Her Bad Mother

Friday, March 6, 2009

All About My Mother

When my nephew, Zachary, was about four years old, my mother pulled a prank on him. This was not at all unusual - according to my mother, children only become fun once they're of an age to be messed with, and her relationships with her grandchildren are guided by this rule - but this particular prank was pretty epic. She staged an alligator attack in one of the closets in her home - complete with stuffed alligator and screaming granny and arm pulled under sleeve to simulate dismemberment - and Zachary was, I do not exaggerate in saying, alarmed by the whole spectacle. Thrilled, too - he talked about it, delighted, for months - but in the moment, mostly alarmed. And mad, in that adorably outraged manner that only small children can effect.

You, he said, pointing at my mother, are BAD. She just laughed.

She is bad, I agreed. She is very bad. She's your bad grandma.

No, he replied, stamping his foot and pointing an accusatory finger at me. She's NOT my bad grandma. She is YOUR BAD MOTHER.

And with that, a parenting philosophy was born, and a blog predestined.

My mom has always been a bad mother. Not in the neglectful sense: she was, for most of my childhood, a stay-at-home mom who baked cookies and led Girl Guide troops and did crafts and told hour upon hour of bedtime stories (and lunchtime stories, and camptime stories, and going-for-a-walk stories, and riding-in-the-car stories...) It's just that with everything that she did, she put her own enjoyment of the activity at the forefront. Childhood, as she understood it, was a time of fun and magic, and dammit if she wasn't going to take advantage of that for herself. She'd waited a long time to throw herself into motherhood, and she wasn't going to waste the opportunity by approaching the whole thing as work. Child-rearing, in her view, was just one long exercise in applied fun and amusement. So it was that the cookies were sometimes made in ridiculous shapes (don't ask) and the crafts were more often reflections of her own interests and obsessions (during the tenure of Pierre Trudeau as Canadian Prime Minister, who she loathed, we made something that she called TURD-ohs, which I'll leave to your imagination) and the stories often took perverse but fascinating turns (it was a long time before I understood that my sister had not been found in a pickle patch and that my bum wouldn't fall off if I unscrewed my belly-button.) She took delight in surprising us and startling us and making the world seem like an unpredictable and fascinating place, filled with benevolent but arm-nibbling monsters and tyrannical fairies and and friendly but overtaxed families of pickle-imps and tiny, turd-like goblins who carried placards decrying the rule of the Liberal Party of Canada.

It was awesome.

I knew, from childhood, that I wanted to be a mother just like her. And I knew from the moment that Zachary called her BAD that that meant being a bad mother.

Which is what I'm trying to be, with some success, I think. She, in the meantime, has moved on to fully embracing her role as a bad grandmother, as the New York Times reported yesterday. (Yeah, you read that right.) Which means that she's still all about the fun and the games and the perversity, but also that she's doing it on her terms. And those terms follow this principle: it is, in anything other than extraordinary circumstances (and she does, for the record, grandma-up if circumstances demand it), only about the fun. She's not interested in being an on-call babysitter (she loves to spend time with her grandchildren, but refuses to regard it as a duty), she's not interested in changing diapers (been there/done that) and she's not interested in having her grandmahood defined according to any conventional, matronly terms. The great thing about being a grandmother, in her opinion, is getting to have all of the fun with little of the labour, and she takes full advantage of that.

Which, again, is awesome, but - as I told the New York Times - it's also a little frustrating, sometimes. I love that my mom is something of an iconoclast, that she's independent and contrary and entirely forthright about who she is and how she wants her relationships to work. But I would be lying if I said that I didn't wish, sometimes, that she was the type of grandma who swooped in and gathered babies to her chest and shooed me off to have a nap while she changed diapers and made lasagna (she makes awesome lasagna, by the way), that she were the type of grandma who demanded babysitting duty, who wanted to just move in and help - or, at least, fly out regularly to help. I have, at times during my pregnancies and my post-partums, just wanted my mommy to step in and make things all better, to just take over and be the apron-clad grandma who tutors her daughter in the ways of motherhood and offers free babysitting on the side. But she's not that - she's always been more of a hug-you-warmly-stroke-your-head-and-help-you-figure-out-how-fix-things-*yourself* kind of mom - and she's always been clear about that and never made any apologies for that and I can't help but think that she wouldn't be the awesome bad grandma that she is if it weren't for that.

