What Does It Mean to Be a Good Mother?
How better to circumvent the power of the new women than with the idea of mothering not as care but as creation. Every moment for children is a teachable moment—and every moment missed is the measure of a lousy mom.
No woman in this study wants to be called a “lousy mom,” especially as her route to motherhood so easily exposes her to critique. However, unlike their coupled peers who sometimes convince themselves that intensive mothering is within their reach, these women know that being a full-time mother is simply not an option. Unable to leave the workforce, these women settle for resting the measure of motherhood not on being there every moment but on being visible at key moments and logging what many call “family time.”
With only twenty-four hours in a day, women must not only be mothers but also finance their mother time. Streamlining employment is the compromise for these women, and their success in this attempt depends on their skill sets. Adding hours onto mother time and subtracting them from paycheck hours is the foundation of placing motherhood at center stage. Another approach to reducing employment hours is ferreting out other sources of income, such as gifts and rental income. Other women spend down savings accounts, while some run up credit card bills. Women are giving up their personal time, social life, and outside hobbies so that they can be home on time for day care pickups or in time for dinner, things that are essential to them. In fact, the successful orchestration of these events, such as school pickup and dinnertime, becomes symbols of good mothering.1
While some mothers may use the time after their child goes to sleep to catch up on work brought home from the office, reading the bedtime story and the rituals of baths and brushing teeth are a priority. Weekends are sacred, but during the week, mothers are employees. Motherhood might have been a choice, but employment is not. Women can streamline their employment, but they cannot stop working. Women in dual-earner couples can often forfeit or at least minimize their identity as an employee, knowing that they have the safety of another paycheck.2 This is not the case with single mothers. Single mothers integrate their identities of employee and mother as they must be both. In this way, these women are at the fault line of the work/family dilemma.
Crucial to these women’s survival on this fault line is help with child care. No matter if these individuals are paid or unpaid, mothers must have someone to take care of their children so that they can work. Faced with the inability to give their identity as mothers undisputed supremacy, these women come to understand child care in a different way than those women who might have the option to stay home. In order to rationalize missing their children’s “teachable moments” (essentially any moment, as Quindlen observes), they conceptualize the child care provider as an equally capable teacher. This understanding of child care providers is far from normative—in fact, the normative assumption of motherhood dictates that only mothers can provide children with what they need. Single mothers do not have the luxury (or the curse) of holding themselves to that standard. For these women, the child care provider is not invisible, but rather is part of the team.
Further, child care settings are spun as beneficial, helping to socialize the child. The child stands to benefit not only from being around the child care provider but also from becoming involved with other children. As children grow and transition to school, these single mothers rejoin with the norm, as teachers and schools have always been accepted members of the team. Staff of after-school programs, however, hold a place similar to that of the day care provider of earlier years (and in some cases, the children are returning to their original provider for the after-school hours). For these women who know that child care providers are an inescapable reality of motherhood, they prefer to see these individuals as capable partners rather than mediocre substitutes. In their descriptions of these relationships, it is clear that another tenet of good mothering is the careful selection of the people who will be there for the “teachable moments” that they will miss. For the new motherhood practiced by women who cannot be there for every moment, creating a team symbolizes their success as a mother. In short, women parcel out “teachable moments” to other carefully chosen adults, ideally a constant presence as the child grows.
Women are making other adults important in their family as part of their motherhood. While they may discuss child-rearing decisions with other important people in their lives, the stamp of good mothering is making the final decisions alone.3 While this is never described as easy, many women relish their role
as the sole decision maker. Ultimately, the responsibility is the mother’s alone and making these tough decisions is the mark of a good mother, in the eyes both of these women and of the people around them. As Anita Garey poignantly describes in her 1999 book Weaving Work and Motherhood, good mothering is wrapped up not only in self-evaluation but also in others’ expectations: “Ensuring one’s maternal visibility is a response to the ever-present, scrutinizing gaze—a gaze with an eye on the performance of mothers as mothers” (p. 31). Being single means that these women are subject to extra scrutiny, so mothers are especially attentive not only to their own expectations but also to those of the people who are watching. With such a critical audience skeptical of how these children will turn out, the weight of the decision-making process is increased. These women are aware that in the eyes of the public, the mistake of one single mother is the failure of all single mothers.4
Besides surrounding their child with people who care, the final test of good mothering for these women is providing the social capital for middle-class citizenship. This is especially important because it distinguishes these children from those of poor, young single mothers. These enrichment activities, the piano lessons and soccer camps, are indicative of women’s concept of achievement, very much entrenched in the values of the middle class. Providing this kind of social capital is central to their effort to make their children just like children whose families have two parents and two paychecks. Yet what distinguishes these children from those born to the nuclear family is that men become included in the social capital these mothers provide. As much as men are part of the gendered world that these children live in, women still seek to give their children the luxury of having men around, though still unclear as to what that luxury will mean for their children’s future. Providing adequate social capital, men in particular, is the final testament to their good motherhood.
Women’s lives are filled by work, children, child care providers, roommates, kin, romantic partners, and, in rare cases, parenting partners. While most have not given up on finding one person to be both a lover and a co-parent, in the interim they are preoccupied with fulfilling the charge of being a good mother. Each reinvents what good mothering in the middle class means within the constraints of their own limited mother time; however, from their stories, consistent refrains emerge. Placing family at center stage means streamlining their lives and making hard choices. Making their dream of motherhood work in a cultural climate that is still grappling with the place of mothers is the major challenge for these women. They are at the vanguard of the struggle to blend work, family, and partners. These new families are simultaneously revealing the tears in the social fabric and mending them for their particular families. These women hungered for motherhood. Once it has been achieved, they must make sense of their family that was created in extraordinary ways, inserting it into ordinary life. These women are committed to steering their children toward conventional
success, successfully navigating institutions not built to fit their families. What keeps these women from real freedom, restraining them as merely reluctant revolutionaries, is their hopes for their children. They will forgo real revolution and real freedom for themselves in order to ensure that their children will be successful adults and not another single-mother statistic.