’ll probably encourage them to write a tell-all so they can pay their own college tuition.

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  9. I’m sure it is, Allison. I haven’t had a chance to look it at yet, but I’ve seen a few minutes of her YouTube videos. I have skimmed Dooce’s book and was also disappointed in it. “What works in a blog doesn’t necessarily work in a book.” – totally.

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  10. I do appreciate that people are pushing back against the “perfectionist” strain in modern parenting — not just the details of extremely involved parenting, but also the willingness to turn a critical eye on other parents who are not doing the same. This has always been my interpretation of “bad” mom — that it really means, I don’t accept your definition of good parenting and I am very aware that you will judge me for that.
    There’s just a tremendous amount of variance in what people consider appropriate parenting these days. I guess it’s one of those things we’re still figuring out as a country. We’ve rejected the totally hands-off, watch-as-much-Scooby-Doo-as-you-want 70s model. Some of us are now rejecting the you’re-late-for-soccer-practice/Berenstain Bears parenting model. I personally have just as little patience for the my-kid’s-already-in-a-rock-band-at-8/Park Slope model, which I see plenty of in Chicago. I guess we’ll all figure it out eventually!
    Point well taken, though, about co-opting a term that’s actually needed — there is such a thing as a truly bad parent, and we now have to think up another term for that.

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  11. I heard Ayelet Waldman on Fresh Air. She was startlingly frank, which is one thing (I suspect) people have problems with. Allison, if you read this, please congratulate her for me. She said things about her relationship with her husband and their writing careers that really resounded with me.
    I’m curious, Laura. What does it mean: “Kids first, career second?” Is that a mantra for mothers or parents in general? And how would anyone apply it? It seems that this sort of statement is precisely what opens the doors for all the sorts of righteousness surrounding parenting politics that the “Bad Mother” genre seems to be rejecting (yet also emulating — as Belkin noted in her NYT piece). Not saying that this is YOUR meaning (I understand the sorts of career sacrifices you AND your husband have made to create a good situation for your kids).
    It just makes me think: this sort of phrasing seems really NOT to be: “Kids first, jobs second” because of course jobs are required to feed kids and single mothers (for example) have rather harsh realities when it comes to that. I just worry that the slippery slope of thinking will always relegate women to second-class status in the workplace: put your kids over your career means that women, in this terrible economy particularly, are permitted jobs, but not careers, because after all, kids must come first.
    I love my career. It requires me to spend time overseas — big chunks of time overseas. Does this mean I’m putting my kid behind my career? I think you would likely respond no, because my kid is taken care of, I make arrangements. In my head, though, I am; certainly in the eyes of people more judgmental than you are I might be. This “kids first, career second” thing seems like a false dichotomy, really. In the end, I’m not sure I have a problem with putting my career before my kid. (Since we’re in the world of Ayelet Waldman frankness.)

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  12. Julie’s comment is interesting, and I’d add that we have to think about what “career” means. I’m not sure how not having kids would make my career much different. I love teaching. Having more time wouldn’t really change my situation. I don’t think I could teach more. I guess I might be more involved in additional university-sponsored activities, or I might take on more service commitments, or I might write/research more, but I do some of these already within my current situation, and doing *more* wouldn’t necessarily benefit my career.
    There’s something else, that concept of “ambition.” That’s a status-linked concept. It’s not just that doing research helps you become a better teacher (as per Libby in a recent Mama PhD column). It’s the craving of *acknowledgement* for that research, the status that it gives.
    So, like Julie, yes, I do put my career on somewhat of an equal footing with my kids. During the school year, when I have papers to grade, career comes first. Right now, as I sit here with tabs open both about how to make a Statue of Liberty costume instead of about using social media in teaching composition, yeah, I’m putting kids first.