My tutelage, at the knees of my mother, in the ways of motherhood has always been about this - this spirit of unconventionality, this emphasis on encouraging independence, this insistence upon doing things, whenever possible, out of joy rather than duty, this celebration of being, in some ways, bad - and I do that education an injustice if I demand that my mother be, as a grandmother, anything other her own bad self.

So I'll manage without the free babysitting and the unsolicited domestic help and the demands for more time with her grandchildren, and let her get on with that bad self.

And I'll get on with mine.

(Am leaving the family for an overnight trip to New York tonight, which is awesome, but, also, terrifying. I've never left Jasper for more than a few hours - and he's never gone more than a few hours without the boob - but we figure that the break will be good for him and for me. We're right about that, right? Right? Am freaking out a little bit.)

*Photo by Arantxa Cedillo (who so graciously overlooked all the mess in my house, and who sweetly exclaimed over my copy of the Todo Sobre Mi Madre film poster, thereby making me feel a little bit as though I'd made up for being a slob) for the New York Times

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Blogger S said...

I think I just fell in love with your mother.

12:33 PM  
Blogger Petra a.k.a The Wise (*Young*) Mommy said...

Wow, amazing article in the NY Times and I am simultaneously horrified and impressed with your mother's grandmothering style. I wouldn't be able to deal with it though. My mother takes the kids overnight EVERY weekend. yeah, I have it made :)

Sorry if that seemed like I was rubbing it in your face, but I WAS!

haha, j/k

12:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your mom sounds awesome! And I'm sure that Jasper will be fine; and this break WILL be good ;)

12:37 PM  
Blogger AJ said...

Great post. And your picture in the Times? You look fabulous! Muffin-top be damned.

12:37 PM  
Blogger Mandy said...

I think that we are too harsh on women who don't fit our preconceived notions of what a role is. I'm glad you (and your mother) are happy with how things in your family work.

Enjoy NYC!

12:39 PM  
Blogger Magpie said...

You and your bad mother - she sounds like a pip. Have a good trip.

12:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My mother doesn't help with my kids (ages 3.5 an 4 mos), either. But that's because she died of breast cancer 5 years ago. I'd love to have her not-help on this side of the veil.

12:54 PM  
Blogger Tania said...

I caught mention of you guys along with a great pic in the Toronto Star this morning. Looking good!

Enjoy your trip, and some sleep.

1:09 PM  
Blogger Sheryl (papernapkin) said...

My mom came out and stayed with me for a couple of weeks when each of my three kids were born. That was really nice, and it was the full extent of her services. When we fly out to visit them I've asked a couple of times if they'd watch the kids while Aaron and I have a date. Nope. They like spending time with the kids, but don't want to babysit.

1:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your mother sounds wonderful in many ways. My mother is not, um, swoop-like or particularly babysitting friendly, though I sometimes wish she was. (God how I need a sitter)
Jasper will be fine, promise. Enjoy!For me? I insist!

1:20 PM  
Blogger Pamela said...

That was a fantastic article in The Times. Your mom sounds like she has her head screwed on just right. My mother is completely uninvolved with my children, but her head is not screwed on properly. Once she said to me, "How can you think your family isn't important to me? All my friends think you're my top priority." And that is my mother's cracked nutshell, in a nutshell.

1:28 PM  
Blogger G Love said...

