Bad mommy? Bad society!

The latest imperfect-mother confessional says more about how the entire culture screws up our kids than how one woman did.

By Kate Harding
Published May 1, 2009 2:43PM (EDT)

I love a good "bad mommy" confessional, and even when the entire Internet seems to be taking a woman to task for admitting her parental imperfections in print, I usually side with the writer. I think getting the insecurities and resentments and failures that inevitably attend motherhood out in the open almost always serves the greater good by helping other moms and potential moms recognize that everyone messes up and deals with complicated emotional baggage while raising kids. And mostly, the confessions are almost disappointingly benign anyway, stuff on the order of, "I let her watch TV for two hours while wearing mismatched clothes, and I'm not sorry!"

Sometimes, though, they're shocking enough to cross a line, as Ayelet Waldman famously did a few years back in the New York Times and right here. (Her new book is even called "Bad Mother".) That's when the entire Internet flips out -- But what if the child reads this someday? Quick, we must condemn the vile harlot for the sake of her poor child! (Because one day running across a gazillion blog posts and comments about what a shitty human being your mom is would totally not cause lasting emotional damage.)

Amy Wilson's piece (originally on and run on CNN yesterday), "Why I didn't want a girl," crossed that line for me -- but not so much because her revelations were shocking. In fact, it's because they weren't. Wilson is the mother of two sons who discovers she's pregnant with a girl. "Not only was I not thrilled," she writes, "I was disappointed." But what bothers me about the piece is that it is packed with sexist stereotypes, which should hardly be surprising coming from anyone who's grown up in this culture. "My sons sneer at all things princess, and so do I," Wilson writes. "We love to pore over the Birthday Express catalog so the boys can plan the themes of their parties through 2013. My role in this is to gasp, 'Oh, I think you should have a pink-poodle party!' 'YUCK!! That's for GIRLS!!' they shriek, and I laugh along with them. What will I do when I have someone who wants a pink-poodle party?"

Then she follows that up by worrying about the sexism her daughter will endure: "I fear I won't know how to protect my child from a world that may often tell her that she's not good enough as she is. That, in order to get ahead, she's going to have to deny some part of herself. Having a daughter means there's so much more, as a mother, that I can do wrong." Pop quiz: Why do you suppose the world tells girls and women they aren't good enough as they are? Could it possibly begin with the world rewarding little boys for their disgust toward anything "For GIRLS!!" And do we really believe that doesn't do serious damage to boys as well?

My point here (believe it or not) is not to trash Amy Wilson for crimes against her children, male and female. The daughter she refers to in the article is now 18 months old, and, according to Wilson's blog, the light of her mother's life: "I am utterly besotted with Maddie. To all those strangers who told me how lucky I was to be having a girl: you were sure right." I'm not worried about Maddie growing up to read this piece. When your mother makes it clear every day how much she loves you -- and I'm more than willing to give Wilson the benefit of the doubt there -- finding out she had reservations before you existed is more likely to be amusing than devastating.

What I have a problem with, actually, is the implication that this piece is only about Amy Wilson's family, or that it has a happy ending because one mom fell in love with her kid. It reads like a typical Bad Mommy confessional, but the most troubling parts for me are the problems Wilson doesn't analyze through a lens of guilty introspection: why she felt it was acceptable to agree with her boys that girly things are yucky, why she believed girls were somehow more likely to "whine and mope, manipulate and triangulate," why she ever believed in the first place that boys' needs are "cut-and-dried." Kids of all genders, by virtue of their being human, have complex emotional needs. It's only ridiculous stereotypes -- boys are "naturally" stoic and pleasantly simple, while girls are emotionally labile and befuddling -- that lead so many parents to dread the raising of girls.

And it's the constant reinforcement of those same ridiculous stereotypes (among others) that gives us a world in which girls never feel good enough, and boys are driven to suicide by accusations of excessive femininity. It's not that there's more to mess up with girls -- it's that, as long as your boys grow up to play their assigned gender roles reasonably well, there's not nearly as much to protect them from; a sexist culture will help you take care of them. But what if they don't play their roles? And what if, despite your wishes, you have an actual girl child? This isn't just a story about one mother learning to love a girl as much as her boys, which anyone could have predicted would happen unless she was a whole different kind of bad mommy. It's a story about a culture that rewards boys for not being girls, and diminishes the worth of anyone who doesn't fit the picture of a "real" boy or man, regardless of gender. Bad culture!

Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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