The Myth of the Good Mother

Original artwork by Emily Dooley — Published here with permission

My idea of the good mother began long before I became a mother. The good mother was implied in the toys I played with, the TV shows I watched in the 70s and 80s, and the cultural cues I got from religion, family, and community.

The good mother was kind, patient, and endlessly compassionate. The good mother was happy too and, perhaps more importantly, her children were happy.

The good mother baked. She listened. She sacrificed. There was not much more to the good mother’s identity than motherhood itself and motherhood was enough.

I internalized the myth of the good mother throughout my early life, even when my understanding of myself had nothing to do with motherhood and my identity was still nebulous and ill defined.

I didn’t count the days until I became a mother, didn’t picture my life being completed by a child, and didn’t define my personhood in the context of motherhood.

Then, at the age of 29, I suddenly wanted a baby. About a year after this desire manifested, I had my first daughter.

My younger daughter turned 16 in April. She is not happy. Her days, restricted by the pandemic and further restricted by her too-young-to-drive status, are filled with screens and anxiety.

Her junior year of high school will be entirely virtual. Her interactions with friends are mostly limited to Snapchat. She is an only child, not by birth, but because her older sister died from cancer three years ago.

It has taken me nineteen years to understand that it is not my job to make my children happy.

It has taken me nineteen years to realize that orchestrating someone else’s happiness is, in fact, an impossible task.

My older daughter died before she could benefit from this wisdom, but maybe it’s not too late for Emily.

You’d think I would’ve learned my lesson back in 2012, when Ana was diagnosed with cancer. But back then I still thought she would beat it. I couldn’t fathom failing at the most basic measure of good motherhood — a measure so obvious that I didn’t even bother to list it with all the other traits, above.

Good mothers don’t lose their children.

Yet, I have not failed at being a good mother because my older daughter died.

I have not failed at being a good mother because my younger daughter isn’t happy.

I have failed because I’ve been attached to the misguided assumption that I could somehow control my daughter's happiness. I failed because I didn’t understand that my need for her to be happy was causing her to suppress her other feelings. I failed because I linked her happiness inextricably to my happiness. I’d given her her own impossible task — make sure mom isn’t sad.

I was so busy trying to play the role of the good mother, that I didn’t realize I was perpetuating another myth — that of the good daughter.

Motherhood clarified my identity in ways I didn’t expect. I’ve recently realized this thanks to my new therapist who asked me an innocuous question.

“What were you like as a child?”

“Quiet. Shy. Creative. I stayed out of trouble,” I’d replied. It was a boring question and one I had no interest in elaborating on. “I don’t have clear memories from my childhood or teenage years. It’s like trying to recall a dream.”

She’d remained silent for a several seconds, before trying again. “Okay, tell me what you were like in your twenties.”

What does it matter? I’d thought, but said, “I went to college, never graduated, got a job in an office. I met my husband and got married. I wanted to be a novelist, but I got sidetracked.” I felt a familiar faint pang at this admission. It was the the feeling of regret, so dulled by time that I might not have even noticed it if I hadn’t been looking.

She wanted more. She wanted me to describe what I was really like. What drove my decisions? What were my needs, interests, and hopes? Who did I confide in? Where had I hoped to go in life?

“Who were you?” She’d asked.

The same voice in my head kept answering, What does it matter?

“That person doesn’t feel real,” I’d finally admitted to her. “Nothing was real until I had Ana. Then I became who I am now, Ana’s mother. Emily’s mother. But Ana’s gone and Emily is nearly grown,” I’d said, starting to cry. “I feel myself unraveling. I am becoming someone nondescript and half-formed, just like the years before I was mother.”

“We need to resurrect some of the person you were before you had children,” my new therapist said gently.

But I don’t know that person. I don’t care about her. She is a stranger from a faded dream.

My daughter is a painter. She’s a musician. She loves film and books and our grumpy, irrepressible cat.

She watches hours of TikTok videos and laughs with her whole body.

She thrives on complexity, on questions of existence and the science of relationships. She wants to understand the motivation behind why people argue. She is not afraid to explore the things that interest her. She is learning how to play the drums and the guitar and to sing like her favorite artists — Thom Yorke, James Maynard Keenan, Annie Clark, Ella Fitzgerald, Bjork.

She’s watching TED talks about quantum theory. She’s painting and drawing, turning canvas into color and light.

Sometimes she curls up inside her own despair and nothing I do or say can reach her.

“Am I a horrible person?” She asks and the tears come.

“No, of course not,” I reply. She doesn’t want more than this. She wants me to hear her. She wants me to witness her not being happy and know that I still love her. If I go in any other direction, she moves further away from me.

I must not show her how this breaks my heart because the good mother has unfairly made my heart her responsibility.

I must not say, “Don’t cry. Don’t be sad. Please, please, please be happy.” I must not say these things even though deep within my psyche the good mother wails and shrieks, “Fix this!”

Some things can’t be fixed. The good mother will never understand that. She could not fix the cancer that killed Ana.

She cannot undo the trauma and heartache that makes Emily recoil at the idea of always being happy.

I can’t live up to the myth of the good mother. It’s time to let her go, even though it means unraveling a huge part of myself. She’s a fictional idea of motherhood. I realize that now. The good mother tethered my happiness to my children’s happiness. That was hurting them.

They thought their sadness, anger, fear, and distress made them bad. They tried to keep me happy by suppressing these emotions. It got harder to do this when Ana got sick. It became impossible for Emily to do this after Ana died, though she managed, at least for a while.

My new therapist is not precisely wrong about resurrecting some of who I was before I became a mother. Recalling that person feels important, if only to remind myself that motherhood is not the only thing worthwhile about myself.

I am learning how to listen to Emily without trying to fix what’s wrong. I am trying to let her see that I love her, even when she’s sad or mad or anxious.

I am also trying not to suppress my own emotions, and to remind my daughter (and myself) that we can be unhappy one minute, then feel joy the next.

I’m learning again, pursuing random things that interest me the way I did in my twenties and early thirties, and trying not to expect too much from myself.

The good mother’s voice isn’t as loud and insistent as it once was. I’m not burying her or saying goodbye. I’m simply letting the idea of her fade, disconnecting it from the reality of motherhood, in all its imperfection, pain, and beauty, so that I can, at last, be free.

A version of this piece was originally published by Al Jazeera.

Occasional poet. Writer of sad essays. Novelist. Birder and amateur photographer. I enjoy trees.

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