Both of our mothers are the grandmotherly swoop in and babysit kind. I love it, but sometimes the demands for more time and the nebbing into our decisions is difficult, too. Nobody strikes it perfect, do they? Grandmothers are subject to just as much scrutiny as mothers! And I love that the article points out . . . grandfathers? Anyone? Hello?

1:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First, enjoy your trip.

And second, my MIL is a little more hands on than my own mom, but part of that is the fact that MIL lives next door, and my mom lives two hours away. (And where's the talk of grandfathers?)

Still I have no complaints. My MIL is very available to help out, and I don't abuse the priviledge. when my parents visit, they love swooping off with the grandkids -- my presence is welcome but not necessary. I also have to recognize that things like "naps" and "eating right" may not be adhered to in any strict matter, if at all.

And that's cool with me. Both my "moms" enjoying cooking foods and helping out a bit, but really? I want them to enjoy their grandchildren, foremost. That's why they kept me and my hubby around all these years (I'm pretty sure). They waited a long time for grandkids, so they deserve it.

lovely article, and lovely post, again.


1:32 PM  
Blogger The_EmilyB said...

Great post and great article (and you look great!) I'm waiting to see how my parents and in-laws handle it all. My mom is super hands on with my sisters kids but they were both single parents and her attitude towards is that we should be able to cope because there are two of us. My MIL is the worlds biggest worry wort so it will be interesting. For me the hardest part is the cost of childcare more than half our friends use grandparents as childcare which saves them thousands of dollars. I imagine it could be hard to swallow that cost if your parents were around the corner but not helping.

1:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

my mom was very much like that when i was growing up. we used to joke and call her pollyanna, because she never fails to find something fun and amusing no matter what the situation. i don't have kids yet, so i'm not sure what she'll be like as a grandmother, but i hope very much that i can maintain the type of cheerful outlook she was always in possession of.

1:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am fairly certain that my mother will be exactly the type of grandmother that you mother is. (Confusing sentence, sorry.)

Your mom sounds AWESOME, by the way.

1:50 PM  
Blogger Loralee Choate said...

I totally got that there was a lot of love between you and your mom in that article.

Have fun w/Tanis. You absolutely need the tiny break. Enjoy it! xo

2:22 PM  
Blogger Goldfish said...

I think my kids could maybe use a little more of this approach... but in their grandmothers' defense, both women are very much the kind of grandmas (and people) they want to be, and in the end that seems like the most important thing.

2:40 PM  
Blogger Amo said...

I love this story and love your appreciation and understanding for who she is and who she wishes to become.

Too many parents are thrust, unwillingly, into the role of grandparent. My own father, for example, wants so badly to spend more time with his grandsons, but is at a total loss on how to interact.

Good on you for not forcing her to be anyone but the wonderful 'bad grandmother' she chooses.

3:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wish my mother in law was far more like your mom. She is a helicopter grandparent, it's unbearable to be with her. She is always taking over when she's here in the most annoying way.
great pic in the times. You look and I would love to meet your mom! :)

3:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Go to New York and enjoy your time away. As they say "every child should know the joy of a parent's return". You are right - yes you are right!

3:51 PM  
Blogger Stephanie Wilson she/her @babysteph said...

It will all go very well!

Loved this post.


5:10 PM  
Blogger Michelle said...

I wish my MIL was more like your mother...she tends to be more of the overbearing and demanding type. But I have to admit, even though we live 4hrs away, I love it that my mom stayed with us for a week after each baby and would be here in the drop of a hat if we need a little get-a-way.

5:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

He will be FINE. You will be BETTER THAN FINE.

As for the whole topic, I get it. My Mom *would* help, but she's twenty hours away. We moved to the small community where my husband grew up in the hopes that his parents (Who are in their early fifties) would have an AMAZING relationship with our kids.

They would babysit when asked (usually), but apart from that we rarely saw them apart from holidays.

Last year they moved to the Coast and it was a Good Thing. Now that they are nowhere close, my expectations are gone.

