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What Makes a Good Mother anyway?

Why what you don't do matters more than what you do

I deliberately chose the painting by Mary Cassatt as an illustration because it serves as a cultural shorthand for the prevailing view of motherhood—more of a tender and loving calling than not, suffused with pastel colors, tints of calm. Of course, while there certainly are moments like these, mothering is a job, albeit one with ever-shifting requirements. That’s what makes it hard to do at times, and impossible to do perfectly.  The very qualities that might have made you a candidate for World’s Best Mother when your child was a toddler—your vigilance, your organizational skills, your ability to exert control on chaos—may earn you an “F” at another stage of your daughter’s life. (I’m using “daughter” so as to avoid the switching of pronouns and because I’ve only raised a girl.) 

After a quarter of a century of working this shift, here are reflections on what makes a mother “good” or not, some based in science and others in observation. 

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When I wrote Mean Mothers—which, in a way, is a primer on what not to do if you’re raising a child—I was struck by the fact that the unloved or not-loved-enough or criticized-and-marginalized-to-death daughters who went on to have children were very confident about their ability to mother. I too felt reasonably comfortable—as assured as anyone can be about anything in this life—although, before I interviewed other women, I attributed my presumption to the two decades I’d spent thinking about whether or not to have a child and dealing with the fear that I might become my mother somehow, and my age. (I was thirty-nine, certainly old enough to understand the breadth of the undertaking.)  But then I spoke to other women who had a child or children at much younger ages but who had all made sense of their own unhappy childhood experiences to one degree or another. They too had a surety about what they needed to do to be good mothers. Why was that?

I ended up calling it “the negative compass” which yields a map of places you don’t want to visit, directions you don’t want to take, actions you want to avoid. It’s putting the education you got in your own childhood and turning it upside down and inside out, and informing and shaping what you will do by what you won’t. By steering clear of all the “bad” mother behaviors, you feel sure enough that you will get closer to being a “good” mother.

And you know what? It turns out to be true, from a psychological point of view. Bad things, as Roy Baumeister and his colleagues explain their article “Bad Is Stronger than Good,” have more of an impact on us, both emotionally and cognitively, than good things. This negativity bias, as it’s called, probably had an evolutionary advantage, putting events and exchanges that were threatening to survival into a part of the brain where they could easily be recalled and automatically reacted to. Alas, what the bias means is that negative maternal behavior, especially if there’s lots of it, influences a child’s development much more strongly than positive behavior. So there’s wisdom in ignoring the cultural mantra of being perfect but making sure you do your best to avoid the behaviors that really will hurt your child in ways you probably never intended.  

The problem for all of us, of course, is that the evolution of our parenting skills may not keep up with the challenges of the job. While the words “Let me help you with that, sweetie” may be soothing for a five-year-old and encourage her to try harder, they will sound very different to a sixteen-year-old who hasn’t asked for your help. Being proactive on your child’s behalf is appropriate at one stage, and not at another. A mother who is used to be involved in her daughter’s life may go into emotional anaphylactic shock during her child’s twenties. So herewith a list of the things all mothers striving to be “good” might want to keep in mind.

1. Staying attuned

Unloved daughters speak of not being “known” by their mothers, and what they are talking about is “attunement.” Beginning in infancy, an attuned mother, as Daniel J. Siegel M.D. and Mary Hartzell, M.Ed. explain, aligns her internal state with that of her child. Note that this action goes from mother to child—you are lining up your feelings and thoughts with hers. Much of this takes place without words, and is accomplished through gaze and touch. Think of comforting a crying baby or small child: You pick her up, look into her eyes, and the child internalizes that attunement, and begins to make sense of her feelings and the emotional world. Children who grow up with mothers who scream at them to stop crying learn something else entirely. Put into a sentence, lack of attunement says this: “ Your feelings don’t matter. And neither do you.” 

Staying attuned as your child begins to grow out of early childhood requires more effort—getting you and all the emotional baggage you have in tow out of the way so you can actually listen to and hear the other person standing in front of you.  You have to be able to be aware of and in touch with your own feelings so that you can push them aside and get in touch with your daughter’s thoughts and feelings.  This is, I know, easier than said than done. 

2. Minding Boundaries

This is admittedly a tough one, especially in the culture we live in which extols the virtues of micromanaging. Violated boundaries are easier to see and identify than setting healthy ones. Take enmeshed behaviors in which the mother only sees the child as an extension of herself—that’s easy to spot. But where is the boundary between doing the “best” you can for your kid and the DIY project which will presumably shed reflected glory on you? (Hmmm. Did you read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother?) Research by Andrew Elliot and Todd Thrash showed that fear of failure can actually be transmitted from one generation to another and a mother without boundaries may think she’s helping to push and motivate her child but, in truth, she’s also saying “Without me, you’ll fall on your face.”

Seen another way, the same lesson that applies to attunement is relevant to the question of boundaries. Most particularly, as your daughter gets older, you have got to push you out of the way—your aspirations for her, your hopes for her—and substitute hers instead. This doesn’t mean that you can’t give her advice or speak your mind, of course. It simply means you have to be able to get your vision of the girl or woman you want to her to be and begin to let in her vision of herself. (And, no, I’m not advocating your standing by as your daughter begins to emulate Janis Joplin’s life.)

3. Forsaking the Low Road

Again, with credit due to Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell for their vision of high road and low road processing in their book Parenting from the Inside Out. (You should read it whether your child is twenty months or twenty years old—there’s lots to be learned.) “Low road processing” describes that moment when something in your relationship with your child pushes all of your buttons and you experience a tsunami of emotions, most of them having to do with you, your past, and your own unresolved stuff. It’s at that moment that suddenly, without your even realizing it, your feelings are driving the bus and whatever else you may be doing, you’re not listening to or being attuned to your kid.  

On the low road, it’s all about you. Your child might as well not be there.  

You can find yourself on the low road with a recalcitrant five-year-old who’s balking at going to bed or taking a bath, a tween or teen who is mouthing off and being disrespectful, or a college student who has just lost her damn cell phone again. (And, for the sake of peace in my life, the latter is not drawn from experience.) I dare anyone out there to say she or he has never gone down the low road.

But the low road, if visited frequently, is a very bad road indeed and as mothers, we owe it to our children to work hard to cleave to the high road instead. The high road requires that we take stock of ourselves and regulate our emotions, keep our boundaries clear, and stay attuned to our children.  

And try to have fun.

Copyright © 2013 Peg Streep

Please visit me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/PegStreepauthor

Baumeister, Roy, et al. “Bad is Stronger than Good,”Review of General Psychology (2001)vol.5, no. 4, 323-370.

Varish,Vaish, Tobias Grossman, and Amanda Woodward, “Not All Emotions Are Created Equal: The Negativity Bias in Social-Emotional Development,” Psychological Bulletin (2009), vol. 134, no.3, 383-403.

Elliott, Andrew and Todd Thrash, “The Intergenerational Transmission of Fear of Failure,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (2004), vol. 30, no,8, 957-971,

Siegel, Daniel J. and Mary Hartzell. Parenting from the Inside Out. New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2001.

Peg Streep, author or coauthor of nine books, is a New York City based writer currently working on a book about the Millennial generation.

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