Best-selling author Andrea Mara on why we are fascinated by the idea of bad mothers…
As I type this, I’m at a swimming pool, watching my son’s swimming lesson. Except I’m not really watching, because I’m sitting on the floor with my back to the gallery window, in order to write this article.
Today, I am a bad mother. Then again, I’m here on a sweltering hot, sunny afternoon, so that my child can learn to swim. So maybe I’m a mediocre mother, trying to multitask. There are two other women sitting beside me, both minding toddlers while their older kids swim.
‘Remember when you had your first and you thought you wanted loads,’ one says to the other. ‘Yeah, and then you have three,’ says her friend, ‘and there’s no way you want more. Three is the limit.’ ‘Yep,’ the first woman sighs. ‘I’m just so damn tired.’ This resonates.
I’m nodding as I type. They smile at me from behind their masks and I smile back. We all know it – motherhood is hard. I read a novel recently in which a group of women sit together talking about how amazing motherhood is. ‘It’s the greatest gift,’ says one. ‘The best thing ever,’ agrees another. ‘I just love spending time with them. We’re blessed.’
This did not resonate quite as much as the conversation between my new friends at the pool. Of course, it’s ramped up for fiction, for effect, to amplify the feelings of the main character – isolation, loneliness, wondering why she’s the only mother not constantly feeling joy. It’s not the first book I’ve read with characters like this, not even the first one this year, but in real life, I don’t know anyone who spends all day extolling the joys of motherhood.
Yes, we love our kids, but no, it’s not easy. Since my friends and I have had kids, we’ve spent most of our time together comparing notes on sleepless nights, competing over who had fewer hours, wondering why our kids won’t eat, and wishing for naps (theirs or ours). On our first trip away – a beach weekend in Malaga a couple of years ago – one of my friends said, ‘Isn’t it weird only having to put sun- cream on yourself?’ Weird and amazing, we all agreed. Not because we don’t love our kids, but because we are just regular parents who appreciate time to ourselves too.
We’re not bad mothers, we’re just tired.
For properly bad mothers, we have plenty of books and TV shows and films. The horror, thriller, and domestic suspense genres are full of evil and abusive mothers, because this is arguably far more terrifying than a shadowy serial killer. Mothers are supposed to care for and protect and love their children unconditionally, and the idea that a mother can turn against her children or do them harm is horrifying, making the stories all the more compulsive. But perhaps another reason we love bad mothers as a theme is because it makes us – the real-life mothers – feel better about ourselves and our own perceived failures.
Worried about cooking fish fingers three nights in a row? Just re-read Flowers in the Attic to feel instantly better. I bet you haven’t hidden your kids in the attic. See? All good on the fish fingers. Feeling bad for not making a homemade World Book Day costume? Check out Liz Nugent’s Our Little Cruelties, a wonderfully dark exploration of what happens when a mother picks favourites. And if you let your kids have a little too much screen time yesterday, just have a read of Abigail Dean’s Girl A. Unless your kids were in literal chains, it’s all good. In fairy tales of long ago, mothers were regularly removed from stories in order to put the child characters in jeopardy. Mothers died, and step mothers stepped in, because if mothers were alive, they’d never let their children eat the poisoned apple or be abandoned in the woods.
More recent fiction, though, holds with the notion that even mothers can be negligent, narcissistic, cold, or conniving – Betty Draper in Mad Men, Mrs Wormwood in Matilda, Camille in the The Family Fang – and as the audience, we lap it up. Bad mothers make us feel good, and I’m here for that kind of content. I worry all the time that I’m failing my kids. That they don’t eat enough (OK, any) vegetables. That their education during lockdown came mostly from YouTube and TikTok. That we’re still on lockdown levels of screen time even though school reopened months ago. That I keep forgetting to give them vitamin D. That they get too much sun. That they spend too much time indoors.
Then I open a book like Kia Abdullah’s Take It Back, in which the mother oscillates between bullying and outright negligence, and I feel less guilty. I might neglect the vitamin D drops, but I don’t neglect the kids. On the lighter end of the scale, modern depictions of mothers are moving away from the apron-wearing, cookie-baking stereotype of times past. Now we can watch Bad Moms and Working Moms and Sarah Jessica Parker smashing up a shop-bought pie to make it look homemade in I Don’t Know How She Does It.
Instagram, famous for perfect mothers in perfect kitchens, has a wealth of “honest mother” accounts too, like Hurrah for Gin and The Unmumsy Mum: mothers who regularly post self-deprecating, humorous stories about everyday parenting fails. For a good helping of both – relatable new motherhood stresses alongside seriously flawed parents – you can’t go wrong with The Push by Ashley Audrain. It’s dark and twisty and at times heartbreaking but if you’re feeling guilty for forgetting the sun-screen, this is the book for you.
Meanwhile, back at the swimming pool, the kids are done.
‘Did you see me swimming?’ my son asks as I help him get dressed. ‘You were fantastic,’ I tell him, and I mean it. ‘Did you see the tumble I did?’ ‘I did!’ It’s a lie. But a white one. And although we’re having fish fingers again, I’m not locking anyone in the attic, so there’s that. I smile at my new friends as we leave the changing room.
We are not bad mothers, we’re just tired.
All Her Fault by Andrea Mara is published by Transworld and is out now.