6:05 PM  
Blogger therapydoc said...

It ain't easy being a good mother, that's for sure, and it ain't easy captivating the grandkids with wonder. But some of us try anyway.

6:06 PM  
Blogger harmzie said...

I wish I could be as bad as your mom!

This was a lovely tribute, and a great reminder for when we wish our parents would be something else. They are what they are, which is often excellent grandparents in their own right. (That said, I won't leave my kids alone with FIL's new wife. She's just nuts. Not happy nuts, either...)

ENJOY your trip. Don't feel guilty when you're not thinking of him. And don't feel guilty when you are!

8:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mainly I wanted to say that this time away will be good for both of you. I agree with a previous commenter who said that every child should know the joy of a parent's return. Don't worry. He won't starve. Your boobs, however, will hate you for this. Drink lots of wine, and have fun!

9:01 PM  
Blogger Motherhood Uncensored said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but do you think that if you begged her and you were like PLEASE COULD YOU DO THIS, that she would in a heartbeat? OR that she would see you struggling, in dire straits, etc. and hold that baby so you could sleep?

I mean, my inlaws are similar, but they just have no sense to see beyond their own noses. I think that's what gets me. They don't even offer. Just watch you struggle and keep on drinking their coffee.

9:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautiful photo of you and your kids in the NYT.

(Please know HBM that these comments are not directed at you - so when I say "you", I don't mean YOU.)

Here goes:
I have to say that it seems pretty self-centered to place expectations on ones parents (the grandparents) about how much they "should" be involved in the care and rearing of the grandchildren. I'm sorry, aren't they YOUR kids? I think we are in a time where many parents are very involved with and attentive to their children - which I think is great - but these same parents often seem to have expectations that others will find their children as fascinating and desirable to be around as they, the parents, do. Again - they are your kids - they should (I would certainly hope!) be super special and wonderful in your eyes. I (and others) can love and care about your kids but excuse me if I don't relish every burp with the same intensity that you do.

My maternal grandparents, particularly my grandmother, were not "baby" or "toddler" people. They were not all that into any of us grandkid, except in small, contained doses, until we reached an age where we were fairly self-sufficient and independent and didn't make too much of a mess. They had raised their kids and were done with all of that. You know what? That was okay. When we were older (I'm talking 6 or 7, not 35), they enjoyed us so much more. She enjoyed feeding us good Jewish grandma food, he played countless games of "War" (a long, boring card game that he used to cheat at to try to lose so that it would end!) with us and listened to us talk about whatever we found important at the time. I cherish the relationship I had with each of them and know that I was loved immensely.

I guess I feel that the bottom line is - these are your children and you are responsible for them. It is wonderful if grandparents want to help out from time to time but if they do it on their terms - good for them. HBM, I think your kids are lucky to have HBGM.

Whew - sorry for the rant.

9:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think we all have our very own special issues with our parents and the type of grandparents they are. I don't have the same situation as you, but there are things that I love and things that drive me batty about my kids' grandparents.

Good luck with your trip!

9:40 PM  
Blogger Julie Marsh said...

I hope to meet your mother someday.

J will be fine. Promise. Enjoy White Plains.

11:16 PM  
Blogger Her Bad Mother said...

MU - She *would* (and has) stepped in when I've really needed her (and asked directly.) One weepy phone call and she'll come.

She'll complain about how she's hate flying, though. But then again, she also invariably makes some lasagna ;)

8:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So I'm a bad grandma? I didn't know I had a title, but it's one I'm delighted to claim. I'm like your mom. In dire straits, of course I'm there. And I do love those kids, and I'd do anything to ease their paths through life, but in 17 years of grandmotherhood, my daughter has only ASKED me to baby sit once. Bless her. Of course there have been many times when I've demanded to baby sit, but it's not expected of me. I have a life. I raised three kids, and now I have my semi-golden years and my job and friends. She's raising her kids, not me. And both of us enjoy them, in different ways.

