Why you should never say you’re a bad mother

Esther Walker
Esther with Kitty and Sam

I’d go as far as to say that there is no such thing as a bad mother.

Sure, there is lazy, neglectful, idiotic and wrong parenting, but that doesn’t make you a bad mother.

If you psychologically torture, beat or starve your children, that makes you a criminal – being a bad mother doesn’t really come into it.

But it has become fashionable recently to put a hand to your forehead and declare, ‘Oh God, I am such a bad mother.’

I never say this. I do not think I am a ‘bad’ mother, or really a ‘good’ mother. I try not to think about it in those quantifiable terms because it would probably send me crazy.

I am a mother to my children and that is that. Sometimes I exercise good parenting and sometimes I exercise poor parenting, in the same way that sometimes my house is clean and sometimes it is a horrible dump, sometimes I do a really good piece of work and sometimes I file a load of old shit and hope my editor doesn’t notice.

Being a parent – no, wait, being a mother – has taught me to appreciate things I used to take for granted

I do wish I was a better parent, though. I wish I didn’t get so bored, or so angry, so frustrated or impatient. I wish I didn’t feel so anxious all the time. I wish I was more of a hippy, or more relaxed or something. I wish it wasn’t all so hard.

Or I wish I didn’t care about those things. I wish I didn’t give a damn about being a better parent. I wish I could just say, happily, ‘Oh, we all got through to the end of the day alive – that’s all that matters!’ I wish I knew that being ‘good enough’ was fine (whatever that means). But I can’t. I’m just not like that. And if having children has taught me anything, it’s that you have to be realistic about what you are like if you want to survive.

I started out as a parent thinking that I knew everything about parenthood and I find myself, now – with my youngest child, Sam, taking his first steps, finding his voice and a connection with the world – knowing for certain that I know nothing.

But I know more about me. I know that, despite being a bit of a square, despite being a reliable person, I do not like responsibility. And I really don’t like the crushing responsibility that comes with parenting small children.

More than anything, being a parent – no, wait, being a mother – has taught me to appreciate things I used to take for granted: strolling down the street alone, reading a book for as long as I want, silence, sleep, long-haul travel. The last four years have been like a brutal, Old Testament correction to the lazy, sulky, reluctant twenty-something I was. I will never take my free time for granted again. I will never take life for granted again. I am going to grab it with both hands!

Whenever I feel sad, mad or bad about being a parent I read a piece by a woman called Simcha Fisher, who has nine children. I send it to anyone who writes to me feeling a bit down about having a baby. It’s probably the best thing about motherhood I’ve ever read. I frequently feel like giving up writing whenever I read it, because what’s the point, when someone has written this?

Anyway, Google it when you have a moment and read the whole thing – it’s called ‘To the mother with only one child’. My favourite bit is at the end and it goes like this:

‘Dear mother,’ she writes, ‘don’t worry about enjoying your life. Your life is hard; your life will be hard. That doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong – it means you’re doing it right.’

When I only had one child, she was so heavy. Now I see that children are as light as air. They float past you, nudging against you like balloons as they ascend.’

I must go, it’s late. It’s getting on for 2.30pm and time to get Sam up from his nap. He’s really starting to be fun these days. We’re all off to the playground (via the ice cream shop). And I think it’s going to be a really pretty afternoon.

  • This extract is taken from Esther Walker’s new book Bad Mother. We’re going to be serialising it over the next few weeks but if you can’t wait for the next instalment, buy and download the whole book here

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