Enough of ‘bad mothers’. Anyone talking about ‘bad fathers’?

bad mother bad father So Marissa Mayer announces her micro maternity leave of two weeks. The world explodes:

“What kind of a mother is she? Does she even know what it takes to raise a child, leave alone twins! What kind of message is she sending out to other mothers?”

Indrani Mukerjea (allegedly) murders her daughter Sheena:

“What kind of mother would kill her own child?”

Bad mothers are always in vogue. And it doesn’t always take murder.

I have heard this far too many times. A woman does something that puts her interest before that of her children. She is instantly labeled a bad mother and several discussions ensue on good mothers and bad mothers and the effect they have on their kids.

No one ever talks about bad fathers.

Women are constantly blamed for not being ‘good’ enough.They are either ‘too emotionally involved’ with their children, or ‘not present enough’.  Meanwhile, the men in their lives quietly slink under the radar. Mamma’s boys get bad names, while daddy’s girls are cool.

Post Indrani’s arrest, I saw this query on a popular social media forum: Do cunning and selfish women make good mothers? Are mothers selfish when it comes to providing for their own children? Are there any scientific theories that talk if a woman would make a good mother or not? Can you site some instances from real life where a mother’s conduct was distasteful? Are there cases where a mother harms her child because she’s jealous of her child?

I was first amused and then angry. Just like I was when I read articles talking about what kind of mother would raise a rapist. Just like I was when I defended Marissa Mayer here.

Motherhood is constantly beset by feelings of failure, often corroding you in the process. If you have a career, you are neglectful; if you don’t, you are smothering. If you discipline, you are controlling; if you don’t, you are weird. If you are present, you are too involved, if you are not, you don’t care enough. It’s like you can never win. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Ayelet Waldman in her book Bad Mother explores this guilt and ambiguity and says she wrote the book because so many women she knows are in real pain. “They are so crippled by their guilt, by their unreasonable expectations, that they can’t even allow themselves to celebrate the true joys of being a mom.”

Mothers are expected to be all things to all people. A good mother is expected to sacrifice of herself and her happiness for her child. She should be there when her child wakes in the night; she should be there in the morning when they wake up, she should be there for tucking them in with stories at bed time. She should always put her child’s needs before her own. If she does have needs, they should be invisible.

The only requirement of a father is showing up. Being in the same room. All it takes to be a good father is to do photo-opp things. Like wearing your baby or pulling a stroller .

Mothers are often asked, “Do you think you are good mother?” If not by others, by themselves, by the self-doubt that is an intrinsic part of motherhood.

I wonder if one ever asks this question of fathers.

Why is ‘good’ part of a mother’s default setting? Perhaps nurturing and caring is a byproduct of giving birth, but the whole ambivalence of parenting stems from the fact that mothers are always expected to be good, and almost nothing is expected of fathers. It speaks a lot about us if we always blame mothers for things like say, ‘bad upbringing’ or any kind of deviant behavior in the child. Before they are mothers, they are also human beings, and are all human beings good? No.

Motherhood is a state of continuous conflict, negotiation and renegotiations for a woman. Fatherhood, on the other hand is just a side effect of being men. Parenting is a state of ambivalence for both parents. The difference is: women are spoken of as being mothers before they are women. And men are always men who are ‘also’ fathers. In this complex playout of emotions that ensues, if the onus is always on the mother to be good, while the father is deemed good unless proven bad, is just unfair.

We really need to up the ante for our men. They can’t just play Kinect with their children or watch television together and check the “daddy time” box. Many men (mine included) refer to time spent with their own children as “babysitting’. I have burst enough capillaries screaming out loud that you DO NOT babysit your own children.

I wonder if anyone asked if Steve Jobs was a good father. Or Bill Gates. Or Narayan Murthy. Or Peter Mukerjea for that matter.

(A version of this post appeared as my Pune Mirror column on 14th September 2015)

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4 thoughts on “Enough of ‘bad mothers’. Anyone talking about ‘bad fathers’?

  1. I agree. I’m a Stay at home Dad and get your point about the fact how mothers (and women, I suppose) are always put under the magnifying glass, whenever something like this happens. In fact, whenever I go out (especially during the day) with my three-year old, I’ve been asked if I’m on babysitting duty. Of course, let’s just ignore raised eyebrows and the thought-process that involves indirectly asking me if I’m less of a man because I chose to be a SAHD.

  2. 🙂 again, you write and have me in splits.

    The way I see it is this, seriously, bad father, bad mother aside. What does the kid need? A place to be safe, someone who cares about them, someone they can talk to, read, tell stories, play, food and water. Father, mother, grandparent, creche lady, maidservant. If there is assured safety, some sanity and somebody, the kid will be okay.

    See the word ‘delinquency’ and read complicated. It means the family processes, level of understanding, of children particularly, is either low or absent. This means the symbols the child receives are either overwhelming (when it is scary or dramatic) or leave the kid wanting (for clarity, for understanding, for affection, for a ear, maybe). Add to this the possibility that the care-giver views the kid as an adverse addition, guess who bears the brunt.

    Mother killed child, another blamed her daughter for incest, a father sold his daughter, forced his son into vile acts, parents who support rapist son against victimised daughter, there is a litany of all that is wrong in forced familial ties. It isn’t the fault of bad mother or bad father, the problem was that there was nobody who cared enough. If we care, we try to make good. If we don’t care, well…

    Am I over-simplifying it?

  3. Bravo Lalita! And so damn true! I hate it that when a woman asks her husband to help with the children, she has to preface it with a, “Can you do me a favour?”. Aaargghh! He is not doing a favour. It is his duty as much as it is hers.

  4. when a child stays in a “pricey home”, ” designer clothes” , expensive vacations ” ” schools with hefty price tag, – it is FATHERS SHOWING UP. Rarely do we ask – what does the mother do for a living ?
    Stereotypes rule . Whom are we kidding. ? it takes multiple generations to get over one .
    SAHD or a Lazy one ? Who will stay at home – the investment banker wife or the scientist dad .

    The man goes to work without having to figure out what will the kid/family eat tfor Breakfast, Lunch and dinner. Even if the mother does not cook, she has to make the arrangements for kids and the spouse and the inlaws ? ! The woman sits in her office and calls to find out if the kids have returned from school – Does the father do it innately ? What is it – nature or nurture or social mores – what should we adhere ? is it about keeping laws or law breaking.

    Lets take 1000 steps back and take a deep breath. Our lungs will breathe fresh air and it will be healthy – if we do not waste our energy in classsification of people – there are better ways to waste time !

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