Being a good mother is not about specific mothering choices

Since the subtext of the natural childbirth and attachment parenting movements is the notion of the good mother, it’s worth asking what makes a good mother. My whole approach to writing about childbirth and mothering choices is based my rejection of currently popular beliefs about good mothering.

Simply put, I believe that good mothering is about choosing mothering and not about mothering choices.

What does choosing mothering mean? It means actively embracing the role of caretaker, confidante, educator and moral guide that mothering entails. It means worrying, planning, consulting, advising and ultimately letting go. Should he be the youngest in kindergarten or wait a year and be the oldest? How should she handle the playground teasing? Am I expecting too much from him or does he have a learning disability? Should I let her go to the dance with the older boy or is she still too vulnerable?

It is kissing the boo-boos, helping them face the fears, stepping aside and allowing them to talk to the doctor in private when they are old enough. It is piano lessons, orthodontia, religious services, holiday celebrations. It is not responding when she says “I hate you” and never failing to respond when you see him teasing another child. It is hard, damn hard, with weeks or months that leave you exhausted or emotionally drained. Yet it is also rewarding at the deepest level, forging a bond to last a lifetime, launching a happy young adult into the world.

It is not about specific mothering choices. Breast or bottle? That’s the mother’s choice and nobody else’s business. Natural childbirth? Irrelevant. Baby wearing? It depends on the baby and on the mother. Extended breastfeeding? Meaningless in the long run (and often in the short run, too).

How do we know a woman is a good mother? We know because she cares; she cares about her children and cares about the impact that she is having on those children. To love a child is to choose mothering. In contrast, specific mothering choices have nothing to do with love, because there is not only one way to express love.

My fundamental objection to the philosophies of natural childbirth and attachment parenting is not the emphasis that they place on mothering; I object to the fact that they privilege specific mothering choices over others. In other words, adherents believe their own mothering choices proclaim their “goodness” and that different choices on the part of other mothers identify them as bad mothers.

Instead of viewing mothering as a service they willingly give their children, they view it as a social identity that they construct for themselves, boosting their own egos in the process. That’s why discussions about natural childbirth, breastfeeding and attachment parenting are such a source of discord between women. None of those discussions are about the best way to mother a baby; they’re all about who is the best mother. It may seem like a trivial difference, but it is an immense difference and most women recognize it as such.

The most critical ingredient of good mothering is love. A child who is loved has the advantage over any other child, regardless of the specific parenting choices his mother made. It’s time to acknowledge and value the power of choosing motherhood and stop judging other women based on mothering choices.

Amy Tuteur is an obstetrician-gynecologist who blogs at The Skeptical OB.

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  • gerridoc

    This article is an excellent summary of what it means to be a good mother. Being a parent (fathers are very important) should not be viewed as a competitive sport. It is a long term project, and I heartily agree with the author. What works for one child might not work for another. Since we just moved our college senior back to school, I am a little sad to realize that this is the last time for me to go through this late summer ritual. But i admit I will be really happy when we are “tuition free.”

  • Katie

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. This is an excellent article. I want to print it out, laminate it, and have a copy on hand whenever I run into someone that wants to have a debate on any matter of parenting decisions. I also probably need it as a gentle reminder for myself sometimes. I think we can all be guilty of judging others for making different choices than what me might do.

    I also want to share this article in a more positive way with my friends. Being a mother is tough because you always want to be doing the right thing and there are so many choices that it can be difficult to know what that is. Remembering the bottom line – love is the most important thing – is what makes a mom (or dad) a good parent.

  • joshuadf

    A friend sent this link but I’m actually very disappointed. It’s ironic that the author’s anti-judgmental argument is itself very judgmental of mothers who “privilege specific mothering choices” when it should be “nobody else’s business.” While we can certainly use more civil discourse on parenting, being judgmental of judgmental people is not the path.

  • Sandy

    I do agree that the heart of being a good mother is about the love and care given to the child. But this view is incomplete.

    Some of these choices such as breast or bottle, or natural vs. conventional, will affect the child for the rest of their lives. Did the mother take the time to learn the implications of her decision? Or did she just do “whatever” because everyone else is doing it like this/my doctor said so/my mother in law said so/I can’t be bothered finding out for myself?

    It’s about the mother’s motive in making that choice. Choosing bottle feeding over breast, or blindly following conventional birthing without educating themselves about the choices and implications because they can’t be bothered or can’t think for themselves is setting up a precedence for lazy parenting.

    On the other hand, someone who made these choices because they believed it was their best option at the time, at least put the time and effort in it with their child’s health in mind. That is mindful parenting also.

  • Jessica Faust

    I agree with Joshuadf I was looking forward to reading this and think the heart of this article is good. Good mothering, good parenting, is about being there and loving the child. That being said, I don’t like the assumption that all mothers or parents who choose natural parenting are judgmental and doing it only for their own ego. I breast-fed my first child for the first year of his life, and am doing the same with my second. I have many reasons for doing that none of which are your business, just as it’s not my business why you might choose formula over breastmilk.

    If we truly want to stop judging each other we need to stop on all sides.

  • the Muse, RN

    I agree with you 100%. I learned and accepted exactly this stance long ago and I no longer judge based on choices but on actions and behaviors. Truthfully.

    Confusion arose however in reading your article when I got to the paragraph ending with the sentence “Extended breastfeeding? Meaningless in the long run…(probably the short run too.)” Meaningless to how much a mother loves her child? – I agree. It is not a measure.

    But it is a meaningful measure of the life-long health and well-being of said child and the breast / reproductive health of the mother. …Or were you not referencing the provision and duration of providing human milk from an evidence-base published and supported by the AAP, WHO, NIH, AAFP, ABM, etc…, rather just the (poor?) reflection of the behavior on the mother?

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