Friday, December 12, 2008

The Good Mother

Yesterday's New York Times column by Judith Warner hit me like a small bag of bricks. She's a terrific writer and often she uses her skills to examine motherhood in its current, 21st century incarnation. Yesterday, she shot straight to the heart of an issue that has plagued me from the moment a tiny plus sign appeared on the plastic stick: How do I do this without screwing up?

Like Warner (and many, many other Mamas I know) I have an inner voice who is constantly observing--and criticizing--my mothering skills in action. Daily, the voice will admonish me: Why did you say that? You need to be more patient! And, sometimes, You're a lousy mom. It's hard to be present for your kid (or anything else) when you're busy berating yourself for the dozens of ways you've "screwed up" on a given day.

Warner has written extensively on the idea of "enmeshment parenting" and how damaging it is to our children when we can't separate ourselves and our identities from them. This particular affliction, I think, is greatly amplified within the mother/daughter relationship. There is so much that informs this relationship, more than most of us probably realize.

By wanting (needing?) our daughters to be smarter/happier/more successful/all-around better than we are, we do them a double disservice. Firstly, we deny them the chance to become who they are, independent of us. They should and will become whole, separate people, not just superlative versions of ourselves.

Secondly--and perhaps most importantly--our self-directed criticism, which is, almost without exception, overly harsh and unfair, denies our daughters the opportunity to find their own, positive, healthy ways to identify with us. By pointing out to them all the ways which we screw up and all the ways in which they are--or should be--better than we are, we're introducing them to that inner voice, the eternal critic. When we ignore our daily successes, when we give our "mistakes" more attention, we fit our daughters with the same lens through which to view themselves: a negative one.

As Warner so perfectly put it, "If your dream of yourself is a bit of a nightmare, you owe it to your kids to let it go." Indeed, if we want our daughters to clearly see the wonderful, beautiful people we know they are, then we need to start seeing the good in ourselves.

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