When you think your friend is a bad mother

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Allie has two sons, 4 and six months.  She grew tired of little Rowan at 4, telling me, in his presence, "I only really like them when they're babies.  He's too much work".  Still, she wanted another child, one she could nurse and cuddle.  "I'll try again, but it'll probably just be another boy," she tells me.  Rowan seems to ignore this.  Maybe he doesn't understand.  I bounce him on my knee and tell him what a clever, sweet, handsome boy he is.  He giggles and asks me to read his penguin book again.

I never know what to do or say when Allie says things like this.  I have no children, and have never said anything mean about only liking kittens in front of my full-grown cats.  I never really empathize with the parents in these situations, either – my own childhood included yelling and name-calling from my dad, so I identify with children right down to the part where I feel powerless to act.

Another case in point involves my friend Sara's 2-year-old daughter.  Sara sleeps til noon most days, while Cait wakes at 8 am and spends four hours alone in her cot.  Cait never cries.  She plays quietly with her toys and waits for Sara to change and feed her. 

I met Sara through a common friend years ago.  We went to clubs and exchanged advice about makeup and men.  She has a lovely speaking voice and people want to listen to her.  I noticed her inattention to Cait, and wondered what I should do.  I thought about talking to Sara's husband once.  I came over to their flat because we'd planned a hens' night.  Sara sent an SMS telling me the door was open; she was showering.  "Is Cait napping?" I asked.  "Yes," she replied.  When I entered, I found Cait wide-awake, all the while hearing the sounds of the shower from the closed bath. 

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I've had other friends with children -- other friends I thought might be the worst thing a woman can be called: a bad mother.  My friend Angie had four kids and worked tirelessly at many terrible jobs to support them when her abusive ex-husband finally left.  She put in 60 hours a week as a nursing aide.  She loved her children deeply, but still failed them in ways that broke my heart.

I remember the time I'd come to visit, making the three-hour drive to their house.  After dinner, the children wanted cuddles and stories from me.  Children generally feel drawn to me.  I think this may be one upside of fatness -- children want to sit in a cushy lap. After a few minutes, Angie started screaming obscenities from the bath. 

"Lara!  What have you done, Dummy?  Don't look so innocent.  I know it was you!"   She made fun of her intelligence, especially cruel, given that Lara, a smart little girl, had a mild learning disability. 

All I could do was sit in silence and hope it would end quickly.  I felt deeply ashamed of this later and even talked about it in therapy.  I agonised over Angie's situation.  Later, as we watched the children play in the pool at the hotel I'd booked, I gently asked her about that night.

"I know how much you love all of them," I told her.  "And I know you don't think Lara is stupid.  You were frustrated.  But kids believe what you tell them.  It stays with them forever."  Angie reacted calmly.  Her temper only seemed to strike briefly, and she became the loving mother I knew very soon after each of the tirades I witnessed.  She agreed that she should work on this, and wasn't annoyed that I brought it up.  Still, she continued to scream and swear at the children and we drifted apart.

Though I avoid Sara more and more, and find Allie hard to take, I still make a point of seeing Gwen a few times a year.  Unlike Allie and Sara, Gwen pays lots of attention to her kids.  Leah, a beautiful girl of 9, gets high marks in class and has a sweetness and innocence uncommon in children her age.  Mark is 11 and has special needs.  Despite his disability, he gets top marks and behaves well most of the time.  Gwen has said any number of unkind things to me.  She doesn’t really know how to say “thank you” for gifts, instead making fun of them, saying that if she eats your home-made cake she’ll gain weight, or that the children will just break a new platter (though they are so well-behaved this seems unlikely).

Despite her tartness, I love Gwen.  She’s a great mother and has raised great children I love.  She makes no pretense of being her children’s friend.  She believes in homework and early bedtimes.  Her kids have always had rules and structure, though is a single working mother. Are being a good mother and a good friend mutually exclusive? Maybe good mothers have no time for single, childless friends and their petty problems.

When I see Cait and Rowan, I think of my own childhood.  I know I'm not stupid or destructive or a "parasite", as Dad called me shortly after my 12th birthday.  Still, I feel unworthy of positive attention and have never really learned to accept compliments.  I want Sara and Allie to stop being bad mothers.  I stay friends with them, because I love their children. Given that our town has a high rate physical abuse and limited resources for neglect that doesn't rise to the level of danger, I wonder if all I can do is feel guilty and hope that the children become survivors and better parents than their own.

 

If you have have serious concerns about a child's welfare, call Child Protection Helpline on 132 111 (TTY 1800 212 936) for the cost of a local call, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

33 comments

  • It _IS_ abuse though. Look at how you still feel after being called those things by your Dad.

    It's interesting how society works at times. Verbal assault is still tolerated but physical assault is not. NEITHER should be as this article shows, verbal assault is just as damaging.

    Commenter
    Alizah
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    August 15, 2013, 9:06AM
    • It is abuse. I hope you used real names so these mothers can wake up stop damaging their children, because make no mistake that's exactly what they are doing. For their sake I hope you exaggerated for a juicy story. If you care for the children you need to take the mothers to task otherwise you will be watching a train wreck in slow motion.

      Commenter
      asgard
      Date and time
      August 15, 2013, 9:09AM
      • I'm not condoning your friends' actions but staying at home raising children is a largely frustrating, thankless, demoralising task. They're contradictory, stubborn, obsessive bordering on autistic. The trials aren't day to day but minute by minute - add more than one child into the mix and troubles grow exponentially - mix this with the guilt that no matter how hard you try people are judging you and you feel like you're failing as a parent.