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  13. Oh my, gone for the morning and lots of comments.
    OK, I was summing up the parenting philosophy of the mom-bloggers and the parents that I know. Is it really a movement like Belkin describes. Hell, no. It’s a bunch of over education, urban parents. Most real parents have no idea about the stuff we fight about on the Internet. I’ll call up my sister and tell her what someone like Hirshman is saying about SAHMs and she yells at me for reading that crap. Most people have no idea what attachment parenting is. Most people aren’t good parenting or bad parenting, they’re just getting by. But for the NYTs, that small group consistutes a movement. Eye rolling.
    So, the commonalities that I’ve picked up from the blogging, urban, over-educated parents are that they might reject attachment parenting, but they really take parenting seriously. They have made a lot of sacrifices for their career. Ayelet was a lawyer. Dooce is a SAHM. Even Bitch PhD is a SAHM and her husband works a traditional job. Does that mean that all they do is parent? No, a lot of them have side jobs during the day or they have a longer term goals. One of my buddies is trying to start a business selling gluten-free foods. My employment status fluctuates. My SIL works, but she still manages to spend a ton of time with her kids.
    So, I’m not going to get into the particulars of your situations, Jen and Julie. And I’m certainly not judging. But at least I know in your case, Julie, that your daughter is perfectly well taken care of. You and your hubby do spend a lot of time with her. You both have somewhat flexible careers. I think that the bad mother model isn’t critiquing jobs or flexible careers. It’s critiquing all consuming careers where both parents work 60 hour weeks and see the kid for an hour at most a day. Everyone I know in those situations quit.

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  14. “Some of us are now rejecting the you’re-late-for-soccer-practice/Berenstain Bears parenting model.”
    Berenstain Bears? confused.
    “Point well taken, though, about co-opting a term that’s actually needed — there is such a thing as a truly bad parent, and we now have to think up another term for that.”
    Yeah!

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  15. Hi, been reading along but first time commenting.
    I think it’s interesting she threw in Lenore Skenazy (the Free Range Kids blogger) with the “anti-overparenting” gang because there really does seem to me to be a big difference in what is LEGALLY allowable for parenting choices. What Dooce and Ayelet and all do may be disapproved of by some, but CPS wouldn’t have investigated for it in 1970 and they wouldn’t now. Whereas in the current legal climate leaving your kids in the car while you go into the dry cleaner really can get you in some trouble.
    To me that’s a much bigger difference than seeing your parenting as central versus merely living your life and happening to (responsibly) raise kids as part of it. Or however you see that distinction: it’s hard to phrase it neutrally although I think the effects may be more or less neutral.

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  16. Welcome, Marya. And thanks for the good comment.
    Just to clarify. Steve and I didn’t make choices and consciously make sacrifices. We just did the best we could. Was it really a choice that I decided not to apply to fancy schools several states away, which would have meant that I would have had to care for two kids by myself, work full time, and visit my husband on weekends?

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  17. Sorry for the random Berenstain Bears comment. It’s a reference to my sister, really, a classic helicopter parent who has spent 15 years telling me that The Answer lies in some Berenstain Bears book. Blech.
    My husband and I consider ourselves to be this brand of “bad parents”. We still drink in moderation, for example, even in front of the kids. And we won’t sign the kids up for soccer. Is it because we don’t want them to be overscheduled? Maybe. But probably the biggest reason is that soccer would take over my Saturdays, which are days when I like to work on the house & garden. The kids do this with me, albeit sometimes reluctantly. The house/garden are hobbies of mine and I have made an active choice to leave the kids out of soccer, and keep Saturdays on my terms. To some people, my unwillingness to sacrifice everything for the kids makes me a bad parent. Fine, so sue me.
    I like what Marya said — I feel that part of what I’m doing as a parent is insisting on keeping (some shred of) my independent life intact, refusing to be completely subsumed by the Parent Role. IMHO this shows that my temperament is not as cleanly aligned with the traditional mom role as some. I am unhappier when I’m forced to give up other stuff because of parenting time constraints. Whereas some people always really liked kid-friendly things and don’t seem to feel they’ve sacrificed as much when the kids arrive.
    But I don’t think the bad parenting meme is really about “kids first, career second”. I think it’s more of a generational thing, and maybe a style issue, frankly. Taking a different tone, rejecting the preachy attachment parenting stuff.

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  18. I started drinking (which I still hardly do, and only EVER do in front of the kids) largely to make alcohol seem uninteresting to my kids. Well, that and to get my wife to drink because she wouldn’t do it alone, and needed to.