I had fun teaching both of them how to stick your thumbs in your ears and waggle your fingers. She worries over their grades. I tell them scary stories, she turns on the night lights. I play tricks on them, she laughs at all of us. It works great. I enjoy them, but they are not my burden. She's the one who gets to carry that loving burden until the day when she gets to be a bad grandmother herself.

8:19 AM  
Blogger Issa said...

My mom (and my MIL as well, thank god) is a little of both. She'll show up when I need her and take over for a bit. But she also lives her life to the fullest and that doesn't really involve taking over my life or over doing it with my kids.

I'm thinking I should call and thank her for being the way she is.

12:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I just left my own overnight for the first time last night and am glad to report we both survived. But I am not boobfeeding every couple hours, either.


1:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I kind of wish that my mom was a little more like yours. Mine has very much inserted herself into my son's life and I've had to push her away a little. We lived with her when my son was very young (financial suckiness) and she flat out told me a few times that she thought of herself as my son's other mom and I was just not okay with that. It caused a rift in our relationship that I don't know will ever be repaired.

What has always been a point of conflict between her and I is that she's only ever wanted to be a mom, a grandmother, someone who nurtures and cares for others. And it's not that that's wrong, but that's all that there was for her. So when the people in her life eventually started to pull away to experience life without someone constantly there to hold our hands, she freaked. My mom does not have a life outside of being my mom and my son's grandmother and I resent her for it. I guess I don't want to end up like her.

I can't overstate how grateful I am that she was able and willing to just help out for even the simplest things, like holding my baby so I could take a shower or a nap. But I wish she would let me carve out my own path through this wilderness of motherhood.

Or something.

1:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My mom is kind of in between yours and the "swooping" type. I am mostly good with that. I wouldn't want her being too pushy. I guess I just feel we have to accept these moms as they are and focus on the positive, as you have with your mom. Peace.

2:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, I love your blog. And your muffin top. And all muffin tops everywhere! Go, NYT!

3:12 PM  
Blogger Jill said...

Dude! You were all in the NYTimes, how bad can you possibly be? There is something freeing about her attitude and I envy her, but I can see where your frustration comes from. But at least she is coming from a place of love. And some grandmas really mess with their grandkids if they spend too much time with them, so you've got that going for you.

8:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My mom is this type of grandparent and although I am grateful for what she does contribute to my children's lives I wish it was more. Raising children is hard. Historically, children were raised in small groups with many families, or related women, helping out. The load was shared. In the modern western family the load is directly placed on one or two people. It gets a bit much. I don't expect my mom to give up her life, but I do wish the circle of those who help care and influence my children was larger.

Having said all this, I really do love my parents and appreciate their involvement in my life, no matter the size.

I wonder what type of grandparent *I* will be? I'm not the same parent as my mother so I suspect I'll be different, but only time will tell.

12:30 AM  
Blogger Lydia said...

love the article!

My parents are 3.5 hours away, close and yet far. they have taken the kidlets for a week so we could have vacation. but they aren't "around" for constant sitting...

MIL lives 10 minutes away, but is not the grandma type. she'll come if we NEED her... but sometimes the weeks of complaining afterwards cost more than just paying a sitter ;)

7:27 AM  
Blogger SUEB0B said...

My mom is like yours. She had 6 kids and was a good parent, but she had basically no interest in seeing the grandkids outside of short visits with their parents present.

The problem with this is now that she has great-grandkids (15 of them!) they don't get brought around much because her grandkids don't really know her very well. It is kind of sad to me, but she made those decisions and she has to live with them.

8:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think I fell in love with your mom, too, but then again, she sounds a lot like mine! ;) My mother has raised her five children with the joys and sorrows that follow motherhood, and does not want to mother her grandchildren or hinder my 'full' experience of motherhood. I need help, she's there, but helps me to help myself, mostly. And I completely get that, and bask in her hands=off enjoyment of my children. My sister, however, wants our mom to be a helicopter grandma, and is hurt and confused when that doesn't happen...