        Until you recognise how hard it is - not with empathy or sympathy but just these are experiences that a person without children couldn't imagine - you'll only see parenting as a thing to fail at, rather than a thing to be endured. It doesn't start easy and slip into a maelstrom, it starts of in the storm and stays there.

        My kids are different with different people. Some think of my daughter as witty and engaging, some morose and withdrawn. They aren't adults and they won't always reflect well on you. You can't complain about what lovely kids someone has and how badly they are treated without realising the same parent you're criticising has raised this lovely creature you see.

        And yes sometimes the children take the brunt of it. It's not nice and parents aren't proud of it, and if you're a half decent parent you probably think you're doing it wrong.

        Commenter
        Andy
        Date and time
        August 15, 2013, 9:32AM
        • "but just these are experiences that a person without children couldn't imagine"
          Right there Andy, you lost me. Arrogance of the highest degree. Next patronising parent please...

          Commenter
          DT
          Date and time
          August 15, 2013, 10:22AM
        • Get off it DT, it's not arrogance, it's reality. I can imagine being a soldier in a war. Hell I've played many war games that as virtual reality that gets closer to the experience than any non parent has had being a parent.. I'm seen innumerable gritty and realistic movies.. but if a soldier just came back from Afghanistan told me I don't understand and have to experience it first.. I wouldn't consider it arrogant, I'd consider him correct and understand the limits of my experience. There are innumerable versions of this, I could do it about almost any occupation or experience. Don't get your panties in a bunch about it just because you don't like that it's true. Personally I've never raised a 3 or 4 year old but I imagine I could be at my wits end at some point. I recall being smacked and my mother crying immediately afterwards and apologising for doing it. I couldn't have had a more caring mother in a more nurturing and supportive environment but parents sometimes lose it because pretty much all kids can be autonomous narcissistic egotists with oppositional defiance disorder at times. Hell even having a baby can put parents especially mothers into a anxious or post natal depressive state and you think it's arrogant to say unless you're a parent you don't understand? I think it's FAR MORE arrogant of you to think you can have the understanding of the experiences without actually having the experiences. PS. I don't think anyone should swear at kids or belittle them, but mothers have to take a shower sometime, if the child is in bed and it wakes up (especially if someone makes a noise coming in) while they're in the shower, that isn't exactly a sign of bad mothering.

          Commenter
          andrew
          Date and time
          August 15, 2013, 11:55AM
        • Not patronising. Not arrogant. It's not said hautliy, it's said wearily. It's also said truthfully.

          Everybody, and I mean everybody, I know who has become a parent is always stunned into a rude awakening of the yawning chasm between their expectations before the birth and reality of actually having kids. It's huge. For some reason nobody tells you this stuff. Maybe because if you haven't gone through it, the best you can do is nod your head and pretend to relate it to a similar experience you've had. It takes over your life. Completely.

          I don't know why you can't accept why this experience is outside of your understanding. Again, not patronisingly, just it rubs you up the wrong way because it attacks your intellect or sensibilities or something.

          I could turn it on you, and say how arrogant that DT thinks he knows what parents go through. But I don't. It's not a personal attack on you. I've not been a parent too, and I realise how easy it is to judge parents and that I'd never do something or let my kids act that way, or just let me at those kids and I'll straighten them out soon enough. It just doesn't work like that. In theory parenting is a piece of piss. Not so much the reality.

          Imagine if I took the same stance with a soldier. I mean I've seen the movies and did a bit of paintballing, how different can it be? What do you think he'd say?

          Commenter
          Andy
          Date and time
          August 15, 2013, 12:09PM
        • Andy is right. Until you have them 24 x 7 for years.... you only have theory and in this case only the prac matters.

          I NEVER judge people with kids older than mine because i know i have NO idea what they are going through.

          It takes intelligence to know what you don't know. Assumption is the real arrogance.

          Commenter
          cranky
          Location
          pants
          Date and time
          August 15, 2013, 12:24PM
        • It's not patronising at all. What is patronising is someone who has never had children telling parents they are "bad" (I note there's no mention of fathers: perhaps their absence explains why these women are frazzled & imperfect when this idiot visits & gets a snapshot of their lives).

          Commenter
          Car
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          August 15, 2013, 1:36PM
        • @DT, what's really patronising is hearing from people who have never had kids that they understand how difficult it is, or, even better, how we should raise them. It's the equivalent of telling a woman in labour that you know what she's going through because you had a UTI once.

          Commenter
          PerthCat
          Date and time
          August 15, 2013, 1:56PM
        • DT you have it sooooo right, I am a parent but detest when other parents say things like "but just these are experiences that a person without children couldn't imagine", yes they bloody well can. Just as some people without children can often empathise and sympathise with them better than the biological parent can. Just because they're your biological spawn doesn't mean you have the magical ability to relate to them. There was a great line in Jane Austen's Persuasion where Anne Elliot is asked to take care of her ailing nephew so her twit of sister can flounce about at a party, Anne is told she is the best person for the job, because she doesn't have a 'mothers feeling' cue the reader rolling of eyes, because we know that Anne is the most tender of individuals, more than her sister For modern timesI learnt a new word yesterday 'sanctimommy' - it applys to the kind of mother that spins BS that mothers (and fathers as well) spill regarding 'how tough their job is' how the childfree don't know a mothers love (or fathers love in this instance). The arrogance of other parents continues to astound me on a daily basis.

          Commenter
          Bugsie
          Date and time
          August 15, 2013, 2:01PM

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