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  19. We drink all the time in front of the kids. Sometimes not in moderation. We used to take six packs to the playground in Manhattan and drink in paper bags. Way fun.
    We’ve got the oldest kid in soccer right now and I HATE it. I do like that he’s getting exercise and blowing off some extra steam, so we’re going with it right now. We’ve also got the youngest kid in swimming, because he needs the socialization and he’s going to be in a social skills class in September. Two hours, twice a week. My mom is going to have to help me drive him back and forth. We’re pretty moderate in the activity department, but we do them.
    I really don’t give a crap what people say about me. I’ve worked really hard at my job and raising my kids and am really proud of my accomplishments in both spheres.

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  20. Ridesharing. You do not have to watch every game, or even most of them, and (some) other parents will be glad if you are the first to defect from the “I must watch every single thing my kid does” syndrome.
    When you make friends with other parents beware; their kids will end up on other soccer teams or (if they are boys) in other sports. Fickle.

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  21. “Whereas some people always really liked kid-friendly things and don’t seem to feel they’ve sacrificed as much when the kids arrive.”
    Have you ever noticed that Michaels offers essentially expensive big girl versions of things little kids like to do? Rubber stamps, stickers, craft projects? It’s not just women, either. I was talking to a relative about her father and husband’s recent purchase of some heavy equipment. The guys have a BIG pile of gravel to move around and they are on Cloud 9. Vroom, vroom.

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  22. We drink in front of the kids; didn’t realize that was an alleged no-no.
    We drop off my almost 10-yo daughter at dance class (1.5 to 2 hours–no way am I sitting there waiting). The almost-7-yo does drums once a week (doesn’t practice either, LauraB) and does soccer intermittently (just finished a 6-week spring clinic and is signed up for fall). One of us will have to be there. He has the asthma issue that needs watching, and I still don’t have a tight enough relationship with any of the other parents yet.
    At the Spring Fling last weekend, a friend was driving herself crazy following along after her 10 yo (who was with Soph), and I finally told her she should just calm down and stop following them. It was Spring Fling in our town–pretty much the safest place she could be.
    Now I want to know how it got to be 3 pm already.

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  23. Amy P is on to something about men/boys and digging. When I was little, we (brother and a friend) started digging in a secluded spot in the yard. Before my dad noticed, we’d gotten about five feet down. Came in handy when the dog died. Now my son will insist we ‘rescue worms’ by digging them up or run a quary.

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  24. Wasn’t there some Internet Bad Mommy flap recently about the terrible, horrible risk of THE CARETAKERS (parents) being impaired while performing the sacred duty of caring for children at a playdate/barbecue? Someone might get hurt and then of course it would be the fault of the drink, not a childhood accident.
    I think margaritas were the drink under discussion and there was some chin-wagging about Hard Liquor which of course is considered much more evil.

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  25. OK, can we all just confess to the times we’ve popped breath mints so the Girl Scout leader/elementary school teacher/(dare I say it)Sunday School teacher can’t tell we’ve been tippling before pick-up? (I was WALKING home with the kids!! WALKING!)

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  26. And yes I’ve bonded with the drinker parents at the swim club. We sit in a circle and pass around mysterious red plastic cups. Keep away from the red plastic cups, kids.

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  27. ” Now my son will insist we ‘rescue worms’ by digging them up or run a quary.”
    Hey, my son was digging for a worm that he’s planning on keeping as a pet, just yesterday, after first planting a tomato plan. He promises that the worm will live at his grandparent’s house, though, in deference to my pet phobia.
    What, breath mints, before GS pickup? Jen, I don’t think you can watch my kids :-).
    I think the “work 120 hours/week” model can’t be sustained in the long run, but I have seen people manage it over the short. How? First, they have the right kind of kids. Different kids need different kinds of attention. My daughter’s somewhere in the middle, parent attention wise, but I know that there are others who need both more and less. I might be misjudging, but I think I’m not. I suspect my son needs less. Second, they get good help with child care, that really does meet their children’s needs. Third, they arrange their cildren’s lives around their own, choosing activities/friends/etc. based on their own schedules. It can be done, without hurting some children.

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  28. Perhaps “bad parenting” isn’t at all bad-parenting, but let’s call things what they are…project an image that is true to your own reality and therefore encourage others to rise to a higher level as well.

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