10:39 PM  
Blogger Her Bad Mother said...

Joy - so interesting... my sister is the same way, gets really frustrated that our mom doesn't helicopter. I remind her constantly that mom's never pretended that she would be otherwise!

10:46 PM  
Blogger Mom101 said...

I start out wanting to wish you more involved grandparents, and then I read about all the cookie baking and girl scout trooping and merry making and think you know...that ain't half bad.

I guess we don't get to pick our parents, and so we learn to take the good with the bad.

And sometimes that bad isn't all that bad either.

11:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

OMG I nearly peed when I read the unscrew bellybutton=bum falling off... My mother told my kids THOSE EXACT WORDS. She is a GREAT grandma, by the way. Hope I grow up to be just like her :)

11:37 PM  
Blogger Little Monkies said...

My mother is peeved that my husband and I are moving to his home state in a couple of years at my urging. "You'll be so far away from your sisters, and from me" she says, although we live a plane flight away anyway. We are moving to be closer to the family that will actually be intimately involved with our kids, help out and give us a break when we need it. I read a couple of comments about how these are "our kids" and yes, they are, but generations of families have grown up supporting each other. Is that so bad?

Loved this post and loved the article. Excellent.

12:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

catherine your mum sounds so awesome.she is who she is.and don't worry about jasper he will be fine.hope you and tanis have a blast in NYC!!!

11:24 AM  
Blogger Mamalang said...

Both of our mothers are single, and our fathers aren't in the picture. They both adore spending time with their grandchildren, adn sometimes it becomes taxing trying to keep it fair. I love that my children have their grandmother and aunt around to watch them and participate in their lives. We made an agreement very early on that we would always offer the chance to have the children to them before we look for a babysitter, but they were free to say no. We called it the right of first refusal, and so far it has worked out well. I don't feel like I'm overburdening them, and they get the time they want.

And since my hubby is deployed, I really don't know what I would do without them.

This isn't a comment on your situation...I'm merely trying to point out that we all need to make our situation work the best for everyone.

ANd you and your babies are gorgeous in that pic.

11:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your depiction of your mother here reminds me of my father. My dad loved all the goofy, fun stuff of our childhoods and I love him for it =)

How did your mother like the newspaper article?

12:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to ask how the overnighter went?

12:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am the mother of four grown daughters and the grandma of a 22 month old, a 6 month old, and a 3 month old. Learning is be a grandma is a least as hard as learning to be a mother, especially since my mom has been dead for four years. Each daughter has very different needs and expectations.

12:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow thank you so much for writing about this. I call my parents the "me" generation. They love my son but it's really about their reflection - how great they look in his eyes. And god forbid they miss happy hour or trips to France or outdoing each other on toys rather than say starting a college fund. My parents were alot of fun -dancing, laughing and throwing parties. But my brother and I spent many days eating bread, butter and sugar sandwiches. And if my brother got to the bread first, forget about it.

2:45 PM  
Blogger The Spicers said...

My mom lives two doors down and I can count on two hands the number of times she's babysat, and then only for 2 hours max. But she loves my kids fiercely, and is an artist who spends time with the kids drawing and painting and sculpting and building a treehouse and being a "fun" grandma when we visit. There are times I wish for a helicopter grandma who would swoop in and clean the house and make dinner, but I can't imagine that I'll be that type myself. Some people are better at being fun than being nurturing and traditionally motherly.

10:19 AM  
Blogger Brokenornot said...

My mom thinks she is the big helper, and in reality, she is more the kind of grandma that is hands off. I wish she was like your mom and admitted it.

Instead, I have memories of her telling how much she helped, while in reality she told me the day I brought my daughter home from the hospital, that she needed a nap, and then took off, while I struggled to get food.

11:25 PM  

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